Congressmen who leave the Capitol to cash in for higher-paying jobs are a bit of a Washington cliché. So when Rep. Michael Michaud says he wants to leave office to become Maine's next governor—and take a $104,000 pay cut—he stands out.
Indeed, the Maine Democrat wants to leave behind his $174,000-a-year congressional salary in a seat he's won by healthy margins in the last four elections for a chance to serve as the country's lowest-paid chief executive, at $70,000 a year.
Why would anyone do that?
"Good question," said Michaud, 58. "A lot of people are asking me about that. Well, I never got into public service to make money. I got in public service to help the people of Maine."
That's essentially what his fellow Democrats say as well. The decision, they argue, fits with his blue-collar background and a legislative career that began at the state House of Representatives in 1980 and continued in the state Senate in 1994 before he ever got to Washington.
For nearly three decades, Michaud, who did not attend college, punched a clock as a mill worker at the Great Northern Paper Company in rural East Millinocket, Maine. He began in the "paper room," where pulp transformed into paper, then moved to the shipping department. When he was in the Legislature, he commuted from Augusta to work overnight shifts on the weekend. He's the kind of lawmaker who could credibly convene a "beer summit."
"I don't think there's a compelling financial reason to get into this race," said Mike Cuzzi, a Maine Democratic strategist whose wife is a former Michaud campaign manager. "Mike deserves a lot of credit in my mind for having the courage and the wherewithal to get into this race, leaving the safety of that congressional seat as well as the salary that comes with it."
Ultimately, Michaud acknowledges the financial risk in running, but waves the salary question aside. Unlike many other members of Congress, though, whose net worth is estimated in the millions, Michaud does not have that kind of wealth.
Michaud's net worth in 2010, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post, was $524,000, nearly $200,000 below the median and significantly below the $6.5 million average net worth of House members in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of course, the governor's mansion does have its perks.
For one, a governor has more power compared to a member of the minority party in Congress, even considering that Michaud is the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said James Melcher, an associate political science professor at the University of Maine.
It also offers executive experience that, together with Michaud's Washington years, could bring lucrative offers should he decide to leave public life.
There's also a financial safety net for retiring lawmakers. Members of Congress are vested in their federal pensions after five years of service. Elected in 2002, Michaud would qualify for a pension, joining 527 retired members of Congress who were receiving federal pensions as of October 2012. Average pension rates vary from about $71,500 to $40,600 a year, depending on a number of factors, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Then there's the potential that Michaud will be a political godsend for his party.
Maine Democrats have suffered a string of statewide defeats, including losing three-way races for governor in 2010 and for Senate in 2012. The pressure, then, was on to recruit a top-tier candidate, and Michaud provided that.
"Mike gives them that blue-collar image, and the name is certainly well known in the 2nd Congressional District," said Philip E. Harriman, a former Republican state senator who served with Michaud in the Legislature.
The race is shaping up to be a contest pitting Michaud, who announced last week, against vulnerable Republican incumbent Paul LePage and wealthy independent Eliot Cutler, who finished second to LePage in 2010, beating Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell by almost 100,000 votes.
"If Mike did not run, there was a pretty good chance that the Democrats would probably come in third again," Harriman said.
To Democrats, it's an open question whether Cutler's voters will back him again in 2014. Political watchers in both parties also agree that Cutler's candidacy cuts into Michaud's margin more than LePage's. Democrats point out that LePage's path to victory requires Cutler and Michaud to "devour each other," as Cuzzi put it.
Harriman allots a base of about 30 percent to LePage and Michaud, and 25 percent to Cutler. So, Harriman calculates, that leaves the three candidates fighting for about 15 percent of the vote.
"Michaud's opportunity is to convince people that a vote for Cutler is a wasted vote," he said.
Michaud is optimistic he can cut into Cutler's support, though he vows he will not run a negative campaign.
"Yes, Eliot came in second, but the Democratic candidate was plummeting in the polls about three weeks out in the election and there was nervousness," Michaud said. "It wasn't that they really believed in Eliot. About a third of Eliot's supporters are there because they don't like the governor."
This article appears in the Aug. 21, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.