Independent qualifies for Maine governor's race

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May 31—A doctor from the Down East island community of Beals has qualified to run for governor in November, likely setting up another three-way race for the state's highest office.

Sam Hunkler's independent bid for governor is a longshot given that he's facing two of Maine's best known political figures. But his candidacy could still affect a tight race between incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Had Hunkler, 65, not entered the race, it would have been the first head-to-head match-up for Maine governor in about four decades.

The Secretary of State's office verified Hunkler's petitions on Friday. He gathered 4,329 signatures — well above the 4,000 signatures needed, according to a spokesperson. Hunkler's petitions could still be challenged until June 8. There also is still time for other candidates to jump in, although the deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Maine has elected two independent governors — James Longley, who served one term starting in 1975, and Angus King, who served two terms starting in 1995 and is now a U.S. senator. Independent candidates, such as businessman and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, typically need to be wealthy or well-known to be competitive.

"I'm neither," Hunkler said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "I'm just disheartened by the way things are. The whole political scene has become so divisive and just so polarizing. I just wanted to do something different. I'm not even sure what that's going to look like yet. I want to make this as grassroots as possible."

While millions of dollars are expected to be spent on the race, Hunkler said he has a budget of only $5,000 "to see if it can be done a different way." He's hoping to pave a path to elected office for young people who oppose a two-party system.

Hunkler said he's not running on any specific policy positions. Instead, he's positioning himself as a negotiator and seeker of common-ground solutions to issues facing the state.

"The things about my opinions and beliefs is they change," he said.

Hunkler said he doesn't believe the government should be telling people what they can do with their bodies — whether it's abortion or related to COVID-19. He was also hesitant to say with certainty that President Biden won the 2020 election, though he said he believes it to be true.

Hunkler's website says he has had a 38-year medical career in three countries and several states, including eight Maine communities. He most recently worked as an emergency room doctor in Blue Hill, Ellsworth and Machias. He retired from the medical system in 2021, but maintains a limited private practice in Beals.

Hunkler is from Barnesville, Ohio, a town of 4,500 people on the western edge of Appalachia. He's the eighth of nine children and the son of a homemaker and a central office repairman for Ohio Bell Telephone Co.

A National Health Scholar in medical school, Hunkler served a three-year "payback commitment" in the Indian Health Service on the Annette Island Reserve of the Tsimshian people in Metlakatla, Alaska, in the early 1990's.

In 1992, Hunkler nearly made national news when a film crew from NBC "Today" went to Alaska to interview him as a real-life equivalent of Dr. Joel Fleischman, the main character in popular CBS series, "Northern Exposure," who was also working in Alaska to pay off student loans, according to the AP.

The segment never aired, Hunkler said, because it got bumped by billionaire Ross Perot announcing an independent bid to become president.

Hunkler first hitchhiked to Maine in 1974 as an incoming high school junior to visit his brother, who was stationed at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, according to his website. He moved to Greene after graduating medical school and has lived in Beals, a small island community off the coast of Jonesport, for the last 35 years. He is married with four adult children.

Hunkler leads a nonprofit, Samburu Trust USA, Inc., which provides assistance to the Samburu people of North Kenya. In the 2019, the organization received nearly $166,000 in contributions, but distributed grants totaling more than 182,ooo. He said the group funds things like educational, health care, agricultural and wildlife initiatives to benefit the tribe.

Hunkler said he's not worried about being a spoiler in the 2022 governor's race, since he's never been registered to a political party and didn't support either LePage or Mills in the past.

"I'm there to provide another voice, another choice," he said. "I'm there to offer people the choice to vote for someone rather than against someone."