Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” But when you watch Janet Mills, you wonder if she got the message. These days, the Democratic candidate for governor does most of her campaigning in prose.

It’s not that she’s boring. Mills is feisty and funny and she knows state government inside and out.

But when she answers a question, like in last week’s debate at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, she comes at you with with so much policy detail it’s easy to lose the thread. At times she sounds like she thinks that if she could just talk a little faster and squeeze in a few more words, she would be able to get her message through our thick skulls.

It’s quite a contrast with her chief rival, Republican Shawn Moody. An outsider businessman with the perfect Maine accent, Moody makes a virtue of how much he doesn’t know about how state government works. He speaks in platitudes, leaving the details to be worked out later.

Moody can say that he’s for student loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement, which sounds great until you realize that’s going to cost a lot of money and he’s not into spending. Mills will tell you what really needs to be done is adequately fund the Opportunity Maine tax credit, which was weakened during LePage-era budget showdowns.

She’s probably right, and if you had to place a bet on which one of these promises was more achievable, your money would have to be on Mills. But if you are a recent graduate worried about your debt load, which one of those proposals is going to make you feel better, a complicated tax credit or a confident promise that the guy in charge of the state is going to take care of you? When you are worried about your future, you’d like a little poetry.

Cautious underpromising is a hallmark of moderate politicians, especially moderate Democrats, who are always fighting the perception that they are irresponsible spendthrifts. But it seems to be an especially difficult problem for women running for office.

Would a woman who had never so much as run for the school committee be able to jump to the front of the class as Moody has, no matter how much money she had made in business? Would a woman candidate get by saying, as Moody has, that we already have universal health care through charity care in emergency rooms and volunteer clinics? Or that the answer to our workforce shortage is to let teenagers work longer hours?

Mills knows her stuff, and she make sure you know she knows it, even if you have to take her word for it when you are blinded by a blizzard of details. She talks so fast that she strips out all the context in her answers. You could get the impression that she’s more interested in the programs than the people who depend on programs.

Maybe it has nothing to do with gender, and this contrast is just an outgrowth of two different personalities who have walked different roads in life. But anyone who has been following the news these last few weeks knows that men and women have to play by different rules when they enter the public arena.

Men are allowed to be emotional, especially if the emotion is anger. Check out the reaction Republicans had to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s teary rant before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of course he’s mad, they said. The Democrats are trying to ruin his life, anyone would respond that way.

But imagine if Christine Blasey Ford had sat down and screamed at the Republican senators who wanted to confirm Kavanaugh without ever taking her testimony. What if she alternated weeping and snarling, throwing any question she didn’t like back in the questioner’s face: “What about you, senator? You ever forget anything?”

She would have been written off as a kook. No one would be praising her “passion.”

Blasey Ford was in many estimations “the perfect witness” — invariably polite and restrained. The only emotion we saw was what she could not contain. She was politely thanked, and excused.

Even though she’s from small-town Maine, Mills is never going to be folksier than Moody, and she probably won’t win the “nice guy” award, either. But if she showed a flash of anger in their debates while explaining how his proposals would hurt people, would she be written off as “too emotional”?

The funny thing is, Mills stands out among Maine politicians as somebody who actually likes poetry.

She reads and she writes it. But when she’s at a debate, she’s not campaigning in it.

Greg Kesich is editorial page editor at the Portland Press Herald.

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