LEWISTON — Maine’s four gubernatorial candidates appeared together at a forum Monday night, offering varied approaches for attracting and keeping young people in a state where there’s an ever-increasing labor shortage and businesses struggle to find qualified help.

Democrat Janet Mills, Republican Shawn Moody and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron are vying to replace Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a brash-talking firebrand who is finishing his second term and can’t seek re-election under the state’s constitution.

The candidates agreed that solving the state’s labor crunch is key to fueling growth of Maine’s economy. How to do that in a state that has the nation’s oldest population by median age was another matter.

“We need to speak to our children differently,” said Hayes, a Buckfield resident who is the state treasurer. “The narrative has changed.”

For years, Hayes said, Mainers have told their children that although they can get a good education in Maine, they can’t make a good living, grow a business or build a career here. But now, with skilled workers in demand, the message should be that you can make a good living here if you want to, Hayes said.

“We have thousands of jobs going vacant throughout our economy,” she told the audience at the forum hosted by the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Efforts to replace Maine’s aging workforce have left all sectors of the state’s economy – from farms to the tourism industry and from health care to construction employers – struggling to find help in a booming economy with record low unemployment.

Moody said that as governor, he would revive the focus on career and technical education in public schools. He also said bringing back Mainers who have moved away from the state would be a high priority for his administration.

“We’ve turned our back on blue-collar Maine,” Moody said, pledging that he would make Maine the best state for getting a technical education. “We need to change the stigma around working with your hands.”

Moody noted that about 500,000 native Mainers live outside the state, and 175,000 of them live in other New England states. “We need to bring them back,” he said. “They know how cold the winters are here.”

Mills said the cities of Lewiston and Auburn and the efforts made in that community to reinvent its economy, welcome immigrants and focus on career and technical education should be replicated in communities across the state.

“It’s such a vast improvement over what was here 20 or 30 years ago,” Mills said. “Unbelievable progress.”

She said the diversity of Lewiston-Auburn’s economy is the result of a large concerted effort over time. She praised the regional career technical center at Lewiston High School and said programs like it around Maine deserve the state’s full support.

Mills also said Maine must improve its infrastructure to attract and keep more young people. “Not just roads and bridges,” she said, but also expanded broadband internet access and mobile phone connectivity. She joked that her grandson threatened to leave Maine over one dropped call to his girlfriend.

“If I’ve got to stand out there with an antenna, I’m going to fix this problem,” Mills said of how frustrating it is to not be able to drive from Lewiston to Portland without losing cellphone coverage at some point.

Caron said young people will stay in Maine or come back to Maine if there are opportunities here for them, and that requires building a new economy for the state’s future. He said efforts to bring back parts of Maine’s former economy built on forests, farmland and the sea have failed in the past.

“We must be building a new economy that creates opportunity for people,” Caron said.

He said too much time and money have been spent trying to save failing industries or bring them back, instead of paving a new path forward.

All four candidates spoke about programs for student debt relief, either creating new ones or expanding existing ones, or by creating greater income tax credits for employers who help workers pay off student debt.

The candidates took six questions in all, with the first two focused on retaining young people and growing a skilled workforce.

They also were asked about immigration policy and expanded on where they stand in terms of “new Mainers.” All four agreed they support legal immigration to the state as means of partially solving workforce shortages, but each also offered a nuanced response.

Hayes spoke of attending a U.S. Customs and Immigration Services citizenship ceremony and vowed that, as governor, she would attend every such ceremony in Maine to make sure immigrants who become citizens know they are welcome here.

Caron spoke of the state’s past as a draw for immigrants from Quebec, Ireland, Italy and other places, and said new Mainers today will help build new prosperity here. “We shouldn’t care really what they look like, or what their first language is or even who they worship,” Caron said. “We should care that they want to help us build a brighter future.”

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Mills noted that many new Mainers are well-educated and highly trained, but said the state needs to find ways to help them learn English or get certifications and licenses.

The candidates also were asked their position on Maine’s emerging recreational marijuana industry and what the state’s role should be in the future with a voter-approved law that made marijuana legal for adult use.

Caron said he never heard a good answer to the question as to why government spent so much time, energy and money trying to enforce marijuana prohibition. “So I think we are doing exactly what we should do except we are about 30 years too late,” Caron said, acknowledging that moving forward with a regulatory framework for legal marijuana is a complicated issue.

Mills said voters approved a bad law at the ballot box and that was complicated when the Legislature tried to fix it, with that fix being tied up in politics. “I’m not opposed to adult-use recreational marijuana, not opposed to it at all,” Mills said. “You’ve got to do three things with marijuana, cannabis: test it, track it and tax it.” She said that without doing that quickly, the black market will continue to prevail.

Hayes said one of the biggest issues for the recreational industry is how to bank the flow of money from a product that is still considered contraband at the federal level. She said even allowing the state to collect taxes becomes problematic. Hayes said she doesn’t oppose legalization, but noted that it does complicate many things for employers and government.

Moody said that without a good way to test for impairment, he believes that legalizing marijuana for recreational use was premature. “There’s not a clinically proven way to test it and I just don’t think that’s responsible,” Moody said, explaining that testing for marijuana impairment is not settled science. “Whatever you do on your own time at home, whatever, that’s your business, but when you get behind the wheel and you drive down the road, now that’s our business. So I feel strongly we jumped the gun.”

All four candidates said they would do more to support workers in Maine’s mental health system, in response to a question from the audience.

Mills and Moody, who have appeared to be in a dead heat in the two most recent independent Maine polls, appeared cordial and friendly. Mills even offered a compliment to Moody for the way he runs his employee-owned business.

In an AARP Maine poll of just over 800 voters older than 50 released last week, 39 percent favored Mills and 38 percent chose Moody, with 15 percent undecided. Hayes and Caron were well behind at 4 percent and 2 percent, respectively. An August poll by Suffolk University of 500 Maine voters produced similar results, with 38.8 percent saying they would vote for Mills if the election were held the day they were surveyed while 39 percent said they would vote for Moody.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

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