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Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 14, 2013, 6:00 am

Labor’s Maine Man

BY Bruce Vail

Michaud speaking during news conference in 2012. (Bill Clark/Getty)  

If labor leaders sometimes have a hard time getting enthusiastic about supporting middle-of-the road Democrats for political office, then Maine union officials are happy to have a candidate for 2014 that they can back without reservation. They are rallying enthusiastically behind U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Blue Dog Democrat who is running for governor next year as one the most pro-labor candidates anywhere in the country.

Michaud, who received a 97 percent rating from the national AFL-CIO for his votes in Congress last year, is the early favorite for the Maine Democratic Party nomination—and some analysts doubt there will even be a primary challenge against him. If he receives the party nod as expected, he will be a major contender in what is predicted to be an unusual three-way contest pitting Michaud against ultra-conservative Republican incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and liberal independent Eliot Cutler. Right now, Michaud is polling ahead. In a survey this week by Public Policy Polling, 38 percent of respondents said they would vote for Michaud, 36 percent favored LePage and 15 percent favored Cutler, with 10 percent unsure.

But Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine AFL-CIO, warns that it’s a complicated electoral calculation and there is no obvious favorite at this early stage. LePage won the 2010 election with 38 percent of the vote, followed closely by Cutler with 36 percent, with Democrat Libby Mitchell trailing badly with 19 percent. Michaud will do much better than Mitchell, Schlobohm predicts, but the final outcome could depend on a relatively small number of votes spread out among Maine’s widely scattered communities. In 2010, the final result turned on less than 10,000 votes out of a total of about 590,000 cast statewide.

The labor union support for Michaud, however, is not based primarily on predictions of how well he will perform, but a visceral understanding that Michaud is “one of us,” says Dan Lawson, a United Steelworkers (USW) representative and former paper-mill worker.

Schlobohm expresses similar sentiments, saying that Michaud stands out in Congress not only as a reliable labor supporter in the past, but as a long-time union member who worked at a rural Maine paper mill for almost 30 years, and never forgets his roots there.

Michaud has been a member of the United Paperworkers International Union since 1973, when he joined as a teenager, according to Michaud spokesperson Ed Gilman. Michaud began work alongside his father at the East Millinocket mill operated by the Great Northern Paper Co. and continued working there even after his election to the Maine House of Representatives in 1980 and to the state Senate in 1994. It was only after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 that he stopped regular work at the Great Northern mill, Gilman says. But he still maintains his membership in the union, which merged with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in 1999 and then became part of the USW in 2005.

Michaud’s union roots and pro-labor voting record stand in stark contrast to incumbent Gov. LePage, a ultra-conservative elected in the 2010 Tea Party electoral wave that also brought victory to anti-union gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. LePage began his tenure in 2011 with a calculated insult to the state’s union members, ordering a labor history mural removed from a state office building because he objected to the painting’s pro-union theme. He went on to earn a "Zero" rating in the state AFL-CIO’s 2013 annual report card, and was on the wrong side of every single one of the AFL-CIO's 20 benchmarke issues since assuming office. He supported a new "right-to-work" law (which the legislature didn’t pass), vetoed an increase in the state minimum wage, and refused an expansion of Medicaid benefits offered by the Affordable Care Act.

Regardless of LePage’s terrible labor record, blue-collar unions would probably back Michaud no matter who he was up against, according to Pat Carleton, president of USW Local 4-9 in Skowhegan, site of another of the state’s paper mills. Carleton says he met Michaud back in 1988 and that the two have worked together on a number of projects since. These include opposing international free trade agreements that hurt local jobs, backing state legislation to keep endangered factories open, and supporting a tax “clawback” measure that would require companies that have received state financial aid to return the money if they close their plants. The USW is backing Michaud with all its resources, Carleton says.

Union members also appreciate Michaud’s advocacy for veterans, according to Carleton, and he has a personal story to prove it. Carleton’s son came back from a tour of duty in Iraq and wanted to get involved in political advocacy, so Michaud hired him as a congressional intern. The internship went well, Carleton reports, and the son, “even though he’s a Republican, votes for Mike,” because of his veterans rights voting record.

Michaud’s work on labor issues is not confined to doing favors for local unions, says Lawson of USW. In addition to backing the USW in some contentious foreign trade cases, the congressman has been a champion of New Balance, the last remaining U.S. athletic-shoe company to manufacture some of its shoes (approximately 1 in 4) domestically. The company is non-union, but employs about 500 Mainers in Showhegan and another 400 in the towns of Norway and Norridgewock. Michaud’s official Congressional website proudly displays a New Balance sneaker to illustrate his efforts to get the military to give the company special treatment in Defense Department procurement.

If Michaud has an obvious electoral weakness among Democrats it may be that he is too conservative on some social issues. Pro-choice activist Sherry Huber published an op-ed piece in the Portland Press-Herald last month that focused on anti-abortion votes in Michaud's early legislative record. The op-ed conceded that Michaud's most recent votes showed a commitment to protecting abortion rights, but asserted that independent candidate Cutler had a longer and more consistent record. Over the years, Michaud has also had the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, which is anathema in many liberal circles. Maine environmental groups have not yet endorsed either Michaud or Cutler, and the two candidates are reported to be vying for their support.

Labor’s endorsement alone won’t propel Michaud into the governor’s mansion and “it’ll be a tough race,” Lawson predicts. However, one of Michaud’s advantages is that his Congressional district for the last 12 years has covered the more rural, conservative part of the state. So, he is already a proven vote-getter in areas where a Republican has to do very well to win statewide.

Another advantage may be Michaud’s recent public announcement that he is gay, Schlobohm says. The announcement last week didn’t generate much negative reaction, and may help him with the more liberal urbanized parts of the state where competitor Cutler has his greatest strength, Schlobohm speculates. As a lifelong bachelor who never attempted to pretend heterosexuality, many voters have long assumed Michaud was gay anyway, according to the Maine AFL-CIO officer.

The 2014 election year is expected to feature a number of high profile gubernatorial elections that will pit pro-labor candidates against Tea Party-influenced incumbent Republicans. In states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania no candidate has yet emerged as clear favorite of the unions, but in Maine that part of the election process is over, and Michaud is labor’s anointed champion.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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