Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Distinct differences:
Race for GOP gubernatorial nomination heats up

KJ    -    Sentinel    Op-Ed

The race for governor instantly got more interesting earlier this month when Republican S. Peter Mills became a candidate for his party's nomination for the post in 2006.

Mills, a veteran state senator who hails from a tiny Somerset county town with the politically infelicitous name of Cornville, is one of the GOP's brighter lights. He can be counted upon to raise the level of debate as the campaign heats up.

His entry guarantees Republican voters will have clear choices in the June primary next year, not only in terms of the candidates available but also in setting the future direction of their party at the state level.

Mills entered the campaign only days after South Portland businessman Peter Cianchette, the party's 2002 gubernatorial nominee, announced he was running once again.

While former congressman David Emery promptly dropped out of the race and other potential Republican candidates now seem willing to cede the field to Cianchette, Mills just as promptly moved to make it at least a two-way race.

Others, notably former Senate President Richard Bennett of Norway, might yet get in. But regardless of what develops, the party will be presented with a contested primary in which philosophy and issues can and should figure prominently. That is always healthy.

Generally speaking, Cianchette can be classified as the more conservative candidate while Mills moves more comfortably in the moderate-to-progressive wing of the party.

On the fundamental question of taxes, Cianchette is of the "read my lips" school -- cut taxes, period -- whereas Mills seems more interested in promoting a fair balance of taxation. He has, for instance, called for a broadening of the sales tax base to lower income tax rates and actually cobbled together a bipartisan group of lawmakers to promote the idea in the last legislative session.

On the other hand, he led the "people's veto" effort that eventually led to the scuttling of Gov. John E. Baldacci's controversial plan to borrow money to meet ongoing expenses.

Initiatives like that are what make Mills both a maverick and a hero in the eyes of many in his party. It also demonstrates a willingness to think beyond partisanship and strict ideology that many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle find attractive.

Two things set Mills apart from the ordinary in his announcement, which he made by touring the state and giving a succession of media interviews.

First, he insisted that his party should get away from tired fiscal slogans and give Maine people a detailed explanation of what it will do if put in charge at the Statehouse.

Second, he handed out copies of a 12-point plan for dealing specifically with such issues as human services, education, health care, economic development, rurality and (of course) tax reform.

Meanwhile, Cianchette has indicated he plans to stick with the tried-and-true pledges that gave him the nomination in 2002: cut taxes, cut spending, reduce regulations and otherwise create a business-friendly climate.

With a Cianchette-Mills face-off, Republicans have an opportunity for a classic intraparty debate about first principles and what constitutes a winning campaign formula.

To find a matchup like this, you have to go back more than three decades to the Republican primary of 1974. The two principal rivals that year -- although there were others on the ballot -- were James S. Erwin and Harrison L. Richardson.

Like Cianchette, Erwin had been the party's unsuccessful nominee four years earlier and as such had the backing of the GOP establishment. Richardson, a dynamic legislator and new-wave Republican, wanted to take his foundering party in a more liberal direction.

The conventional wisdom then was that only a conservative could win the primary, so few gave Richardson much of a chance. He waged a vigorous, ideas-laden campaign, while Erwin for the most part made safely traditional speeches promoting fiscal restraint.

Richardson came within a single percentage point of getting the nomination. Erwin, who died last month, went on to lose the general election. Both he and George J. Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, were beaten by independent candidate James B. Longley.

The point is that in politics, conventional wisdom is not always -- or even very often -- reliable. It is not a good idea to count Mills out of the running simply because Cianchette is better known and better heeled and has the backing of the party establishment.

Both have 10 months to make their case to rank-and-file Republican voters, which is the only "establishment" that really counts.

Meanwhile, the rest of Maine -- especially independent voters -- will be watching closely.

Jim Brunelle of Cape Elizabeth has commented on Maine issues for more than 40 years. He can be reached at