Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage criticized each other’s records on economic issues and clashed on abortion policies as Maine’s three candidates for governor took the stage Tuesday night for the first in a series of debates before the Nov. 8 election.

LePage criticized Mills for providing $850 inflation relief checks to residents, referring to the checks as an attempt to buy the election and saying they contributed to inflation.

“The governor may have gone to law school but she certainly didn’t go to an economics school,” LePage said.

Mills defended the checks as a bipartisan effort to give Maine people relief from rising prices, then criticized LePage for his management of the state budget.

Former Gov. Paul LePage answers a question on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I’ve spent four years repairing the damage of his administration,” she said, highlighting LePage’s cuts to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mills challenged LePage directly after the Republican nominee did not say whether he would veto any legislation restricting access to abortion. LePage has said “we should not have abortion” and attended anti-abortion rallies when governor.


After LePage said he would not sign legislation adding new restrictions, Mills interjected: “Would you allow it to go into effect without your signature?”

“I would honor the law as it is. You’re talking hypotheticals,” LePage answered.

When asked by moderator Jennifer Rooks if he would veto a bill restricting abortions after 15 weeks instead of the current law restricting access after 22 weeks, LePage answered, “Yes.”

Gov. Janet Mills answers a question on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

LePage said he would not support MaineCare-funded abortions, a policy in place now that Mills supports. Mills vowed to prevent any new restrictions from being placed on abortion in Maine, but also said she would not seek to relax current restrictions on abortion after 22 weeks.

The Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal and Maine Public sponsored the 90-minute debate. Rooks moderated the debate, while journalists Penelope Overton of the Press Herald and Steve Mistler of Maine Public asked questions, many of them contributed by readers and viewers.

This was the first time Mills, LePage and independent challenger Sam Hunkler appeared together to answer questions and debate policies.


Hunkler used the debate as an opportunity to introduce himself to voters, saying that he would bring their ideas and concerns to Augusta if elected but not offering many specific policy changes. In his closing statement, Hunkler said he offers Maine people a choice by not taking donations and by being willing to listen to them.

“I will bring your voice with me to the governorship,” he said. “The special interests are corrupting our whole political system with the influence of money.”

Supporters of former Gov. Paul LePage rally at an intersection in Lewiston, where the three candidates for governor are set to debate for the first time ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Supporters of Mills and LePage made their presence known outside of the Franco Center before the debate Tuesday evening.

LePage supporters, stationed on Lincoln Street, appeared to outnumber Mills supporters gathered in a dimly lit park on River Street. They also seemed to get a more enthusiastic response from passing vehicles. A couple of drivers lobbed profanities at Mills supporters.

Mills and LePage are among Maine’s best-known politicians. Before she became governor, Mills served as the Attorney General for six out of LePage’s eight years in office. The two battled in the press, in the courtroom and in behind-the-scenes memos about policy and the role of the AG, who is appointed by the Legislature.

Until Tuesday, the race for governor had been relatively subdued except for the numerous television ads aired by Mills, LePage and their allies. Tuesday’s debate changed that.


Leveraging her incumbency, Mills has largely eschewed campaign events, opting instead to conduct the business of being governor, visiting businesses and communities throughout the state to announce various grants and new programs. She has been emphasizing collaboration and bipartisanship, releasing a new campaign ad Tuesday featuring Republicans, including state Sen. Kim Rosen and former state Sen. Roger Katz, who support her campaign.

She has rallied with abortion rights demonstrators and last week held a press conference to announce Sen. Angus King’s support for her campaign.

LePage, meanwhile, has been on the attack, holding a series of press conferences hitting Mills on the economy, inflation, opioid addiction, crime and education. He has previously criticized Mills’ handling during the pandemic.

LePage also has the support of the Maine Republican Party and the Republican Governor’s Association, which has paid for ads attacking Mills.

Noah Forman, 20, a Bates College student from Washington, D.C., joins supporters of Gov. Janet Mills in Lewiston, where the three candidates for governor are set to debate for the first time ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mills has raised more than twice the amount of campaign donations as LePage, while also benefiting from millions of dollars in spending from outside groups attacking her Republican opponents.

During the debate, Mills and LePage also clashed over immigration. When asked about how to better integrate immigrants into the economy, LePage avoided talking about “illegal aliens,” a term he’s used to describe asylum seekers, and instead said he would advocate to allow them to work within 30 days of filing their applications, rather than six months.


Mills called out LePage for supporting former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, including a proposed travel ban on people from Muslim-majority nations.

Gov. Janet Mills reacts to a comment by fromer Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Janet Mills, you are a liar,” LePage shot back, claiming he never supported Trump’s proposed ban.

Mills was correct, however. One of the biggest legal disagreements between Gov. LePage and Attorney General Mills was whether Maine should file a legal brief in support of the policy when it was being challenged in court. LePage supported Trump’s plan, while Mills opposed it.

On housing, Mills criticized LePage’s refusal to release $15 million in voter-approved bonds to build affordable housing for seniors. She said she has since met with dozens of seniors living in new units created with those funds.

“They are very comfortable in their affordable housing units,” Mills said.

LePage said he withheld the money because he believed it would build market-rate housing. He said he would focus on school consolidation if elected to a third non-consecutive term and would reuse empty school buildings as housing.


Hunkler avoided hard and fast policy positions. Hunkler said he would never do anything to endanger the life of a mother, while also saying he’d likely support any abortion law that reached his desk with two-thirds support of the Legislature, the threshold needed to overturn a veto.

Hunkler also staked out some middle ground regarding use of MaineCare funding for abortions and reproductive health care. Such funding, he said, should only be used when the mother’s health is endangered. Mills supports that funding while LePage opposed it.

All three candidates agreed that President Biden won the 2020 presidential election and said they would accept the electoral outcome in November.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Sam Hunkler listens Tuesday night on stage during the Maine Public debate at the Franco Center in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

However, LePage defended his support for requiring voter identification, saying IDs should be provided free of charge to all eligible voters. He asked Mills why she opposed such proposals and she replied that voting is a fundamental right that should not be infringed upon.

On tribal sovereignty, LePage said he would be willing to talk to the tribes and address specific issues, while Mills touted advances under her administration that gave tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting, income tax reform and more control over their drinking water.

Both Mills and LePage have previously expressed support for the state’s 1980 land claims settlement act, which treats Maine tribes like municipalities rather than sovereign nations. Mills said her concerns about a bill that would restore full sovereignty to tribes have not been addressed. Those include water quality regulations and fisheries.


Hunkler said he fully supports tribal sovereignty.

“I do support sovereignty for the Wabanaki and all of the tribes in Maine and I would do whatever I need to do to make that happen,” he said.

During his closing statement, LePage said the state is facing challenges but that he turned the state around 8 years ago and he can do it again.

Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage and independent challenger Sam Hunkler share the stage Tuesday night at the Franco Center in Lewiston for the first time ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Janet Mills’ only solution over the last four years is to throw money at a problem, but what do we do when the money is gone?” LePage asked.

Mills closed by saying she worries about the future for her five daughters and her grandchildren and whether they will have the same rights and opportunities she has enjoyed.

“We’ve made good progress for the last few years through the toughest time in history and we won’t go back,” she said.

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