First Congressional District candidates debate

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The candidates:                                                                                                                                                                             Ethan Strimling,                 Chellie Pingree,         Michael Brennan,     Mark Lawrence,   Adam Cote,      and Steven Meister

By Darren Fishell, photo A. Cornell du Houx

Tom Allen’s Senate race was the keynote topic at the Maine College Democrats Annual Convention on Nov. 3, but the House seat Allen will vacate has attracted much attention from First District Democrats with a candidate pool as wide as it is deep.

Prior to Allen’s keynote address at the convention, all six Democratic candidates debated issues ranging from thoughts on the war in Iraq to alleviating pressures of student loans. The debate, moderated by Maine College Democrats co-president and Bates College senior Julie Otton, gave candidates a chance to speak passionately about a broad range of issues.

Questions were addressed to candidates in rotating order, beginning with state senator and executive director of the social service agency Portland West, Ethan Strimling.

Opportunity America —

The first question addressed higher education, asking how a student debt relief program similar to Opportunity Maine could be implemented on a national scale. Strimling used the question as a springboard to discuss a more general philosophy of his campaign: to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and strengthen the middle class through education. Strimling invoked a favorite catch phrase: "The more you learn, the more you earn."

The importance of programs such as Opportunity Maine also touched Strimling personally, he explained. During his run for state Senate, a student campaign staffer had to drop out of the University of Southern Maine for monetary reasons.

Chellie Pingree, current Maine House Majority Leader, chair of the Economic Growth Council, and former CEO of the reform group Common Cause, pointed out that before the federal government can tackle the mounting student debt crisis, it must first determine the size of its role in the education system. "The problem is that we have a government who has thought that government does not have a role in educating our youth," Pingree said.

The expansion of the Community College System in Maine is an encouraging sign of progress for Pingree, but she said there are fundamental changes that must take place at the national level to truly put education on the agenda.

Former state Senate Majority Leader and Portland Representative in the state House Michael Brennan began his response with a more general forecast for the Democratic Party in 2008. "2008 [will be] a critical time for the Democratic Party," he said. "We need to become the party of leadership."

Opportunity Maine, Brennan said, is a good first step, but the root cause of student debt is the cost of tuition itself. Brennan supported this claim with hard figures. "In the past 20 years, the cost of tuition has gone up 385 percent," he said. "That is double the rate with which healthcare costs rose."

The solution, Brennan proposed, is a system like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship that guarantees a free education at a state university to any student graduating high school with a B average or better.

York County District Attorney and former state Representative and state Senator Mark Lawrence also identified rising tuition costs as the primary obstacle to students studying past high school. Lawrence drew from past personal experience, being put through college on the money his father earned working in a shipyard, and the current experience of nearly one-fourth of the audience, currently attending Bowdoin College. "When I entered Bowdoin, four years cost about 25 percent of total annual income," he said. "Today, a Bowdoin education adds up to nearly 100 percent of yearly income."

Lawrence agreed that higher education should be available to everyone, but he noted that this cannot be immediately enacted. The first step, he said, is to give a tax discount to anyone who wants to go into teaching or public service of some kind.

Adam Cote, an Army veteran of Iraq and Bosnia, founding member and current president of the Maine Young Democrats, and lawyer, noted that the student debt crisis was particularly relevant for Mainers. "We have one of the highest high school graduation rates and one of the lowest college enrollment rates," Cote said.

The dark horse of this congressional race (the only candidate currently without a website), Steven Meister, is a veteran of Operation Dessert Storm and a pediatrician at Maine General Medical Center. His account of Opportunity Maine’s potential impact was taken from personal experience. "I had loans, I had grants, and I worked as laborer in the wintertime and through the summers to pay off student debts," Meister said.

Policy in Iraq —

Moderator Julie Otton did not find it overly difficult to keep candidates under the time limit during their comments on Opportunity Maine, but the question of how representatives could shift policy focused on the Iraq War solicited extended responses.

"It’s probably the largest foreign policy disaster of the century," Pingree said.

Pingree said that her opposition to the war was a primary motivation for running against Susan Collins in 2002 and that she is proud of her early opposition to the war.

Brennan also established himself as being "opposed from the start." He said that the first step is to immediately stop our engagement in Iraq and begin negotiations with bordering nations like Syria, Iran, and Saudia Arabia in order to gain regional help during the rebuilding process.

He paused for a moment and elaborated on a connection Pingree had touched upon in her response to the previous question. "The impact of the Iraq war in the U.S. is that we’ve spent over $1.2 billion just from Maine taxpayers," Brennan said. "Why has the cost of education gotten so high? Because we’ve invested in Iraq at a rate of $10 million per hour."

Lawrence agreed that the withdrawal from Iraq must be immediate and noted that he would have denied funding for the war if he were in Congress at the time. He explained that terrorism must be approached as international organized crime. "There needs to be cooperation between law enforcement agencies across the world. You don’t fight terrorism with a ground war in Iraq," Lawrence said.

Cote, the only candidate who has served in Iraq, related a situation of weak legislative representation for veterans of the war at the national level. "Now, 535 members of Congress are debating what to do in Iraq and only one of those members has served there," he said. "I would be the second to be elected."

The war hits Cote on a personal level, and he expressed his frustration with national policy approaches which are politicized but which do not propose any tangible solutions. "I think on the republican side right now they are wrapping themselves in the flag and saying that if you love your country you’ll stick it out," Cote said.

"What I’m concerned with is what we leave behind," Cote said. "I don’t want to see a Darfur; I don’t want to see a Cambodian genocide."

Meister turned his focus to domestic policies that outline the treatment of veterans returning from the war. "The way we’re managing troops at home is hurting us. For example," he said, "there is a marked increase in child abuse in families with members returning from abroad."

Strimling emphasized the urgency of removing troops from the region and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. "Troops need to come home and they need to come home now," Strimling said. "But we need to realize what the underlying motive is — the desire for a dependence on foreign oil. Until we fix that, we’re going to be stuck in these conflicts."

Strimling elaborated upon measures that can be taken domestically, like increasing mileage standards and banning incandescent bulbs, which he proposed at the state level.

S-CHIP and Health Care —

Otton reminded candidates to be conscious of the time limits on responses and delivered the next question: "Healthcare legislation requires negotiation and compromise. What would you stand strong on?"

Candidates stressed the need for universal health care and the elimination of waste within the current system above all.

"We need to have universal health care," Brennan said. "In Maine, we created the first universal healthcare system called Dirigo Health — the very first principle is that it has to be universal."

He pointed to the existence of universal health care in "every industrialized country in the world" as a note of shame for health care in the United States.

Lawrence agreed that the priority should be creating a system that provides universal coverage. "In my 12 years in the state Legislature, I saw too much incrementalism in policy changes. I think we can look at other countries and design a truly American system, whether it’s single payer or multi-payer — I’m open to all alternatives."

Cote agreed with Lawrence and added that the "tremendous amount of waste with pharmaceutical companies" must be eliminated and that there should be limitations on the reach of advertising for medicines. A focus on preventative care, he said, could also reduce long-term costs.

Meister expressed his expertise in health management and policy with a Master’s degree in those areas. "By denying S-CHIP," Meister said, "President Bush has denied 5,000 children in Maine health care."

Strimling offered an exact approach. "The answer," he said, "is single-payer health care. What is the value added by insurance companies?"

Pingree focused on the need for substantive legislation from Democrats in 2008. "If you watch the presidential debates, they are all trying to one-up each other on who has the better plan," she said. "If we don’t do something about health care this time, we don’t deserve to govern."


Manufacturing and the Economy —

Maine is about to be displaced by Puerto Rico as the second-to-worst state in the nation for money given toward research and development. By this fact, Otton’s characterization of Maine’s economy as "floundering" is accurate. Candidates elaborated on their thoughts about how the state economy can be reinforced.

"We need to have fair trade agreements," Lawrence said, "to stay competitive nationally."

Cote said Maine needs to focus on niche industries like boat building, aeronautics, and potential sites for developing renewable energy research. "Renewable energy is a Silicon Valley-type opportunity," he said. "We can become a major exporter not only of energy but of energy technology.

Meister referred to the Brookings Report and said that Maine should center development around biotechnology, high technology, and business. From personal experience, acquiring the first two federal grants for Maine General, Meister said that grant money from the federal government would allow Maine to develop and research in these cutting-edge fields.

Strimling said it is important to keep Maine’s fledgling economy in context and attributed many of the problems to misplaced priorities in Washington. "There have been six tax cuts for the wealthy as poverty in Maine has grown by 60 percent," Strimling said.

Pingree referred to her experience as a small-business owner and an understanding of what it takes to foster business growth in the state. Low-interest loans, she said, are a boon to small and rural businesses and improving infrastructure and research into alternative energies is a significant way to bolster the economy.

Brennan said that troubles with the economy stem from an education system that does not allow people "ongoing access." "People are going to have to be lifelong learners," Brennan said. "That is the way we will survive as a country. If you graduate from high school, it reduces your chance of being in poverty by 50 percent."

The Big Question —

Otton closed the debate with a question that candidates will be answering until one is officially nominated: Why should voters select you?

Cote responded that there is a general trend in the U.S. of electing career politicians into office. "I will bring something different to the to table and will ask the right questions," he said. "There is an undercurrent of unrest with the same people running things."

Meister said he is happy at the changes he has been able to make as a doctor, but is frustrated by the limitations of the federal government on Maine’s progress.

Strimling reiterated key points of his previous responses and said he will work to close the gap between the rich and the poor, end dependence on foreign oil, and develop fresh ideas.

Pingree cited her previous record as a legislator, drafting bills on environmental issues, taking on pharmaceutical companies, and as a proponent of reform as the president of Common Cause, working for paper trails [for voting] and campaign finance reform at the national level.

Brennan vowed to be bold and to "stand up," as he and 50 fellow college students did in 1972 to protest the Vietnam War.

Lawrence acknowledged that all the candidates are highly qualified, but said that he is the only candidate who blends legislative experience with real-world experience. "We have seen our civil liberties eroded over the last four years," he said. "Our president has eroded our constitution, and we need someone in Congress who is going to fight for our values."

At the debate’s end, Maine College Democrats and all others in attendance had an opportunity to meet the candidates.