OLD TOWN — Bruce Poliquin has said he’s not a career politician, but he’s running an impassioned, hard-charging bid for Congress. It’s his third run in four years.

On a recent Saturday, Poliquin, 60, a former state treasurer from Oakland, was politicking in an Old Town parade, often jogging up and across the road, shaking hands with hundreds of attendees.

“I get a boost meeting these people,” he said, “because they just want someone who’s going to do what’s right and tell the truth.”

After a business career and two tries at statewide office, the Republican got his party’s nomination in June for the seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, running against Democrat Emily Cain and independent conservative Blaine Richardson in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat running for governor. As state treasurer, Poliquin was a face of Republicans’ fiscal agenda.

But he’s also known for partisan battles in office. Poliquin led a charge that eventually forced a Democratic bureaucrat from her Maine State Housing Authority post and was accused of misusing a taxbreak program. To him, detractors were upset with the cultural change Republicans brought to government.

To detractors, he’s a partisan self-promoter. Cain, an Orono state senator, said while she’s known for working across party lines, Poliquin is “known for just the opposite.”

He’s also known for his energy, for better or worse. A former primary opponent said Poliquin “made people uncomfortable by coming on too strong” on the campaign trail. But Charlie Webster, a former Maine Republican Party chairman from Farmington, said Poliquin’s energy could carry him to victory.

He said Poliquin is “everywhere” in the district. Webster has a camp in Island Falls, a small town in Aroostook County’s southern panhandle. This year, Webster ran into Poliquin stumping there.

“He’s a campaign machine,” Webster said. “There aren’t many people I’ve seen at that level work that hard.”

COMMUNITY SERVICE

Poliquin was born into a French Canadian Catholic family in Waterville. His father was an educator, his mother a nurse. At first, he attended public schools, but he later won a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts.

From there, he went to Harvard and onto investing, working for a New York-based investment company from 1981 to 1996. Poliquin bought a home in Cumberland in 1989 with his wife, Jane Carpenter. In 1992, his wife and her father drowned on a family vacation to Puerto Rico. Their son, Sam, now 23, was a baby. That event drew Poliquin closer to his home state and shaped his beliefs, including his anti-abortion principles, he said.

“When your wife is healthy and she dies suddenly at age 37 and you have a 16-month old in diapers, you get to focus real quickly on what’s important in life,” he said, “and I know how fragile and how precious it is.”

When Poliquin came back to Maine, he invested in companies here. One was a privately held precursor to LifeFlight of Maine, which flies critical patients from rural areas to hospitals. It folded after a helicopter flying from Ellsworth to Portland’s Maine Medical Center crashed in Casco Bay in 1993, killing a burn victim and two crew members.

In business, Poliquin increasingly focused on real estate into the 2000s. A Kennebec Journal analysis of land records found Poliquin now controls at least $8.4 million in real estate in Maine personally and through holding companies, including a coastal estate in Georgetown assessed at more than $3 million.

In 1999, Poliquin volunteered to be North Yarmouth Academy’s baseball coach — and quickly made an impression.

Richard Pierce, a junior, in 2000 hadn’t played high school baseball. A conversation with Poliquin changed that. The junior would pitch and play shortstop on the 2000 Class D state championship team — the first of four Poliquin won in seven years.

“You just wanted to be around him,” Pierce said, “and he was really like a motivating force to be focused on winning and being a good teammate.”

Many of those kids have left Maine for better jobs and would like to come back, Poliquin said. In work, he said saw a “continual erosion of our business climate” under Democratic leadership in Augusta.

So Poliquin tried to enter politics from the top — he ran for governor in 2010, when outgoing Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat and former 2nd District congressman, was unpopular on the heels of national recession.

“The best way to create an environment where jobs are created is to be able to get government right,” Poliquin said. “If you don’t get jobs, you get less opportunity, futures that aren’t as bright, less freedom and more welfare.”

But Poliquin wasn’t the only one who saw an opportunity. Seven people entered the primary, including the next governor. Poliquin spent $700,000 of his own money to fund his primary bid, but only mustered a sixth-place finish behind Paul LePage.

Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, finished third. He said Poliquin didn’t appear to have much of a future in politics then.

“Everybody who observed him observed him as a gladhander and a person who, at some times, made people uncomfortable by coming on too strong,” he said. “It was an issue of style.”

REPUBLICAN REFORMS

But Poliquin became one of LePage’s main surrogates. Legislators gave Poliquin the treasurer’s spot in late 2010. While in office through early 2013, Poliquin described his role as an “activist treasurer,” traveling the state to discuss fiscal issues and wrote op-eds and blog posts.

But Barbara Raths, a former Maine Democratic Party chairwoman who was Poliquin’s deputy treasurer, said day-to-day work in the office didn’t change much for the professional employees in the office.

“Bruce certainly has his point of view,” she said. “I think he understood that members of his office didn’t share his point of view.”

Legislative Republicans would pass two main reforms that year: State employee pension reform and tax cuts, both in a budget passed in 2011. Many Democrats, including Cain, opposed the changes, but backed the budget. Poliquin especially championed the reduction of $1.7 billion in future pension debt. Cost-of-living increases were frozen and the retirement age was increased. He has said that led to the package of tax cuts that followed, which Democrats called chiefly “for the rich.”

But he also set out to change agencies whose boards he sat on as treasurer. Republicans questioned the fiscal management of the housing authority, and Dale McCormick, the executive director and a longtime Democratic bureaucrat, resigned in March 2012. A legislative investigation released afterward found no fraud, but it found expenses that “might be questioned as unnecessary.”

Through appointments, LePage and Poliquin worked to take over the authority’s board. In 2013, its changes to the scoring system awarding projects to low-income housing developers in rehabilitated historic properties saved 32 percent over the year before and helped in the building of 148 more housing units.

Peter Anastos, a Poliquin ally who chairs the housing authority board, said the ex-treasurer “was definitely the catalyst” there.

“Sometimes he would drive me crazy because he was calling me all the time,” Anastos said. “But then I saw what he was talking about and then I said, ‘Boy, this guy gets a lot of stuff done.'”

But others saw a political motivation. A liberal group released emails in May 2012 that showed Poliquin and Anastos brainstorming with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, over their strategies on managing the authority. Writing to Poliquin, a LePage administration official suggested “going national” to seek conservative media, which “should help boot Dale out.”

Poliquin said it was never personal or political, noting that John Gallagher, who he helped hire to replace McCormick, is also a Democrat. But he was never as active in the party as McCormick, who doesn’t buy Poliquin’s explanation.

“I think he’s completely political and not only that, he’s concerned with only one thing,” McCormick said. “That’s Bruce Poliquin.”

TREE CONTROVERSY

Poliquin tried to use the treasurer’s office as a springboard to higher office: In 2012, he also ran for U.S. Senate, finishing second in the Republican primary. He publicly considered running for a number of positions before last August, when he announced his run for Congress.

He moved from his Georgetown home — in Maine’s 1st District — to a family home in Oakland, just across the 2nd District line. His primary opponent, Kevin Raye, used the move as a main attack line in their primary.

Raye also focused on a controversy that dogged Poliquin in the treasurer’s office, when he was criticized for putting 10 acres of his parcel in a state tax-break program meant to encourage commercial logging, which a deed on his property largely restricted. He was never found to have violated any rules, and he eventually moved it out of the program.

Poliquin has minimized that controversy and others, saying they were initiated by Democratic groups likely upset over Republican changes in government.

“I have always paid all of my taxes all of the time in full,” he said. “Always.”

But the tree controversy resonates with some voters, including Republican Dorothy Beisaw of Wilton, who said she may not be able to vote for the candidate because of it. She called it “a small thing” that nonetheless reveals negative parts of Poliquin’s character.

Still, Beisaw, who supports independent Eliot Cutler in the governor’s race over Michaud, said she isn’t taken with Cain, either.

“Perhaps that’s why I’m not too excited about the race,” she said. “But I may have to rethink Bruce once we get closer to the election.”

Poliquin won the June primary while running to Raye’s right fiscally and socially. He criticized Raye as a “career politician.” They differed on abortion, and Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League, said Poliquin spoke at many churches across the district to highlight his conservative message.

On election night in June, as Raye commiserated with supporters, he said Poliquin’s nomination could hurt Republicans’ chances of winning the seat. He hasn’t endorsed Poliquin and wouldn’t comment for this story. Democrats called his win a “tea party upset,” using a label Poliquin has rejected.

“I’ll work with independents, I’ll work with Democrats, I’ll work with Republicans,” he said. “I’ll work with anyone as long as they fix the stuff.”

At the parade, responses to Poliquin ranged from the cool — “We’re voting for Emily Cain, not that guy,” one woman said — to the warm: “I like more jobs and less debt,” another said.

Cain wasn’t there, even though it was just across the city line from her Orono home. Poliquin said he’s “not the brightest guy in the world, but I work harder than anybody else.”

“It’s almost like he believes if he shakes enough hands, he’ll win,” said Webster, the former Maine Republican Party chairman. “And he’s trying.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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