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Answer these questions, candidates, and I'll be ready to vote

The Portland Chamber's gubernatorial debate was an improvement, but key issues remain unresolved.

Last week, the Portland Chamber hosted a gubernatorial debate that primarily focused on the economy and job creation. The chamber modified the debate format to get a better sense of each candidate by addressing the first round of questions to only two of the candidates at a time, and allowing each candidate more time to respond than the usual one minute.

This was an effective approach. It provided more dialogue and focus on each question, so there was much less of the "sound bite" quality to the candidates' answers. The chamber format also provided time for give-and-take among the candidates. This was less successful because the candidates, by now veterans of multiple debates, mostly took the occasion to stick to their talking points.

However, it did lead to one exchange between Eliot Cutler and Paul LePage over Waterville's high school dropout rate. Subsequent follow-up by the Press Herald verified that Cutler was indeed correct in asserting that Waterville's dropout rate was twice the state average. This may have been a good debating point, but it had little to do with LePage's qualifications to be governor.

While I thought the chamber format was an improvement over previous debates, I left feeling that the candidates had not been challenged vigorously enough. None of them are bashful about voicing their talking points, but to me, several difficult questions were left unsaid.

So here are the questions I would like to see them answer:

Libby Mitchell: You describe your plans to promote job growth in Maine by talking about things such as providing seed capital and a business development ombudsman in the governor's office. Yet your record as a leader in the Legislature is woeful when it comes to job creation.

In the last Legislature, your bill to add mandatory sick-leave days was considered so onerous to business and economic development that even the heavily pro-labor Labor Committee refused to endorse it. Moreover, during the past two legislative sessions your record in supporting economic development – by the admittedly pro-business Maine Economic Research Council – has been in the low 20s on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being pro-economic development.

My question is, with this sort of record, why should we view your job-creation proposals with any credulity?

Paul LePage: You have several sensible proposals for bringing more fiscal discipline to Augusta with a zero-based budgeting approach, adding performance benchmarks, and doing a full audit of all programs. At the same time, you say you will cut taxes by instituting a flat 5 percent income tax. I like both of these approaches. I would love to see Maine with a 5 percent income tax.

My question is, how do your numbers add up?

You have not given any sense that you could responsibly turn up enough savings from your fiscal approach to be able to support your tax cut. Moreover, you have not shown in your temperament a willingness to engage in difficult issues without confrontational responses.

Eliot Cutler: You have been the most thoughtful candidate both in understanding the nature of Maine's current problems and in coming up with sound and imaginative ideas to deal with them. However, I often find your tone harsh and some of your debate comments overly confrontational.

My questions: Do you have a real vision for what Maine can be? Is there light at the end of the long tunnel you describe so well? Also, why should I cast a vote for you if it is likely to split the Democratic vote?

Shawn Moody: Over the course of the debates, you have emerged as a likable "everyman." You are someone who has built a good small business. However, you have virtually no political experience nor any real experience in the public sector.

My question is, why do you think the solution to most of Maine's problems is simply "I've built a business, I have common sense, I will figure it out"?

Kevin Scott: Why are you running? You are adding little to the debate. It's time to go back to finding jobs for people in the high-tech aerospace industry.

With the answers to these questions, I will be ready to cast my vote. How about you?


Correction: In my last column, I suggested that Eliot Cutler, at about 10 percent in the latest gubernatorial poll, was positioned about where independent Angus King was at the same time in his (ultimately successful) 1994 race. Dennis Bailey, who was a key King staffer, informed me that King was actually polling at about 20 percent of the vote at that point in the campaign.