- Associated Press - Friday, May 18, 2018

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) - Maine Democrats are eager to move past the era of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, but they know trashing him is not the way to win an election.

So when the Maine Democratic State Convention began Friday, candidates for governor like Diane Russell arrived with a plan of sticking to issues, such as affordable college education and universal access to health care. She said focusing on the term-limited LePage is “a recipe for disaster” for Democrats.

“That’s not who matters,” she said. “The voters matter.”

Democrats will try to sort through a crowded field to replace LePage, who has feuded with liberals in the state since his election in 2010. They also are putting a premium on winning back the state Senate and 2nd Congressional District seat held by Republican Bruce Poliquin.

State Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said this year’s convention is about “offering a forward-looking message.” He said he expects candidates and party members to focus on issues that include income inequality, job growth and the state’s opioid epidemic.

Gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, the former director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, called the election “a pivotal moment in our history, not just as a party but a state.” She said Democrats need to focus on environmental protection, a living wage and affordable health care.

“We have a moment to do things really differently. Put LePage in the rearview mirror and see what we can do going forward,” she said.

There are seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates on the June 12 primary ballot, and voters will use a “ranked-choice” system for the first time in the state’s history.

Other Democratic gubernatorial candidates include Attorney General Janet Mills, attorney Adam Cote, state Sen. Mark Dion, former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion and former state Speaker of the House of Representatives Mark Eves. Democrats are holding their convention, which runs through Sunday, at The Colisee in Lewiston.

Republicans held their convention earlier this month in Augusta. Republican voters will choose between House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, state Sen. Garrett Mason, former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and businessman Shawn Moody.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is up for re-election against Republican Mark Holbrook and independent state Rep. Marty Grohman, said her party’s convention would be “busy and big.” It’s critical for Democrats to take advantage of an electorate that could be in a mood for change, she said.

She cited successes Democrats have had in special elections since the election of Republican President Donald Trump, such as Doug Jones’ victory in an Alabama race for U.S. Senate last year.

“People are anxious to end the LePage era in Augusta without a doubt,” Pingree said. “We see this as an important turning point.”

The first day of the convention focused partly on the congressional races, with Pingree and others speaking to a crowd of more than 2,000. Saturday is mostly dedicated to candidates for governor.

Cote said the convention and the governor’s race would be about “being able to excite and energize the Democratic Party in Maine.” That means talking about working-class issues, not bashing the governor, he said.

“It’s not enough to simply say, ‘We’ll stand up to Paul LePage or Donald Trump.’ We have to tell people what we’re doing,” Cote said. “We have to demonstrate that we know how to govern.”

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