BANGOR — Just before finishing a master’s degree in 2004, Emily Cain went home to Orono and talked to her state senator about college access and affordability.

By the end of the conversation, Mary Cathcart had asked the 24-year-old to run for office.

“I was so impressed with her grasp of public policy and her policy research,” said Cathcart, a Democrat who’s now out of the Legislature. “And it just occurred to my husband and I that she would be a fantastic state representative.”

Cain had never been to the Maine State House before her legislative orientation that year.

Now the 34-year-old state senator is running for the seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, against Republican Bruce Poliquin and independent conservative Blaine Richardson in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat running for Maine governor.

Cain says her experience working with Republicans for 10 years in Augusta would serve her well in a divided U.S. Congress.

“We need leaders who can bring people together, bring the voice of Mainers to the table and get things done,” she told a group of business leaders in Bangor last month.

Cain is a respected legislator, and even Republicans praise her inclusive style and smarts.

But she has a reliably liberal record and many have criticized her life experience. She hasn’t had a full-time job since 2003, working as a coordinator in the University of Maine’s Honors College since 2004, a job she’s now on leave from.

“She’s too extreme for Maine,” Poliquin said of Cain. “She doesn’t fit the values of the 2nd District.”

Still, Cain has had time to rise in her party, which observers say she’s done with strategic alliances and without burning bridges in Augusta.

“She’s a quick study, and I think she saw early on the path to rising in the ranks,” said Cynthia Dill, a former Democratic legislator from Cape Elizabeth who lost the race for minority leader to Cain in 2011. “And she took it, obviously successfully.”

RISE IN DIFFICULT TIMES

Cain was born in Kentucky and grew up in Illinois. Before she finished high school in New Jersey, her parents moved to Kennebunk, when her father, who was in the shoe business and often moved, got a job with G.H. Bass & Co.

But she had family in Orono, where she moved to attend UMaine to study music education, graduating in 2002. In 2004, she got a master’s degree in higher education at Harvard, married and got elected.

When she got to Augusta, she was put on the Legislature’s Education Committee. There, she said, she found out quickly that “everything I cared about cost money.”

So she set out to learn the budgeting process. In 2006, she was appointed to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, the panel that negotiates the state budget. Two years later, Cain’s friend, then-House Speaker Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, picked Cain to co-chair it.

But Pingree said their friendship had nothing to do with the appointment.

“I trusted Emily and I knew she was going to work well with the Republicans, but she was also going to make sure we came up with a reasonable budget,” she said.

The budget was difficult. After the 2008 recession, then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, signed a two-year state budget that marked the first time Maine’s budget decreased in 30 years.

It slashed money for schools, property tax relief and aid to cities and towns. Then, Cain said, it wasn’t a budget “that anyone feels happy about,” but she was proud of the bipartisan effort that went into it.

Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, who served six years on that committee with Cain, called her one of his favorite legislators. He credited her with helping him in 2014 to find funding to reduce the number of developmentally disabled Mainers on waiting lists for support services.

“She has very strong opinions, but she worked very hard to find answers to very difficult problems,” he said.

But Cain was plotting a move from the committee in 2010, as Pingree would be termed out by year’s end. That year, Cain’s leadership political action committee raised $62,000 — more than that of any Democrat that year, according to Maine Ethics Commission data.

Of that, $50,000 went to the Democrats’ coordinated campaign effort to defend their legislative majorities. That didn’t succeed.

STRIKING A BALANCE

In a conservative wave that swept the nation in 2010, Maine Democrats lost the House, Senate and the Blaine House to Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage.

Cain was elected House minority leader, a spot no Democrat had held in Maine since 1974. She said she adopted a philosophy: “I would not be a minority leader that just said ‘no,'” but “not that, but this and here’s why.” But LePage was buoyed by his party’s majority to pursue wide changes during his first term, so Cain still would be the often-quoted public face of Democratic opposition.

After helping negotiate it, Cain voted for a budget in 2011 that included what Republicans have hailed as the largest tax cut in Maine history. It cut the top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent and eliminated liability for about 70,000 low-income Mainers.

Democrats derided the cuts as “for the rich” and Cain opposed them. But Democrats preserved services in the budget that they supported, including health care for thousands.

“That period of time was full of a lot of difficult choices; but ultimately, the right thing to do was to stay at the table and get that budget passed,” Cain said.

However, Cain put her foot down plenty. After Republicans passed a bill largely along party lines that deregulates Maine’s health insurance market, she said at the time that Republicans bypassed the normal legislative process, making “some of the worst policy that came out of this session.”

Other times, Democrats played successful defense. For example, they turned back proposals to restrict abortion rights with help from a bloc of pro-abortion rights Republicans.

Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, who was assistant majority leader in the House when Cain led Democrats, said she was “a reasonable person to negotiate with.” In 2012, she was elected to the Senate and Democrats retook the legislative majorities.

But some in her party were frustrated by her deals as leader, even though she has been reliably liberal, supporting the federal Affordable Care Act and universal health care coverage that goes further. During the most recent legislative term, the Sunlight Foundation ranked her as the fifth-most partisan Senate Democrat.

Her deal-making came to the forefront in her June primary against Sen. Troy Jackson, a feisty labor Democrat and logger from Allagash. At the party’s state convention in May, he said he wouldn’t “hold hands with the tea party to extend tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” a reference to the state budget.

But Cain won nearly two-thirds of the vote on primary election day, touting her history of “staying at the table” to get bipartisan legislation passed. Dill said she finds that message genuine.

“Emily, I think, values personal relationships perhaps more than she feels passionately about certain issues,” she said. “It’s important for her to get along with people; and she doesn’t, in my experience, value confrontation.”

REAL-WORLD EXPERIENCE?

Cain easily won her primary, but Poliquin has since challenged her background.

He challenged her youth and work history, saying his outlook is “more mature” than it would have been if he had run at age 34 and that Cain has “always received a paycheck from the taxpayers.”

Cushing, the Republican state senator who praised Cain for her style, said she has a lack of “real-world experience.” That message could resonate with many, including Kathy Preble, of Brownville, an independent who supports Democrat Mike Michaud in the governor’s race but so far is backing Poliquin for the congressional seat.

“She doesn’t have any background,” Preble said of Cain. “What has she done?”

Also, Cushing said her values don’t fit the district, particularly her pro-abortion rights stance and gun issues. But that’s up for debate.

A poll released in May by Planned Parenthood, a pro-abortion rights group that endorsed Cain, said 62 percent of the 380 district voters who were polled support a woman’s right to make personal decisions on abortion, including half of Republicans, and more than 90 percent of Mainers polled in 2013 supported mandatory background checks on private gun purchases.

But there has often been a disconnect between those views and the candidates the district elects. Michaud won his seat often as an anti-abortion candidate with National Rifle Association backing.

Poliquin is anti-abortion; Cain is endorsed by pro-abortion rights groups. He is endorsed by the NRA; she has a sub-par rating from that group. On those issues, “I’m really in sync with the district,” Poliquin said, “and my opponent is not.”

However, Cain’s campaigning largely on the choice issue and her party is driving it home, sending out a series mailers to voters on that issue in September. One said Poliquin “would put politicians in charge” of women’s health decisions.

But since the divide between the candidates is so large on so many issues, she said, the difference in the candidates’ styles could be the most important one.

“It’s also about whether or not you’re going to be the type of member of Congress who’s part of making Congress more productive,” Cain said, “or someone who is going to make Congress more out of touch than they already are with the American people.”

This story was corrected on Oct. 9 to reflect a full-time job that Cain held at the University of Maine. A Cain staffer was unaware of that job prior to publication.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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