Down East 2013 ©
Steve Rowe was the first Democrat to officially announce his candidacy for governor in June of last year. He had been planning a run for much longer than that.
“It was probably around two years ago when I decided I really wanted to do this,” explains Rowe. “I thought about it three or four years ago, but it was two years ago that I decided I really wanted to.”
This early start, which Rowe made no secret of (a March, 2008 Press Herald article was headlined “Rowe wears priorities – and Blaine House ambition – on his sleeve”), has given the former Attorney General a leg up on his fellow Democrats at least in the amount of time he's been able to spend openly recruiting supporters and building his campaign network.
One display of this support came in December when the campaign announced the endorsements of 63 Maine state senators and representatives, a majority of the Democrats serving in the legislature. This is a strong showing, especially considering that two of Rowe's opponents should also have claims on this support.
Yes, Rowe served as Speaker of the House, but that was back in 2000 and many of his legislative contemporaries have been term-limited. John Richardson, on the other hand, served as Speaker of the House much more recently, in 2005 and 2006, and Libby Mitchell has served in the legislature for decades and is now Senate President, a position that one would think would give her an advantage in securing legislative endorsements.
Rowe's early start has made him the top fundraiser on the Democratic side but this metric is less useful as so many of his opponents are running clean.
The Rowe campaign has also begun to visibly organize specific constituency groups, including “Generation Rowe,” and the terribly-named “Women Rowe-ing.”
While Rowe may be showing some strength in his grassroots (and grasstops) organizing, he enters this campaign without any experience running for an office higher than state representative. Opponents Pat Mcgowan and Libby Mitchell, on the other hand, have both run previous statewide or congressional campaigns.
Rowe says that, in some ways, he's still getting into the groove of running for governor.
“I need to get used to being interviewed,” said Rowe as we began our conversation. “I've been interviewed a few times, but not a whole lot.”
Throughout our talk, there was a definite difference in the candidate's confidence level based on the topic discussed. He spoke fluently and passionately about policy and political philosophy, but was often more hesitant when discussing his own campaign.
He was also clearly pulling his punches. Several times he began to criticize his opponents but then stopped, saying "no, I won't go there."
A similar dynamic played out in public after a debate hosted by the Associated General Contractors of Maine. On the question of whether they supported “mandatory background checks on the purchase of firearms,” every candidate in attendance quickly answered either yes or no (which was the format of this round of the debate). Rowe was the only one who hesitated.
“I'll have to say... It's not... I'll...,” Rowe began, and was interrupted by the moderator who insisted on a “Yes or no” answer and joked that it was “a tough day at the office for Mr. Rowe.”
“I've thought about this,” Rowe continued after some laughter from the audience. “I'm going to say no right now, no.”
After the debate, fellow Democrat Rosa Scarcelli jumped on the issue and sent a release painting Rowe and the other Democrats who said “no” as weak on gun control a well as weak on domestic violence.
This should have been a slow pitch over the plate for the Rowe campaign. Domestic violence is one of the candidate's signature issues and his work to combat the problem as a legislator and as Attorney General is an important part of his political biography. Last year, he won the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's Visionary Voice Award.
This was a great chance to highlight one of his strengths and to forcefully rebut an opponent's attack. Instead, however, the release  the campaign sent the next day and the quotes  Rowe gave to the media were more about the technicalities of his answer (he says he supports background checks almost everywhere but wants to allow for some specific, infrequent instances where they shouldn't be required) than about the issue of domestic violence.
The campaign's statement was headlined “Complex issues demand and deserve more than one word solutions.” It's an important point, but also a missed opportunity.
This is not to say that Rowe hasn't had some communications successes. He showed bravery and got some good press when he called for an increase  in the cigarette tax to help balance cuts to vital social programs, which he calls “penny wise and pound foolish” and will cost the state more in the long run.
Rowe doesn't shy away from tough issues and he seems to have a good sense of what areas of policy really matter. Once we got talking about health care and education, it was hard to get him to stop and he seems to have both a deep understanding of the facts and figures and a broad perspective on how different areas of policy will come together to affect the state's future.
Rowe supports health care reform and a public option at the federal level but says that Maine's governor will have a lot of work to do on health care reform regardless of what passes in Washington.
He wants to see reform of state and federal health systems to reward providers based on health outcomes and “substantial reform in the Medicaid payment system so there's more emphasis on community-based primary care and preventative care.”
He supports the idea of a universal, single-payer health care system and believes such a system is likely inevitable at the federal level.
On the issue of higher education, Rowe has similar opinions to his Democratic competitors on the need for increased investment in Maine students and possible structural changes to the public university system.
Where Rowe splits from the pack, however, is his understanding of and deep focus on when and how to invest in Maine's children to achieve the best “return on investment.”
“I've been a big advocate for early education and providing support for parents,” said Rowe. “It's about setting up mentoring programs, it's about quality early care and education and if we do that well then we can get every child starting in kindergarten ready and able to learn in all aspects and build on that learning with innovative schools, then we can take that 75% graduation rate way up. Young people graduating from high school will be ready and able not just to go to college but to stay in college and to be successful.”
“Early learning begets later learning and early success begets later success.”
On the issue of gay marriage, Rowe is a more succinct. Asked if he would sign a gay marriage bill sent to him by the legislature without an automatic referendum component, his one-word answer was “absolutely.”
Rowe is running a privately-financed campaign and says he decided not to run clean mostly because at the time he announced he wasn't sure if the money would be there. He was also worried about being competitive with potential privately-financed competitors.
He says that “using tax payer money in this tough economy” was a consideration he took into account but bristles at the idea that this characterization could be used as an argument against the system itself.
“I am a strong supporter of public financing. I am a supporter of the Maine clean elections law,” said Rowe.
Rowe anticipates that it will take about $400,000 to be competitive in June. As of the last reporting deadline, he had raised $250,000.
“I believe this race is probably not going to be won on last-minute TV ads, it's going to be won on the hard work people put into winning supporters over the next several months,” said Rowe. “That's what we're doing. Our campaign is a viral networking campaign, a grassroots campaign in all 16 counties.”
At the end of our conversation, Rowe gave a bit of his stump speech and explained how he wants to put maps in every classroom with Maine at the center of the world, so that Mainers young and old “realize they can be successful here.”
When I asked if he meant his metaphorically, Rowe said “Yes, metaphorical, I don't have any money on me to buy them right now.”
Rowe does, however, believe that actually making the maps wouldn't be a bad idea. “I'm suggesting that Delorme or one of these companies make a map where North America is right in the center of the map and Maine is right in the center,” said Rowe, putting on his amateur cartographer hat.
I'm going to call this the Rowe Projection .
Right now, we have only basic measures of how well the candidates are doing – things like fundraising totals and how many caucuses their representatives attended (102 for Rowe), but soon we'll have more polls and media coverage of the race and we'll see if Rowe's early start really has given him an advantage.
We'll also be able watch how his campaign persona evolves. Can a compassionate policy wonk win the Blaine house, or will he have to become a more hard-nosed public campaigner? Can he?