By Steve Weinstein
Originally published on Advocate.com January 02 2014 6:00 AM ET
Last November, when Maine Congressman and 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud came out, he grabbed the spotlight as the potential first openly gay governor-elect in the nation. But the announcement marked just the latest development in a political career unconventional by any standard.
Throughout his seven terms in the Maine Legislature and six terms in Congress, Michaud has walked a fine line between a conservative constituency and his party. Like his father and grandfather before him, Michaud worked for the local paper mill before he ran as an environmentalist fighting to clean up a local river polluted by his employer. He initially ran for Congress as pro-life against a pro-choice Republican, but has since changed his position. A member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative House Democrats, Michaud has voted consistently in favor of national health care and expanded benefits for veterans. Although he paid lip service to opposing same-sex marriage in 2004, the Human Rights Campaign gives him a near-perfect 95 percent score.
A sparsely populated state tucked into a French-speaking pocket of Canada, Maine has long exhibited fierce Yankee pride in its quirky politics and belief that anyone’s private life is just that: private. “There were whispers,” Mario Moretto, the state House reporter for the Bangor Daily News, tells The Advocate. “But I would never have dreamed of asking him. That’s the way it is up here.”
Two previous governors and a current senator are independents, while the other senator, a Republican, is moderate. As for LGBT issues, Maine began offering domestic partnerships in 2004 but voters repealed a same-sex marriage bill in 2009, only to reverse themselves three years later. In a tight three-way race against incumbent Tea Party hero GOP Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler, a former U.S. senator, Michaud had little to lose by coming out so early in his campaign, Moretto says. “This will not hurt him. It’s just not a big deal.”
A much bigger deal was made of Michaud’s accusations of “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push polls some of the people opposed to my candidacy have been using to raise questions about my personal life.” Both of Michaud’s opponents denied any involvement. Cutler said Michaud’s sexual identity would never become a factor in the campaign, while LePage’s spokesperson wouldn’t even acknowledge it. As for the Christian Civic League of Maine, which spearheaded opposition to marriage equality, Executive Director Carroll Conley Jr. told Moretto he “won’t jump into this.”
All that makes the mystery whisper campaigns all the more “interesting, to say the least,” for local political mavens like Moretto. “All the reporters are trying to shake down the trees to find out who made the calls,” he says. “All I know is that Michaud said it existed.” Moretto also questions the timing of Michaud’s coming out announcement, which was embargoed until the day before LePage formally announced he would seek re-election, thus dominating the news cycle.
Michael Franz, a professor at Bowdoin College, believes running as a gay candidate will prove a net plus for Michaud. With one-third of the electorate firmly in the LePage camp and Cutler acting as a spoiler, Michaud has carefully crafted himself as an independent Democrat who makes decisions based on principle rather than party. “Many people,” Franz says, “are going to vote for a likeable congressman, even if he is gay, over a bombastic loose cannon who’s put his foot in his mouth every time he’s opened it.”
The race had attracted national attention, thanks to LePage’s outbursts comparing the IRS to the Gestapo, telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and calling a state senator “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” Franz says Maine lacks a major media market, making it a cheap buy for outside organizations. Last November, Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, told The Advocate, “He’s been on our radar,” adding, “We’re analyzing Mike’s chances to become the next governor.”
Though it’s natural to speculate about when or even why Michaud came out, such a decision is always a fraught one. “It’s a big deal, in a historical context,” Moretto says. “It’s a big deal to see a barrier broken. But it’s a big deal on a personal level for Mike. He says the day he told us was the same day he told his mom.”