AUGUSTA — House Speaker Elizabeth Mitchell said Thursday she will not run for governor, dashing the hopes of Democrats who considered her one of their strongest candidates to challenge the popular incumbent, independent Angus King.
“It’s just not the appropriate time in my life to do that,” said Mitchell, a Vassalboro Democrat who is barred from seeking re-election to the House because of term limits.
“I know how much time and how much money it takes because I’ve run a statewide race before,” she said. “Believe me, I enjoy the debate, I enjoy the policy discussions, but quite frankly, it is very difficult to fund a reasonable campaign against an incumbent in a good economy.”
No Democrat has filed papers to challenge King this fall, but former Rep. James Bowers of Washington plans to run, Bowers’ brother, Steve Bowers, said Thursday.
James Bowers is treasurer of the Maine Democratic Party. The certified public accountant served one term in the House, 1993-1994.
Bowers was out of town on business and unavailable for comment, Steve Bowers said.
The only Republican so far to announce his candidacy is three-term Rep. Henry Joy of Crystal. Bill Clarke, a third-party candidate who waged a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996, is running as a candidate for the Maine Taxpayers Party.
Kevin Mattson, a former Democratic Party official, said his party was “really excited” about the prospect of Mitchell running, but he said he understood her decision. Bowers would be a good alternative, he said.
“If he will run, I would be very happy,” Mattson said. “He’s a very progressive guy. He’d be a contrast to King.”
Kevin Keogh, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he didn’t expect Mitchell’s announcement to change his party’s strategy much. Besides Joy, he said “there’s a couple people that are interested, but nothing I can tell you about now.”
Gubernatorial candidates representing political parties have until March 15 to collect 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
King, who spent more than $1 million of his own money to win the governorship in 1994, said Mitchell would have been a formidable opponent.
“I’m pleased with her decision because I like her and I did not relish a campaign that would underline the differences between us because I’ve enjoyed working with her as speaker,” the governor said.
“I have a great deal of respect for her. I’ve known her for 20 years, and she’s one of my favorite people in Maine,” King said.
Mitchell, who last year became the first woman to be chosen speaker of the House, predicted the governor’s race would take on a different complexion four years from now, when public financing of campaigns begins.
However, she refused to say whether she would run for the state’s highest office then.
“Four years is a very long time,” Mitchell said.
In the meantime, the consultant and former teacher said she will likely have to work in the private sector when she leaves office. A daughter starts college this year, so there are bills to pay, Mitchell said.
The speaker, who has battled King recently over how best to spend Maine’s $200 million-plus surplus, emphasized she was not ducking a fight. She pointed out she challenged then-U.S. Sen. William Cohen, a Republican, for his seat in 1984.
Mitchell scoffed at assertions King may be unbeatable.
“Everyone has seen elections where people say individuals cannot be beaten,” she said. “I don’t believe that’s ever true. To say that he would be difficult to beat is an obvious thing. I would never deny that. He’s a very popular governor and the economy is very good.”
Mitchell said King needs to face opposition in his quest for a second term because “there are issues to be debated.”
“So frankly, I hope that there will be and I believe there will be a strong Democratic candidate, or at least a Democratic candidate, and a Republican candidate, because I think no one needs to go unchallenged,” she said.