Halfway through a packed day of campaigning in Oxford County, Democratic candidate for Congress Emily Cain noticed a man sitting by himself at a corner table of the Norway Brewing Co.’s outdoor eatery.

The 36-year-old former state legislator from Orono walked over to the man after wrapping up a business tour of the brewery and extended her hand.

“Hi, I’m Emily Cain,” she said. “I’m running for Congress.”

The man, 73-year-old Richard Sousa of Norway, knew exactly who she was – he voted for her when she ran for Congress in 2014 – and didn’t hesitate to tell Cain that she needs to run a tough race this fall in order to beat incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District.

She has an uphill battle. A recent University of New Hampshire poll by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed Poliquin leading Cain by 10 percentage points in the 2nd District race. But the campaign also is expected to be one of the most competitive House races this fall as Democrats nationally try to win back a legislative majority.

“I think we’ll make you proud this time,” Cain told Sousa. “We’re running harder and stronger than ever.”

After running on a platform highlighting her bipartisan work in 2014 that ultimately resulted in a five-point loss to Poliquin, Cain announced early – in March 2015 – that she would make another bid for the 2nd District, this time turning her focus to jobs and striving to create “an economy that works for everyone.”

A review of Cain’s record as a state legislator shows that she was a key broker in the passage of a balanced budget in 2011 while serving in leadership roles, fought for social issues such as access to health care and worked to build consensus with Republicans, some of whom nevertheless won’t back her candidacy.

Critics, including her opponent, have said Cain lacks experience and is too liberal to represent the 2nd District. She calls those claims ridiculous and offensive. She has fought back with a campaign saying she is “honest and authentic” while her opponent, Poliquin, has flip-flopped on issues and shied away from questions.

“It’s very clear where I stand on things,” Cain said. “I don’t shy away from tough questions.”

‘ALWAYS WORKED’

The oldest of three sisters, Cain was born in Kentucky. She grew up in Illinois and New Jersey before her family moved to Maine when she was 17. Her father was a shoe salesman and her mother was a sign language interpreter and teacher in Kennebunk.

Her parents were both Democrats, but her family “didn’t talk politics” much, she said, and she always worked – starting with part-time jobs in high school and college.

Cain studied music education at the University of Maine and graduated in 2002, going onto a full-time job as a coordinator for the University of Maine Honors College, where she advised first-year students and handled other duties for a year before going to graduate school at Harvard.

It was then that Cain was approached by her local state senator at the time, Mary Cathcart, and her husband, Jim, about running for office. Cain said she was interested in serving in the Legislature to further her work at the University of Maine on college access and affordability. “I saw it as a way to connect the dots between the things I cared about,” she said.

In 2004, at age 24, Cain was elected to her first term in the Maine House of Representatives in a whirlwind year – she finished a master’s degree in June, announced her candidacy in July, got married in August and was elected in November. Her husband, Daniel Williams, is the executive director of the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine and a former Maine Guide.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, who served with Cain in the Legislature, noted that he doesn’t see eye to eye with her on political issues. But as Cathcart had done for her, Cain encouraged Pouliot to run for office. He was just 25, around the same age Cain was when first elected.

“I bumped into her at a restaurant. She mentioned to me that she first ran for the Legislature when she was (24), so I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this,’ and I won,” he said.

At the time she was elected, Cain was in another role at the University of Maine, this time as a coordinator of advancement for the university, working on grant writing, public outreach, alumni relations and marketing.

She sat down with her boss after winning the election to sort out her schedule, and they decided it would be best for her to work part time, putting in more hours when the Legislature was not in session and cutting back when it was.

“I didn’t want to be getting paid by the university while I was in Augusta,” Cain said. “It was the right thing to do. I worked two jobs: I was a state legislator and also worked at the Honors College.”

In 2014, Cain ran against Poliquin and independent conservative Blaine Richardson to replace six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who ran for governor that year and lost to Gov. Paul LePage. Michaud, of Millinocket, a former millworker of French Canadian descent, had a background that was different from Cain’s, but she said, “Our focus on values, I believe, is very much the same.”

In addition to an emphasis on jobs and the economy, both served in leadership roles on appropriations committees in the Legislature.

While there are some overlaps with Michaud, Cain says her approach contrasts with that of Poliquin, whom she called “out of touch” with the middle class after building a fortune in pension management in New York City. Poliquin has said she “doesn’t understand” the issues facing the 2nd District because she grew up elsewhere.

Richardson, who has endorsed Poliquin in this year’s race, said Cain is intelligent and would make a good future leader, but criticized her experience and said “the Maine Legislature isn’t a job.”

Yet Cain said her experience has provided solid background for her congressional run and the reasons she got involved in politics in the first place are still relevant in her campaign for the 2nd District.

“My family came to Maine because there was opportunity here,” she said. “I want more families to have that kind of economic and educational opportunity.”

BUILDING CONSENSUS

Cain served four consecutive terms in the Maine House of Representatives, the maximum allowed under state law, working her way up to serve as chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

In 2010, she was elected House minority leader – the first Democrat to hold the title since 1974.

With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and a newly elected Republican governor, Cain said she built relationships that helped pass a budget with the largest tax cut in Maine history in 2011 – about $150 million.

Her political role models, she said, include U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat known for his role as a negotiator in peace talks around the world; U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican whom Cain said she admires for her “strict focus on doing what’s best for Maine”; and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat with whom she served in the Legislature.

Phil Curtis, a former Republican lawmaker from Madison who was House majority leader at the time Cain was minority leader, said Cain was “firm in her commitment to her caucus,” stuck to her beliefs and was straightforward about them.

“She would negotiate to a certain point and then she was all done. That was her nature and her strong point – she knew how far she could go from the guidance of her caucus and she wouldn’t take anything back to them that they hadn’t at least talked over prior to,” he said. “I have nothing critical to say of her other than we’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum.”

Jonathan McKane, a former Republican lawmaker from Newcastle who served during Cain’s time, also described Cain as a “reliable Democratic vote.”

“I don’t remember her working across the aisle, certainly not on any of my bills,” he said, though he added he wasn’t familiar with her budget work or any of her committee work.

Poliquin has criticized Cain for trying to have it both ways – trying to take credit for the tax cuts in the 2011-2013 biennial budget while also fighting them.

At the time the budget passed, Cain told the Portland Press Herald, “My caucus hates these tax cuts. It hates them – but she said the statement referred to Democrats in general and that as House minority leader it was her job to find consensus during a difficult budget year.

LePage approved the budget, although originally he had called for more drastic tax cuts. Other Republican leaders at the time praised the budget, and while some Democrats were unhappy with cuts to social programs, it ultimately passed 123-19 in the House and 29-5 in the Senate.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who served with Cain in the Legislature and is the current House majority leader, said he didn’t agree with everything in the 2011-2013 biennial budget but added that he had great respect for Cain’s bipartisan work.

“Four years later, having gone through several tough budget negotiations myself, I see what it takes to get it done – the relationship building, the back-and-forth,” McCabe said. “My hat goes off to her.”

During her time in the Legislature, Cain also worked with LePage on an ethics law requiring lawmakers to disclose business interests and mandating electronic disclosure statements, and on a law expanding the definition of domestic violence.

The key to building consensus, she said, is to have personal relationships with other lawmakers.

“If you get to know someone on a personal level, when you have a personal relationship with them, you can always sit down and talk about anything,” she said.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but Cain said she always had a good relationship with LePage. If she were to see the governor today, Cain said, she would probably give him a hug.

“I always disagreed with him just as loudly as I agreed with him,” she said.

Curtis, the Republican House majority leader who served with Cain, recalled that approach of building personal relationships as something Cain took from the day they started their terms together and made small talk on the steps of the State House.

Patrick Flood, a former Republican lawmaker from Winthrop, also said he often would have lunch with Cain to talk about issues, and he came to think of her as a friend. “We didn’t agree on everything; no one does. But the fact is I found her personally engaging and pleasant to work with,” Flood said. “She was good at helping us solve problems.”

PEOPLE’S STORIES

After her 2014 loss, Cain said she took a few months to think about whether she would run for Congress again. The decision wasn’t an automatic one, but she said Poliquin’s early voting record, which included votes to loosen financial regulations that he said were hurting small banks, helped motivate her.

“Right out of the gate Bruce showed he was more interested in Wall Street and in doing what was best for his fundraisers rather than the state of Maine,” Cain said. “Then there was no question” about running again.

Her work on domestic violence is one reason Cain said she supports a statewide referendum, Question 3, mandating universal background checks on gun sales. Richardson, the conservative who ran against Cain in 2014, said that stance doesn’t fit in the 2nd District and he supports Poliquin, who has “come around” on 2nd Amendment issues. Poliquin wouldn’t comment when asked about his stance on Question 3, but a spokesman said he has a “record of supporting gun rights” and has been endorsed by the Sportsmans Alliance of Maine and the National Rifle Association.

The recent Telegram poll showed Question 3 winning statewide support, 61 percent to 33 percent, and winning in the 2nd District but with a tighter margin, 52 percent to 42 percent.

Even so, opposition in the 2nd District to Question 3 has emerged as Cain campaigns.

“Somebody’s fears shouldn’t interfere with somebody else’s rights,” Aaron Ouellette, the owner of Daddy O’s Diner in Oxford and a Republican, said after chatting with Cain during a campaign stop.

Cain also supports increasing the minimum wage and has criticized Poliquin for votes to cut Social Security and Medicare.

She frequently refers to “an economy that works for everyone” – a phrase she said means bringing back some of the jobs Maine has lost to mill closures and other problems over the last few years; making investments that will help small businesses to thrive, such as in broadband internet and better infrastructure; and improving access to educational opportunities and job training.

It’s also about protecting the economy by opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, a fast-track trade deal that would open the U.S. up to more foreign trade, potentially hurting Maine-based companies such as New Balance, which employs 900 people in the 2nd District.

Looking around the Oxford diner where Cain recently made her campaign stop, she said it was a good spot to connect with the community. Later she would recall how that same day she held the hand of a Vietnam veteran at the Maine Veterans’ Home in South Paris as he got emotional talking to her, and laughed with attendees at Oxford Plains Speedway, where she surprised them by accepting an offer of a beer.

She listened to them talk about their jobs as a small engine repairman and a sheet metal worker.

“It’s not about me giving speeches,” Cain said. “I’m interested in listening to people’s stories. That’s where they can give me a glimpse into what they’re struggling with and give me the best insight into what kind of voice they need in Congress.”

After an omelet and coffee with local Democratic leaders at the diner, Cain walked around and started talking with residents, including Ouellette, the restaurant’s Republican owner.

His impression? She was firm in her beliefs but willing to listen.

 


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