Even when the Democrats who want LePage’s job argue, they mostly agree

Good morning from Augusta where, lately, the Democratic candidates for governor are focusing on policy stances more than they are burning down each other’s campaigns. The primary race has grown scrappy at times as underdogs aimed attacks at the perceived front-runners, but that was not the case during an issues forum hosted Monday by WGAN.

Last week, the four Republican candidates agreed on most policy points during a WCSH debate that at times turned into a circular firing squad with Gorham businessman and front-runner Shawn Moody in the middle, deflecting attacks from his opponents. Though the Democrats largely aligned on their positions Monday, shades of differences emerged when they tried to provide details.

The Republicans are talking about reducing or completely eliminating Maine’s income tax, but the Democrats have different ideas about which taxes to raise. While none of the Democrats offered firm details on what would be an acceptable level of taxation, some — such as former legislators Mark Eves and Diane Russell, attorney Adam Cote and lobbyist Betsy Sweet — favor a more progressive income tax structure that takes a higher percentage from people who earn more money.

Eves, Russell and Sweet are clearly courting Democrats on the far left of the party’s ideological spectrum — the same voters who helped Bernie Sanders decisively win the 2016 presidential nominating caucuses in Maine.

Cote — who ran as a moderate in the 2008 1st Congressional District primary — is trying to thread the needle by courting these important voters in the primary without tilting so far left that it would harm his ability to portray himself as a less ideological political outsider in the general election. Citing his past experience on a school board, Cote focused his arguments on the local impact of policy debates that take place in Augusta.

“When Gov. [Paul] LePage talks about cutting so many taxes in Maine, all he really did was shift it,” said Cote.

State Sen. Mark Dion and Attorney General Janet Mills focused more on other taxes. “It’s not about the income taxes,” said Mills, who noted that Maine’s rate is already driving too many Mainers to Florida for half the year.

Dion was among the candidates calling for an expansion of the sales tax and state government funneling more money to municipalities through revenue sharing. He and Russell advocated for an increase in relief programs such as the homeowner circuit breaker program, which has been reduced under LePage — though not as much as he would have liked. Multiple efforts to expand Maine’s sales tax base — mostly led by Democrats — have failed during the past two decades.

Former Biddeford mayor Donna Dion carved out her own space on this issue, billing herself as “the money candidate” who is conservative on tax policy. “I’m always looking for the best way to lower taxes or the burden on individuals,” she said, without explaining how she would do so.

The Republican candidates are calling for major changes to Maine’s process of allowing citizen-initiated laws, but the Democrats are more mixed on the issue. Sweet blamed gridlock among the political parties in the Legislature and with LePage for breeding so many referendums in recent years, saying, “the system is broken when legislators don’t represent the people.”

Russell continued her ardent support for the current system while Mark Dion said even failed petition drives are important because they force policy conversations. He sparred briefly with Russell over the fact that legislators often have to fix flaws in referendum language before they can become law, saying he favors legislative hearings that improve the possibility of fixing details in the proposed bills before they go to the ballot.

Cote largely defended the current system and disagreed with the contention by some of the other candidates that Maine people regularly get it wrong at the ballot box or that out-of-state interests, such as supporters of failed casino referendums, wield too much power. “People in Maine know each other by two degrees of separation. If you’re stinking of out-of-state money, people can smell it out,” he said.

Eves and Russell basically agreed, with Eves arguing that the referendum process demonstrates that “the people are on the side of funding schools” and taxing upper earners at a higher rate. But Eves, who served as House speaker for four years, and Russell, who spent eight years as a legislator, did not address the often cited concern that citizens launch referendums because they believe lawmakers failed to enact laws or policies that represent the will of the people.

A question about whether Maine should expand its Medicaid program led to some criticism of Mills. She touted a previous proposal to route $35 million in extra tobacco settlement money coming to Maine to cover initial expansion costs, but took some criticism for it on Monday. Sweet argued that the money should be deposited in the Fund for a Healthy Maine along with the majority of the other tobacco settlement money so it can be used to fund public health programs, which she said has been “decimated” under LePage.

Eves, who has been the most vocal opponent of Mills in the primary campaign, agreed. “You played right into the governor’s hands,” Eves said. “That $35 million needs to be used to build out a better public health system.”

Throughout the hour-long forum, Mills tried to strike a balance on her front-runner status — joking with her opponents about some of their past efforts to chip into her perceived lead while trying to reinforce the notion that she would be the party’s best general election candidate by touting the fact that she has won legislative elections in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democrats have slipped badly during the past decade.

The candidates were asked who they would list second on their ranked-choice ballots, but most wouldn’t answer. Russell said she’d choose one of the other women on the ballot and Mills said she’s “waiting to be convinced.” Eves, still trying to whittle support from Mills, said his second choice would be Sweet.

LePage urges Maine to ‘look north’

The governor is looking for ways to collaborate with Canada. In a news release on Monday, LePage said he has instructed executive branch departments and agencies to “look anew at mutual economic and cultural opportunities for Maine and Canada” and report their ideas back to him by the end of June.

Cross-border international business has always been a thorny subject in Maine, where complaints among the wood products and fishing industries are often focused on the fact that Canadian companies receive government subsidies and therefore have an unfair advantage.

LePage has worked closely with Canadian national and provincial officials, with one senator calling him “a conduit” to President Donald Trump last year. The governor also has spent most of his tenure in office searching for ways to funnel Canadian hydropower to Maine.

LePage said the major blocker and the reason Maine looks to other U.S. states for partnerships is “nationalism and custom.” The governor said he intends to implement some of the “Look North” ideas this fall.

U.S. Senate candidate touts arrest outside Blaine House

A Democratic candidate was one of more than a dozen people reportedly arrested during a “Poor People’s Campaign” protest Monday in Augusta, but the number of arrests is unclear. In a Facebook post, Zak Ringelstein, the only Democrat on the primary ballot to challenge independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in November, said he was among a group of people arrested Monday afternoon after refusing to leave the Blaine House driveway when asked to disperse by police.

Ringelstein — who posted a photo of himself holding a sign reading “A poverty wage is violence” — wrote that he opted to be arrested because LePage “has prevented so many Mainers from living happy, healthy lives.”

A police spokesman said 18 people were charged with misdemeanors. The protesters said 22 people were charged, many of them religious leaders. An organizer said that many of the demonstrators were also involved in a 2017 sit-in at U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Bangor office that also led to arrests.

Reading list

  • Maine’s high court will take up a controversial abortion case. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments Wednesday in an appeal filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine asking that justices overturn Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton’s decision to continue a ban on using MaineCare to pay for abortions. This legal battle started in 2015, when the ACLU sued the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of three clinics that perform abortions in Maine. Federal law allows the state to pay for abortions for low-income women but lawmakers or DHHS would have to create a separate fund, according to briefs filed in the appeal. Legislative efforts in Maine to create such a fund failed in 1979 and 2007.
  • A kayaker found the body of a 5-year-old who fell into the Androscoggin River three weeks ago. Shortly after noon Monday, Christopher Lane spotted the body of Valerio McFarland, who fell into the swollen river while playing with his 9-year-old brother 20 days ago. His body was swept five miles downriver and was recovered in Durham on Monday. “I hate to bring such bad news to the family, but at the same time, I think that’s what they really wanted and needed — was that closure,” Lane said.
  • There’s been another fatal police shooting in Maine. Early Monday morning, James McDonald of the Maine State Police tactical team fatally shot William N. Derick during a standoff at Derick’s home on Harm’s Way in the Androscoggin County town of Wales. Police had been called to the property Sunday night to respond to a domestic violence complaint. It’s the second officer-involved shooting in Maine this month.

Hair’s more details on ranked-choice voting

If you have lingering questions about how ranked-choice voting will work (we have a new one every week, it seems) Secretary of State Matt Dunlap released an animated explainer video along with the rules for the first-in-the-nation system. He’ll also continue a voter education roadshow tonight in Bangor.

We did notice one issue with the video — the animated Dunlap has more hair than the real Dunlap. Here’s a soundtrack for the ride tonight, Mr. Secretary. — Michael Shepherd

Correction: Dunlap will appear tonight in Bangor, not Biddeford, which was Monday. It was a reporter’s error.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at ccousins@bangordailynews.com, mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.