Michael Michaud; State senator boats union support in crowded congressional race

This story was published on May 13, 2002 on Page B1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Stanley O’Donnell does a double take when state Sen. Michael Michaud enters the room and quickly waves the candidate over to his table. “They ought to have somebody in there with common sense,” O’Donnell, 94, tells the visiting congressional hopeful during an extended handshake at Longmeadow senior housing in Skowhegan.

Michaud, 47, a millworker with 22 years in the Legislature, ascended to the presidency of the Maine Senate last year, raising his profile just in time for his bid for national office. He faces five opponents in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. John Baldacci, who is running for governor.

But the self-effacing lawmaker’s march through the political ranks impresses O’Donnell less than Michaud’s strong ties to the Katahdin region, where both men lived – next door to each other, in fact, in Medway – and worked in the Great Northern Paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

Michaud’s blue-collar candidacy has attracted a number of union endorsements, including that of the Maine AFL-CIO, a powerful federation of 21 unions in the state representing about 36,000 dues-paying members.

“The union endorsements mean a lot because that’s who I am,” said Michaud, who also boasts endorsements from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Council of Senior Citizens.

On this recent campaign day through Somerset and Kennebec counties, Michaud proudly wears a PACE – Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union – shirt. “Solidarity” bumper stickers hold a prominent place on his sedan as well as his staffer’s car. A standing request for campaign donations on his Web site reads, “Help fill Mike’s lunch bucket!”

Michaud has actually had the same lunchbox for 28 years, he said, since starting at the East Millinocket mill where his father and grandfather worked before him.

“When you hear politicians talking about how they know what you’re going through and how you’re struggling, quite frankly I don’t think a lot of them do know,” Michaud told a group of union workers later in the day in Augusta. “There’s no one down [in Washington] really – maybe a handful – that have had to punch the clock.

“I’ve worked the midnight shift at the paper mill,” continued Michaud, who was introduced to the union group as “brother Mike Michaud.”

“Clearly, there’s a big difference between that and just sympathizing with people,” he said.

Pundits say Michaud’s working-class roots and his Franco-American heritage could serve him well in the once-industrial city of Lewiston, which sent more than 5,700 Democrats to the polls in the last uncontested primary in 1994.But Michaud’s northern Maine conservatism – most notably demonstrated by his pro-life stance and early opposition to gay rights – might not play well as the campaign moves out of his traditionally Republican district, some analysts surmise.

As a senator, Michaud softened his stance on the gay rights legislation, voting to send the matter out to referendum. Later, he sponsored legislation to allow domestic partners of state employees to receive health benefits under the state plan.

And although he labels himself pro-life, Michaud said he would not support a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade.

While Michaud had been spending much of his time in Lewiston, last month he packed his bags and began “living across the district,” stopping in supporters’ homes from Lewiston to Machias to Houlton.

During his stops, he stresses his legislative experience, including a long stint as chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Colleagues say few can rival his understanding of the intricacies of the budget process, and few put in as many hours at the State House.

If elected, Michaud said, he hopes to bring some of Maine’s groundbreaking health care legislation to the federal level.

He counts among his State House accomplishments building up the state’s Rainy Day Fund, protecting workers’ rights and improving access to higher education by helping establish learning centers in rural parts of the state.

Near the end of Michaud’s Skowhegan campaign stop earlier in the day, O’Donnell indicated he had heard enough to offer his vote to his former neighbor.

But the friendly retiree had even higher hopes for Michaud.

“It’s too bad you’re not president,” O’Donnell said as the candidate wrapped up his morning remarks.

“Let’s win this one first,” Michaud said, smiling.

On the Net: www.michaudforcongress.com.