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Maine gubernatorial candidates face off in first debate

Incumbent Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage, and independent candidate Sam Hunkler took the stage for their first debate of the year.

LEWISTON, Maine — Incumbent Gov. Janet Mills took on Republican challenger and former Gov. Paul LePage and independent Sam Hunkler Tuesday night in the first gubernatorial debate of the year.

The debate was held at the Franco Center in Lewiston and was hosted by Maine Public, the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Topics covered in Tuesday's debate included: inflation, Maine's workforce and childcare, reproductive care, and the opioid crisis in Maine, among others. 

To kick off the debate, the topic of inflation took center stage. 

Gov. Mills touted her rainy day fund and the $850 pandemic relief checks given to most Mainers.

Republican challenger LePage said he would have suspended taxes including the gas tax and given money to the gas and oil companies to combat inflation's upward trend.

On the topic of childcare and Maine's workforce, independent Sam Hunkler said he thinks daycares should be in elementary schools to support working Mainers. 

RELATED: Maine gubernatorial candidates to speak in first debate

Moving to reproductive rights, Mills said she supports the current Maine law and would veto any bill that comes to her desk to change it. She said she supports the continuation of MaineCare funding for abortions. 

LePage said he would also keep the current Maine law which allows abortion up to viability.

"I support the current law as it is," LePage said.  

When pressed on if he would veto any additional restrictions, LePage got upset with the line of questioning from moderators and Mills.

"You're talking about hypotheticals," LePage said. "If we're saying we're going to take the restriction away, making it illegal for the viability, no I would not sign it."

Eventually LePage said he would veto a bill suggesting a 15-week abortion ban, despite what many republican governors in the country are calling for. He also said he does not support late-term abortions or taxpayer-funded abortions. 

Candidates also addressed the opioid crisis in Maine. 

Mills noted the prevalence of fentanyl in Maine and stressed a recovery-focused strategy, particularly with increases to Narcan distribution. 

LePage said Mills is "giving out crack pipes," but a journalist on stage noted "crack pipes" are not included in clean needle kits given out by the federal government. 

The debate also covered the topic of education in Maine.  

Hunkler said he believes Maine's education system is "failing our children."

Alternatively, Mills has previously been under fire for so-called "woke" education plans.

She said the messaging from republicans and the LePage campaign is a "distraction." Mills encouraged parents to get involved in school committees if they are unhappy with their child's curriculum.

RELATED: VERIFY | Fact-checking claims candidates made during the CD2 Voice of the Voter Forum

LePage took this time to address his Parents Bill of Rights plan, which addresses curriculum, public and parental participation, and school choice.

"We should teach our children how to think independently and critically, not what to think," LePage said.

All three candidates said they agree on continuing to provide free lunch to all Maine children in public schools.

The last set of questions addressed each candidate's leadership style, followed by closing statements.

Former Gov. Paul LePage closing remarks: 

Wrapping up with incumbent Gov. Janet Mills closing statement:

Both the Mills and LePage campaigns had watch parties in Lewiston for supporters. 

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