Sep. 22—An influential group representing Maine hunters and gun owners that had given former Gov. Paul LePage top grades when he was in office has now instead given the A to his opponent, Gov. Janet Mills.
The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine Institute for Legislative Action ended up giving LePage an incomplete grade in its latest election guide after he declined to answer questions about his position on land conservation, the group says.
The alliance is a powerful lobbying group at the State House that rates candidates for the U.S Congress, Blaine House and state Legislature based on their responses to a questionnaire. It has formally endorsed candidates in the past, but said it does not plan to do so this year.
The results of its 2022 candidate review are a reversal of the group's positions in past races.
LePage received an A from the alliance during his reelection bid in 2014. The group issued grades but did not formally endorse a candidate that year.
And the group endorsed Republican Shawn Moody for governor over Mills in 2018.
The new election guide noted how Mills and her office proactively reached out to the group after her election, even though the group endorsed her opponent.
"It would have been easy for Governor Mills to say, 'Forget the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine-ILA; they endorsed my opponent, Shawn Moody,'" the guide states. "And she would have been justified; elections have consequences. But that is not what happened."
The group also noted that Mills did not support any "extreme, controversial gun control bills." Instead, she supported Maine's "yellow flag" law, which allows police to confiscate guns from someone who is deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. The alliance supported that bill, which requires a medical assessment, and was instrumental in getting a similar bill drafted and passed at the national level under President Biden.
Mills also indicated she would oppose a range of gun restrictions, including requiring a license to purchase ammunition, raising the age to purchase ammo from 18 to 21, requiring background checks for third-party gun sales and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The alliance said LePage originally submitted an incomplete questionnaire but later agreed to an in-person interview to provide additional information. However, his positions on the Land for Maine's Future open space conservation program and buying deer yards, which are important winter habitats, in addition to questions about Maine's reliance on federal funding for purchasing deeryards and building new fish hatcheries, remained unclear.
The group said LePage's campaign initially said it would clarify its survey responses about those issues, but instead the former governor withdrew from the process altogether.
"Within a few days Mr. LePage himself called and asked to have his questionnaire withdrawn, and his answers remain confidential," the guide states. "Unfortunately, we had no choice but to honor his request."
The LePage campaign did not respond to a request for an interview about the decision.
The group highlighted LePage's help in defeating a citizen referendum in 2014 that would have banned bear baiting and his support for a bill that made concealed weapons permit information confidential.
OPPOSITION TO LAND CONSERVATION
LePage, however, has opposed the Land for Maine's Future program, which uses voter-approved bonds and other private and public funding to conserve land for its natural and recreational value, including for hunting and fishing. LePage has opposed the program largely because it takes the land off the tax rolls.
In 2015, he held up $2 million in voter-approved LMF bonds, in addition to more than $11 million in LMF bonds from previous years. At the time, he acknowledged he was seeking leverage to increase timber harvesting on state lands. He released the bonds later that year.
By contrast, the Mills administration has infused the program with $40 million in funding — the first time it had received funding since 2009.
The Mills campaign touted additional funding and programs that received bipartisan support in the Legislature, including $20 million for fish hatcheries and $50 million for state parks, among other things, adding that it was done without raising taxes or increasing license fees.
"The Maine outdoors is central to our economy and to who we are as a people — and whether it's fishing, hiking, or skeet shooting, it's also my favorite place in the world to be," Mills said in a written statement about her top rating. "I have fought hard to make sure that we are preserving and protecting our lands, creating more opportunities for hunting, fishing, and ATVing, and — most importantly — making sure that future generations will be able to enjoy our state in the same way we do today. That's what I am going to do for the next four years as well."
The alliance also gave an incomplete grade to independent Sam Hunkler, a physician from Beals who will be the third candidate on the November ballot for governor.
In the tight race for Maine's 2nd District, the alliance gave Democratic Rep. Jared Golden an A+ and Republican challenger Bruce Poliquin an A.