The two leading candidates for governor clashed on education and the economy Monday night in a debate punctuated by policy highlights and a few jabs thrown by each of the contestants.
Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, and Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, laid out the ways they would address the cost of living and inflation that’s driving up gas, heating oil and grocery prices.
A Maine-based poll released last week shows 71% of Mainers named the cost of living as a key issue, followed by inflation at 42%, according to Pan Atlantic Research.
“In January, I would make sure we have some monies made available to heating oil for people of the state of Maine,” LePage said. “Farmers in the spring will be getting more money to grow more food.”
Mills said a governor can’t control international events such as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has driven up oil and food prices.
“What I can do is help put cash back into the pockets of Maine people, and that’s what we did,” she said, referring to the $850 relief checks that went to most Mainers over the summer.
Mills said she would consider convening the new Legislature in December to see if more money is available to help struggling Mainers.
All 186 seats in the Maine House and Senate will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, alongside races for Congress and governor.
The third candidate for governor, independent Sam Hunkler of Beals, was not invited to participate in the debate because he has not received 5% support in a public poll, said debate moderator Gregg Lagerquist of WGME-TV, which hosted the debate in conjunction with the Bangor Daily News.
Hunkler is polling at 2%, with Mills at 49% and LePage at 39%, with a margin of error of 3.5%, according to the Pan Atlantic poll.
With the election in just two weeks, the candidates are hitting the road today, with LePage headed for a barn rally in Aroostook County and Mills making multiple stops at colleges and universities.
During the debate, LePage reiterated his idea of instituting a “Parents Bill of Rights” to help parents better understand what’s being taught in public schools.
“This administration has got a very woke agenda, a very left-wing agenda,” he said. “We have to have parents notified to opt out when there is sensitive material that is not age appropriate.”
He referenced a video that was posted to the Maine Department of Education’s website that attempted to explain to children what it means to be transgender. After Republicans began running ads about the video, the department removed it from the website.
“You have 14-year-old kids, in the school, parents are saying they are being indoctrinated into areas they are not aware of and they are not even asked about it,” LePage said.
Mills said state education officials missed reviewing the video before it was posted to the website and when it was brought to their attention, it was removed.
“It did sort of raise a mistrust about a child’s relationship with doctors, which didn’t seem to be an appropriate message at all, especially for kindergarteners,” she said.
Mills emphasized her focus on education, which includes being the first governor to fully fund the state’s share of education costs, providing free meals to all school children, giving teachers a pay raise and paying community college tuition for students affected by the pandemic.
She said LePage underfunded education during his eight years in office and that he went through eight education commissioners.
“He called teachers a dime a dozen,” she said. “I won’t do that. I will keep fully investing in our children, in our schools, in our teachers and in our ed techs.”
LePage then said that Mills was “bordering on outright lying” when she said he underfunded schools. He said funding had been cut by his predecessor and that he worked to increase it.
“This is going to be a major focus going forward,” he said, "not only in the quality of education, but the cost of education.”
LePage and Mills will mix it up again on Thursday when the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and News Center Maine host a debate at 7 p.m. that will be broadcast on WCSH-6 and WLBZ-2.