Jacqueline Morris of Bangor looks for a spot to plant a sign for 2nd District congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair outside the Colisee at the Democratic convention on Friday in Lewiston. The state’s Democrats are eager to move past the era of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

LEWISTON — Maine Democrats eager to move past the era of Republican Gov. Paul LePage say that trashing him is not the way to win an election.

So when the Maine Democratic State Convention began Friday night at The Colisee, gubernatorial candidates like Diane Russell arrived with a plan of sticking to issues, such as affordable college education and universal access to health care. She said focusing on the term-limited LePage is “a recipe for disaster” for Democrats.

“That’s not who matters,” she said. “The voters matter.”

Democrats will try to sort through a crowded field to replace LePage, who has feuded with liberals in the state since his election in 2010. They also are putting a premium on winning back the state Senate and 2nd Congressional District seat held by Republican Bruce Poliquin, with the three candidates to replace him wasting no time in going on the offensive.

State Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said this year’s convention is about “offering a forward-looking message.” He expects candidates and party members to focus on issues that include income inequality, job growth and the state’s opioid epidemic.

Gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, a former director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, called the election “a pivotal moment in our history, not just as a party but as a state.” She said Democrats need to focus on environmental protection, a living wage and affordable health care.

“We have a moment to do things really differently. Put LePage in the rearview mirror and see what we can do going forward,” she said.

There are seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates on the June 12 primary ballot, and voters will use a ranked-choice voting system for the first time in the state’s history.

Congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair addresses the Maine Democratic convention in Lewiston on Friday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Other Democratic gubernatorial candidates are Attorney General Janet Mills, attorney Adam Cote, state Sen. Mark Dion, former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion and former state Speaker of the House of Representatives Mark Eves. The convention runs through Sunday.

Republicans held their convention earlier this month in Augusta. Republican voters will choose between House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, state Sen. Garrett Mason, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and businessman Shawn Moody.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is up for re-election against Republican Mark Holbrook and independent state Rep. Marty Grohman, said her party’s convention will be “busy and big.” It’s critical for Democrats to take advantage of an electorate that could be in a mood for change, she said.

She cited successes Democrats have had in special elections since the election of President Trump, such as Doug Jones’ victory in a U.S. Senate in Alabama last year.

“People are anxious to end the LePage era in Augusta, without a doubt,” Pingree said. “We see this as an important turning point.”

Jared Golden, one of three Democratic congressional candidates, riles up the crowd at the Maine Democratic convention on Friday evening. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The first day of the convention focused partly on the congressional races, with Pingree and others speaking to a crowd of more than 2,000.

The three 2nd Congressional District candidates also spoke, and wasted no time in ripping into Poliquin’s record and character, riling the crowd and drawing cheers.

Jared Golden portrayed Poliquin as a political coward who hides in bathrooms to avoid hard questions. Craig Olson declared that the time has come for the Republican congressman to be replaced with a Democrat before he can do more damage. Lucas St. Clair described Poliquin as a man who lacks compassion and who is friend only to wealthy corporations and big donors.

“Health insurance for kids is at risk. Our environment is in jeopardy,” said St. Clair, of Hampden. “Bruce Poliquin voted for a massive tax giveaway to wealthy corporations and big donors. They blew a huge hole in the budget – and now, whether they’ll admit it or not – they’re taking aim at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to pay for it.”

Golden, a former U.S. Marine, echoed those themes.

“In the 2nd Congressional District, Congressman Bruce Poliquin has consistently voted on the side of special interests to prop up the few at the expense of the many,” said Golden, of Lewiston. “He voted to repeal of the Affordable Care Act without any plan to replace it. Then he let the wealthy, big corporations, and foreign investors rewrite our tax code to pad their own pockets with permanent tax cuts, while you and I, and nearly everyone we know will be asked to pick up the tab. What’s worse is he refuses to answer questions about his votes.”

Craig Olson, seen on a large projection screen, addresses the Maine Democratic convention in Lewiston on Friday at The Colisee. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Olson, a former dairy farmer, sounded the note of party unity.

“If I don’t win this race, I will proudly support whichever candidate takes on Bruce Poliquin and work my hardest to make sure that Democrats reclaim this seat,” said Olson, of Islesboro. “Here’s to an enormous blue wave in November.”

Saturday is mostly dedicated to candidates for governor.

Cote said the convention and the governor’s race would be about “being able to excite and energize the Democratic Party in Maine.” That means talking about working-class issues, not bashing the governor, he said.

“It’s not enough to simply say, ‘We’ll stand up to Paul LePage or Donald Trump.’ We have to tell people what we’re doing,” Cote said. “We have to demonstrate that we know how to govern.”

Sun Journal Staff Writer Mark LaFlamme contributed to this report.

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