August 16, 2010

‘Mainers are pragmatic,’ says Eliot Cutler


PORTLAND -- With a traditional Democrat and Republican running for governor in Maine, conventional wisdom suggests the scenario leaves room in the middle for an independent candidate to collect votes in a state where unenrolled voters represent the largest voting bloc.

Independent Eliot Cutler said Mainers weary of constant political battles want a centrist who's willing to work with both Republicans and Democrats in Augusta.

"Mainers are pragmatic. I think they're looking for a governor who's experienced, who's independent, who's not tied to one extreme or the other," he said.

While Cutler has never held elected office, he has government experience having worked for the late Sen. Edmund Muskie and serving in the White House Office of Management and Budget. He has spent the bulk of his career as an environmental lawyer in the U.S. and opened his law firm's office in China.

He's promising straight talk.

"We're flat busted broke, as a state. Our economy is dead in the water," he said. "Maine voters are acutely aware that the policies that we've pursued for years in Maine are not working any more."

Historically, Maine has been friendly to independents, having sent a pair of independents -- James Longley in 1975 and Angus King in 1995 and again in 1999 -- to the Blaine House.

For this election, however, Cutler isn't the only independent fighting for votes. He's facing two others independents, Shawn Moody of Gorham and Kevin Scott of Andover, in addition to Republican Paul LePage of Waterville and Democrat Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro.

While Cutler is viewed as the strongest independent because of his high-profile campaign, the large field has created a free-for-all atmosphere.

"It's an odd election year. The only thing I know for sure is that anyone who says they know what's going to happen doesn't know anything," said Sandy Maisel, Colby College political science professor.

Cutler, 64, grew up in Bangor, raised by the parents of immigrants. The Harvard graduate got into politics as a law student at Georgetown University when he joined the staff of Muskie, helping to draft legislation including the clean air and water acts. Later, he was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to serve as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Eventually, he founded an environmental law firm, Cutler & Stansfield, specializing in large infrastructure projects, including the Denver airport, a project Cutler spearheaded.

He returned to Maine in 1999 after his wife, a doctor, took a job at Maine Medical Center about the same time Cutler & Stansfield merged with another firm. Cutler gained international experience by opening the firm's office in China, where he worked from 2007 to 2009. Cutler and his wife now live in Cape Elizabeth. They have three grown children.

Over the years, Cutler withdrew from Democratic politics after the party, in his view, became too cozy with unions and lost its reputation as a reform party.

He joined the GOP in support of Sen. Peter Mills' first candidacy for governor, propelled by Democrats' proposal to borrow $440 million to balance the state budget in 2006. Two years later, Cutler switched back to support Democrat Adam Cote, who lost a six-way primary in the 1st Congressional District.

Now Cutler is an independent.

His way forward involves working to reduce regulations, health care costs and electricity costs to make the state more attractive to businesses. Rules, regulations and tax exemptions would be reviewed, he said.

He said he's not afraid to make painful cuts instead of resorting to accounting gimmicks or across-the-board cuts. He said he learned at the OMB when he killed projects that cuts are sometimes necessary. He cited Maine's automobile inspection program as a costly program that's on his chopping block.

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