PORTLAND — An energy forum billed as the first time Maine’s three candidates for governor would speak in the same place did not come off as planned Friday.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage abruptly declined to participate in the forum about policy on home heating, energy and the environment. His campaign said the governor’s last-minute decision not to take part in the forum with Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler arose from an apparent misunderstanding about the format of the event organized by E2Tech.
At a separate event elsewhere in Portland on Friday morning, LePage said he believed the three candidates would be provided time to speak about energy initiatives separately, but said he found out “last minute” the three candidates were expected to be on stage together.
“You’ve got to keep the integrity of the process,” LePage said. “If you set up a format, you’ve got to stick to that format.”
Jeff Marks, executive director of E2Tech, said it was not clear to him why there was a last-minute misunderstanding about the event, which was scheduled to feature 30-minute presentations from each candidate, with the governor speaking first. Michaud was scheduled to speak second, and Cutler was scheduled to speak third.
Marks said the campaign notified him in an early morning phone call that there was a misunderstanding about the format and stage setup, which included a podium and a table with place cards and a microphone for each candidate.
The LePage campaign said in a statement the event “attempted to arrange a setting to put politics ahead of public policy.”
The campaign did not verify reports the governor was at the event early Friday morning, but later left. Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, said after the talk she was one of many who saw the governor’s car leave the parking garage outside of the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center at around 8 a.m. He was in the passenger’s seat, she said.
The event left only Michaud and Cutler, who are perceived to be competing over more of the same voters on the political spectrum than LePage, to discuss their policies.
Marks said his group hoped to have all candidates express their thoughts on heating and energy policy, as the new governor will enter office in the dead of the upcoming winter and face that issue on the first day in office.
“That’s not going to happen today, but we hope it does soon,” he said.
Organizers of the event said about 275 people showed up to hear the three candidates, who were allowed to divide their 30 minutes as they wished for speaking and for answering questions from the audience.
The three candidates for governor have sparred publicly about exactly how, when and under what conditions they’d appear on stage together. LePage has been evasive in committing to appear at debates or forums at all. Michaud has said he wouldn’t participate in debates that didn’t include LePage, who he views as his only real opponent, thanks to Cutler’s lagging poll numbers. Cutler has said he’ll show up anywhere and share a stage with one or both of his opponents — or neither.
The stalemate has left various debate and forum organizers frustrated as they attempt to nail down attendance and schedules.
LePage’s no-show Friday led to inevitable questions about whether it was carefully orchestrated.
The governor’s re-election strategy relies, at least in part, on Cutler and Michaud splitting the support of voters who oppose LePage. Whether his no-show was a political move, or because of a misunderstanding about format, the result was the same: Cutler and Michaud were together, outlining their differences, and LePage was gone.
Bangor Daily News state politics reporter Mario Moretto and Portland bureau chief Seth Koenig contributed to this report.
Maine gubernatorial candidates Mike Michaud, left, and Eliot Cutler shake hands at an Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine forum at Hannaford Hall in Portland on Friday morning.
Gov. Paul LePage’s unused name tag.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler sits alone on stage at an Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine forum at Hannaford Hall in Portland on Friday morning, Sept. 12.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud prepares to speak at an Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine forum at Hannaford Hall in Portland on Friday morning, Sept. 12.