It’s a few minutes before the start of a news conference at Auburn Manufacturing, a local textile mill, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin is scrambling to shake every hand in the room.

“I want to make sure I say ‘Hi’ to everyone,” Poliquin says as he makes the rounds, just minutes before standing up alongside the Auburn company’s president to make an announcement about new protective duties on foreign imports.

It’s easy to see the freshman congressman’s enthusiasm for issues in the 2nd District, even if it is tempered by a sometimes guarded approach to interacting with the public and the news media.

As he finishes speaking, Poliquin tells reporters, “We will be taking questions on this specific issue only,” and later walks away from a reporter who asks a question he doesn’t like.

Supporters have compared him to the Energizer Bunny, saying his endless energy has helped the state move forward, while detractors have questioned his motives, saying he is highly partisan and lacks transparency.

The race in the 2nd District is anticipated to be one of the most highly contested legislative races around the country and while it is a rematch of the 2014 competition, Poliquin now has a record that he says provides him experience that his opponent, Democrat Emily Cain, lacks.

His campaign slogan, “Our Congressman,” aims to tout that record.

Poliquin’s record in state government and first term in Congress reveal someone who has been an enthusiastic voice for Maine but also a lawmaker whose partisan politics, use of tax loopholes and apparent flip-flopping on certain issues have drawn the ire of opponents.

“It’s all about building a better economy and more jobs in Maine,” Poliquin said, adding that a key difference between him and his opponent is, “I have 35 years of experience creating jobs and she has none.”

GETTING INTO GOVERNMENT

Poliquin, 62, was born in Waterville to a French Canadian Catholic family. His mother was a nurse; his father, a public school teacher. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, on a scholarship and then went to Harvard.

His first job was at an investment bank in Chicago before he went to New York City to work in pension management.

In 1992, Poliquin’s wife, Jane Carpenter, drowned while on a family vacation in Puerto Rico, leaving him to raise their son, Sammy, now 25. He told the Kennebec Journal in 2014 that the incident drew him closer to his home state and helped shape his beliefs, including his stance against abortion.

“When your wife is healthy and she dies suddenly at age 37 and you have a 16-month-old in diapers, you get to focus real quickly on what’s important in life,” he said, “and I know how fragile and precious it is.”

Poliquin left his job at Avatar Associates in New York City in 1996 to become a businessman in Maine.

His campaign, though, refused to provide details of his work as a small businessman in the years that followed.

“The only resume Mainers are interested in is Congressman Bruce Poliquin’s voting record,” spokesperson Michael Byerly said. “He has a proven track record of opposing unfair trade deals, protecting Maine jobs, curbing the opioid epidemic and fighting against terrorism.”

According to Morning Sentinel archives, Poliquin worked on a handful of projects in the state, mostly focused on real estate investments through his company, Dirigo Holdings LLC.

Among them were a proposed redevelopment of the Stinson Seafood Cannery in Bath, a plan that ultimately was not approved by the town’s Planning Board; and the development of luxury condominiums, Popham Woods, and a private members-only beach club, the Popham Beach Club.

Lincoln Merrill Jr., a longtime friend of Poliquin’s who served with him on the board of directors at North Yarmouth Academy and later on the board of commissioners of the Maine Housing Authority, said he was surprised when Poliquin told him in 2010 that he planned to run for Maine governor.

“I didn’t know the guy had any political interest at all; I was shocked,” Merrill said.

The move coincided with the national rise of the tea party movement, a conservative faction of the Republican Party that called for the reduction of federal debt, reduced government spending and lower taxes.

But Brent Littlefield, a spokesman for Poliquin, said the now-congressman’s decision to run for office was “absolutely not” tied to the tea party movement. Instead, he said, it coincided with the coming of age of Poliquin’s son and a desire to give back.

Poliquin ultimately came up short in his first run for office – finishing sixth in a seven-way primary for governor that resulted in the election of Paul LePage – but later that year the Legislature elected him state treasurer.

In an editorial column in the Portland Press Herald, Poliquin wrote at the end of his tenure that he had instituted pension plan reforms to reduce government spending, lowered payment interests on state borrowing and helped facilitate a natural gas pipeline expansion.

However, he also was accused of exploiting the state’s Tree Growth Tax Program, which provides tax incentives for commercial forestland, by placing 10 acres of his private estate in the program. Though he was never cited formally for breaking the law, he did move the property into a different tax abatement program, a move that some said was indicative that he had bent the rules.

The pension plan reform was controversial because it required teachers and state workers to contribute more of their salaries while cutting back on state contributions, but it also highlighted Poliquin’s efforts to reach everyday Mainers.

In a March 2011 story, the Maine Sunday Telegram called him the “most visible state treasurer in recent memory” and described him driving around the state in his own vehicle at his own expense to talk with residents about the plan.

“There’s nobody that works harder than Bruce,” said Charles Webster, a Farmington Republican and former chairman of the Republican Party of Maine at the time Poliquin ran for U.S. Senate in 2012.

“He has his finger right on the pulse of what’s going on in this district. This is his life; he’s committed to representing the people here and goes out of his way to contact them.”

ENERGIZER BUNNY

During his time as treasurer, Poliquin was also accused of violating the Maine Constitution by engaging in private business at his Popham Beach Club – something that is against the law for a Maine state treasurer. The issue went before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court at the request of a Democratic lawmaker, but the court declined to offer a ruling on the case.

As a commissioner of the Maine State Housing Authority, he pushed for the resignation of Executive Director Dale McCormick, a former Democratic state senator whose spending habits he criticized.

Emails between state officials, including Poliquin, and representatives of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center documented what appeared to be a coordinated effort to drive McCormick out, and she ended up resigning in March 2012.

Don Gean, a Democrat who sat on the board with Poliquin, described him as “100 percent partisan” and said working with Democrats was something “I don’t think he’s capable of.”

But Merrill, who was brought on the board by Poliquin and was a longtime friend, said Poliquin was largely responsible for an overhaul at the state agency resulting in lower costs and better management. A news release issued by the agency in May 2013 said the agency had cut down on the costs of building affordable housing by 36 percent, allowing them to build an additional 148 units in one year.

“Bruce is a cheerleader, big time,” Merrill said, comparing Poliquin’s strategy at the Housing Authority to his time as a volunteer baseball coach at North Yarmouth Academy. “It’s one of his strongest attributes. He’s the Energizer Bunny. He always thinks you can fix the problem if you get the right people. If you work hard enough, you can accomplish it.”

After an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2012, Poliquin ran against Cain and independent Blaine Richardson in 2014 to represent the 2nd District, announcing his campaign shortly after moving into a family lake house in Oakland.

Poliquin defeated Cain by 5 percentage points, succeeding U.S. Rep Mike Michaud and becoming the first Republican to win the 2nd District in 20 years. That was after a 2012 race for U.S. Senate in which he kicked off his campaign at a tea party event and remarked in a campaign speech that he “loves to argue with liberals.”

Though his opponent has stuck him with the label “Tea Party Bruce,” Webster, the former Maine Republican chairman, described him as “center right” and said that aligns with working-class people in the 2nd District.

His campaign was also quick to dismiss the notion that he’s aligned himself with LePage, despite working together with him while Poliquin was state treasurer, work on subsequent issues such as the new national monument in the Katahdin area and shared beliefs on immigration reform. The two also share a campaign consultant in Littlefield.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, did not respond to requests for comment about Poliquin for this story.

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD

When asked about his biggest accomplishment in Congress to date, the first thing Poliquin mentions is House approval in May of new language he introduced into a national defense spending bill that would make certain the military fully complies with the Berry Amendment, a law requiring recruits to be outfitted with American-made apparel.

Noncompliance with the law has hurt athletic shoe manufacturer New Balance, which employs about 900 people in the 2nd District, and Poliquin said the language in the defense bill was a “landmark victory for American manufacturers,” though it has yet to be implemented.

Peter Chandler, former chief of staff for Poliquin’s predecessor, Michaud, said the new language does little to build on earlier efforts by Michaud that should have resulted in a policy change much sooner. Those kinds of changes require relationship-building and constant work with administration, something Poliquin has yet to do, he said.

“It’s great Congressman Poliquin got an amendment passed, but the fact of the matter is, it hasn’t changed anything,” said Chandler, who now works for another Democratic lawmaker.

Members of Poliquin’s staff said changes in administration meant Michaud’s efforts were hard to follow up on and new legislation was the only way to move forward.

“Maine’s congressional delegation has been working on this issue for several years, but never before has such significant progress been made to secure 900 jobs in central Maine,” Brendan Conley, press secretary for Poliquin, said in an email. “To get this far, despite tremendous and repeated opposition from the Pentagon, the White House, conservative special interest groups and members of his own party, is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially for a freshman member of Congress.”

In another move related to New Balance, Poliquin defended his review of the Trans Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal that could jeopardize American manufacturing jobs. Cain has criticized Poliquin for his indecisiveness on the deal, which he came out against in June, months after Cain and other members of Maine’s congressional delegation, but he said it would be “ridiculous” to have made a quicker decision on the issue.

“If anybody can make a decision in two or three days on a 1,100-page document without weighing in how it would help or hurt our businesses and our industries throughout the district, they’re not doing their homework,” he said.

Cain said the move highlights Poliquin’s hesitancy to break from his party as well as a history of inconsistencies in his voting record.

Among his other achievements, Poliquin noted his efforts to fight against a proposal from the Federal Drug Administration to eliminate paper medication inserts, threatening Maine paper making jobs as well as patient safety.

He also introduced legislation to extend a program aimed at helping rural veterans find access to health care; but under pressure from Republican leaders, he was also one of seven Republican lawmakers who switched their votes on a controversial anti-discrimination measure, though he says he wasn’t strong-armed into changing his vote.

In August he came under fire for filing dozens of late tax payments on his properties in Maine, according to a study by The Associated Press, something he attributed to the “cost of doing business.”

Poliquin’s staff tenaciously documents the congressman’s involvement with bills, events and appearances, sometimes sending the news media multiple news releases in a day and an end-of-week review of Poliquin’s congressional work.

On a busy day, his staff leaves a sticky note on the pull-out bed in his D.C. office to ensure he gets the message, Conley said.

Some voters say his enthusiasm and tireless work ethic highlight a commitment to fighting for the larger and more rural of the state’s two congressional districts, but others say they have concerns about issues of transparency.

David McVety, a Republican from Otisfield, said he plans to vote for Cain, citing the fact that Poliquin has refused to share publicly his opinion of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, as well as the late tax payments issue.

“I’m disappointed he hasn’t made a commitment,” said McVety, 61, a consultant for Healthy Oxford Hills. “He refuses to answer (whether he endorses Trump), where (U.S. Sen.) Susan Collins had enough guts to come out and let people know where she stands.”

At Auburn Manufacturing, Republican Ethan Jones, a forklift operator, said he voted for Poliquin in 2014 and probably will vote for him again.

“It seems like he’s on our side,” said Jones, 26, of Buckfield. “It’s good that he would take the time to come here. It really shows he cares.”

 


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