Why you should care

Because she is a trailblazer — for women and for independents. 

When Terry Hayes meanders to the podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the candidate for governor of Maine is surrounded by a curious assortment of men: a sitting governor from Alaska, a tech tycoon from Maryland, a businessman from Missouri and a best-selling author and Senate hopeful from Kansas. The odd assemblage is to be expected from politicos willing to color outside the lines of the two-party system. “Maine has a strong history of independent leadership,” the career civics teacher begins, as if to lecture one of her adult education classes, not a bustling room full of reporters champing at the bit to question why independents will win elections this time after so many false starts.

Yet Hayes has already proven she can stand tall without a party banner. She became Maine’s first independent state treasurer in 2014 — albeit in an election decided by the legislature, not the popular vote. Still, Maine, a bit like Hayes, tends to buck convention. It’s elected two independent governors before and has a history of centrist senators in Washington. She is running on a bipartisan platform focused on increasing broadband infrastructure to bring tech jobs to rural Maine, welcoming skilled immigrants and asylum seekers to replenish an aging workforce and negotiating better deals to defray health-care costs.

There’s an expectation that, if you’re in the club, you will follow the club with one mind.

Terry Hayes

The middle is fertile ground in a November election where a plurality is enough to win. “Her chances are excellent,” says Les Fossel, a former Republican state representative. The Republican candidate could be weighed down by retiring Gov. Paul LePage — the fifth least-liked governor in America, according to a Morning Consult poll — while Democrats are likely to back Attorney General Janet Mills, an establishment figure “like Hillary Clinton,” Fossel says. Hayes could be not just Maine’s first female governor, but an indy trendsetter. “There’s some component of moral support — that these independent candidates don’t feel like they are alone in pushing a boulder up a hill,” says Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America (formerly the Centrist Project), which organized the Washington event where Hayes spoke.

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Hayes piloting a Cessna plane in 2014.

“It breaks that glass ceiling, if you will,” says Hayes over Skype during a two-week Florida vacation as her gubernatorial opponents wade through heated primaries up in Maine — a nice fringe benefit of the independent life. Her cheeks are rosy, her shoulders burnt in her casual pink tank top. Nearby is her husband, Steve, whom she met at a Portland restaurant and bar on a Friday night and was engaged to by that Sunday. They have been married for 34 years. There is an uncommon nonchalance to the 60-year-old, as the grandmother of four talks of getting a pilot’s license during “a midlife crisis.” She can fly single-engine Cessnas, although nowadays she doesn’t get into the cockpit as much as she would like. “Nothing clears your head quicker than getting in the air,” she sighs.

Her independence while managing state finances has been “freeing,” Hayes says. A four-term Democrat from eastern Oxford County, she rose to assistant minority leader before being passed over for House speaker in 2012. She says her eventual decision to leave the party wasn’t based on losing that race against her colleagues, but on another scuffle in which Maine’s Democrats caved to a teacher’s union demand that they turn back a donation from a pro-charter school group. “When we should have said no, we didn’t,” Hayes says, decrying the influence of special interests. As treasurer, the new independent staked out a peacemaking role in the battles between the acerbic LePage and the Democrat-controlled statehouse in Augusta, including brokering bipartisan deals for $600 million in transportation investments, a special tax break for disabled citizens and a plan to manage land, forests and waterways in Maine’s large expanse of unorganized territories.

Hayes has tapped into Maine’s public campaign financing system, which gives her up to a $2 million matching boost but limits what she can raise. Without the logistical support of a party, independent candidates often struggle to mobilize voters and donors, even as some groups are trying to change that. Unite America says it is talking with the Hayes campaign about providing voter registration data and has mobilized a dozen volunteers from its Maine chapter to help. Once the general election arrives, Hayes will have to weather attacks from both sides of the aisle, and she already has been criticized by Republican candidate Mary Mayhew for campaigning while still working as treasurer, a full-time job “the taxpayers are paying for,” as Mayhew said at an April campaign stop.

The argument for an independent revival rests on the fact that both major parties are horrifically unpopular. But it’s also hard for a centrist anti-party persona to take off in an age when battle lines are well defined between Make America Great Again and the Resistance. Fossel admits there’s little space for bipartisanship. From 2008 to 2012, the moderate caucus was the largest in the legislature, he says: “Today, there is no moderate caucus.”

Still, the Portland native is used to adversity. The second oldest of six kids lost both parents by the time she was in sixth grade. Hayes grew up quickly and “headstrong,” she says. After living with relatives, she attended Bowdoin College on Social Security survivor benefits. Her heroes today are moderate Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Margaret Chase Smith, who was one of the earliest to call out McCarthyism despite sharing parties with the crusading anti-communist. “It wasn’t Democrat, Republican; it was just the right thing to do,” Hayes says. She could soon take that mentality straight to the governor’s mansion. “I don’t want to annihilate the parties,” she says. “I just want to adjust the playing field.”

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