Janet Mills speaks at Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial forum at Central Maine Community College. Seated next to her are Diane Russell, Adam Cote and Betsy Sweet. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — Six Democrats vying to become Maine’s next governor gathered Tuesday for a forum at Central Maine Community College, never mentioning any of the four Republicans who are also eager for the job.

The Democrats, however, had plenty to say about Repubican Gov. Paul LePage, who is prevented from running for the state’s top job again because of term limits.

“I can’t stand Gov. LePage,” attorney Adam Cote said, declaring he is embarrassed by what the governor has done to the state with his smears and blustering.

Former House Speaker Mark Eves said LePage has damaged the state’s brand.

Lobbyist Betsy Sweet said that for the past eight years, the governor has used “the politics of fear and hatred” to divide Mainers instead of bringing them together.

Attrorney General Janet Mills said she makes a practice of staying in her office late on Fridays so she can respond quickly to many “mean-spirited” letters from LePage slipped under her door.

“He is not the most lovable client that I have ever had,” Mills said.

Former House Speaker Mark Eves speaks during Tuesday’s forum in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

During the two-hour forum, sponsored by the Androscoggin County Democratic Committee, the gubernatorial candidates cited a need for more civility in Augusta, better health care, a more-welcoming stance toward immigrants, greater job training opportunities and much more.

The few barbs they had toward one another were so obscure that many of the 80 people in attendance did not realize the comments were meant as zingers.

The Democrats competing in the June 12 primary for the chance to become the party’s standard bearer in the November general election are Cote, Donna Dion, Mark Dion, Eves, Mills, Diane Russell and Sweet. Mark Dion, who was under the weather, did not attend the session.

How to deal with a growing movement to limit access to military-style firearms drew some of the toughest words.

Russell called it “a really hard issue for me” because mass shootings are no abstraction in her family, which lost six people when they were gunned down by a shooter in Texas.

“It just changes everything,” she said. “I don’t want weapons of war in schools. I don’t want them on our streets.”

Eves said that with students showing “wisdom and courage” on the issue that politicians have not mustered, “this is our moment” to win approval for universal background checks and other measures that might help.

He said it is important to “take a firm stand against” the National Rifle Association, which opposes most gun-control proposals as counter to the Second Amendment. Eves said it is time to tell the NRA “to get out of our state. We don’t want you here.”

Russell countered, though, that she would rather that Wayne LaPierre Jr., an outspoken NRA executive, sat in her kitchen and talked over the issue with her.

“There’s plenty of room because we have six empty chairs at my Thanksgiving table,” Russell said.

Cote, who served on three combat tours with the Maine Army National Guard, said Maine can follow the lead of Vermont in banning bump stocks that can turn semi-automatic weapons into guns that can fire automatically. He also said there is no reason to allow magazines that hold 30 bullets at a time.

He said, though, the state also has to talk about parenting, “the hollowing out of our health-care system” and other societal changes that allow some youngsters to “think they’re in a video game when they’re doing this.”

Asked to cite the one major project on which they would focus if elected governor in November, the candidates offered varied answers.

Mills said making sure more people get health-care coverage is her biggest goal.

Dion, a former Biddeford mayor who called herself “a reality check,” said she would aim to deliver more job training and development help to try to achieve enough economic growth to pay for a single-payer health-care system.

Sweet said that if the state fails to deal with climate change, it risks losing its fisheries, its tourism and more. She said people can take steps to help by biking and walking more, and turning down their thermostats.

Russell offered an economic bill of rights that includes safe housing and a living wage as her top priority.

Cote said he would push “a growth strategy” to reduce electricity costs by using the smart meters already installed across the state to make power use cheaper at night. He said he would also push renewable sources to such a degree that it could become a global leader in the field.

“It is all about the economy,” Eves said, vowing to create jobs that pay a livable wage by listening to what businesses and localities say will work for them.

The Republicans are also sorting out who will be their candidate for governor. There are four GOP contenders squaring off in a primary: Garrett Mason, Mary Mayhew, Shawn Moody and Ken Fredette.

The major party primary winners will face off in the Nov. 6 general election, along with independents Terry Haves, Alan Caron and John Jenkins. There are also minor party contenders. Governors in Maine serve four-year terms.

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