House District 37 Democratic primary pits former Portland councilor against community organizer

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The choice for Democrats in the House District 37 primary on July 14 is between a former Portland mayor and city councilor, and a community organizer seeking his first elected office.

The candidates hope in November to win the seat now held by longtime Democratic state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, who is stepping down because of term limits. House District 37 includes Deering Center, Nasons Corner, Rosemont, and Stroudwater.

James Cloutier is a lawyer and Cumberland County commissioner who has served on the Portland City Council and Maine Turnpike Authority. He attended Cheverus High School in Portland, and the University of Southern Maine at Portland & Gorham, and then University of Maine School of Law.

Cloutier, 66, worked as a law clerk for a year and then opened a Portland law office, Cloutier, Conley & Duffett, where he has worked for more than 40 years. He has lived in the district for more than 30 years, and served on the council for almost 10 years, including a one-year term as mayor. He has been a county commissioner for about 12 years, and was appointed to the Maine Turnpike Authority, where he served as vice chair. He is married and has two adult daughters.

Grayson Lookner, 36, is a community organizer who grew up in Maine, and has lived in Portland for the last six years, including five years in the district. He received a Bachelor of Arts in environmental sociology from Prescott College in Arizona, and has worked as an organizer with the Maine Democratic Party, and Maine citizens for Clean Elections, and on Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns. He is currently working for Mainers for Ranked Choice Voting.

Why are you running? What do you hope to accomplish in the Legislature?

Cloutier said if he were elected, he would like to work on good economic policy and good environmental policy, such as offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Maine.

“It is such a tremendous and basically completely untapped resource that could provide electricity that would overwhelm the energy needs, not just of Maine, but probably (of) a great deal of the northeastern United States, depending on how fully it’s exploited,” he said.

He said he is prepared for the financial challenges the government faces from the coronavirus pandemic because he’s had experience writing budgets on the municipal and county level through three recessions.

During one of those recessions, Cloutier said, he served on Portland’s economic development committee and supervised negotiations to bring the reconstruction of two oil rigs to the city, which produced nearly 2,000 jobs.

If elected, he said, he would also push for legislation to correct unfairness in the disability program for public employees and in workers’ compensation, and to improve the absentee ballot process, for safe and fair elections in a pandemic.

James Cloutier

During a candidate forum hosted by the Portland Democratic City Committee May 21, Cloutier said property taxation and housing affordability are other major concerns.

Lookner said he is running because he feels there are not enough young people in the Legislature to represent their concerns on issues including affordable housing, renters’ rights and climate change.

“Housing is one thing I don’t hear enough legislators in Augusta talking about,” Lookner said. “Maine is the ninth least affordable state, and we routinely have 30 or 40 people dying on the streets every year for lack of housing. That is unacceptable.”

He said regulations pertaining to renters and rentals get shot down at the state and municipal levels. For example, he said he helped Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland, on a failed bill that would have increased the notice landlords have to give for no-cause evictions.

He said he would also like to see more regulations on short-term rentals. At the candidate forum, Lookner said he wants to see the state expand revenue sharing to pre-LePage levels to alleviate tax increases and keep rents down.

How would you rate the Mills administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic?

Cloutier said he thinks the administration has done a good job, and he even consulted on a question from the administration about evictions and foreclosure law, which is an area of expertise for him.

While he is aware that government, family, and business budgets will suffer from closures, he said, “the first priority really does continue to need to be people’s health and well being.”

“I don’t think that opening anything in the face of a dangerous infectious disease is going to help very many businesses for very long,” Cloutier said. “I think the Mills administration has figured that out, and they’re acting accordingly. … I think what they’ve done has been intelligent and is saving lives.”

During the candidates’ forum, he suggested the state should take on infrastructure projects to help the economy.

Grayson Lookner

Lookner said Mills did a good job early in her administration’s pandemic response, but believes she caved too quickly to pressure to reopen. He would like to see the 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state arrivals enforced.

To balance budgets impacted by the pandemic, Lookner suggested during the forum to look at other revenue sources, such as increasing taxes on people in the highest brackets to pre-Lepage levels, and imposing a 3 percent tax on incomes over $200,000 to pay for education.

What is your general view of the administration’s work so far?

Cloutier said the administration is doing well considering the mess left by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage,  particularly in services for the handicapped and unemployment. “I think Mills has done a good job of turning that around a little,” he said.

Lookner said he thinks Mills has done pretty well and is trying to walk a tight line to not alienate the conservative segments of the state. But he said she has not been great on issues that are important to him, such as housing and the rights of government employees.  He said he was disappointed that she vetoed a bill (LD 1177) that would have required binding arbitration in public-sector labor disputes.

“I think the public employees – teachers, workers in that sector – deserve just as much bargaining power as any other union workers,” he said.

How would you describe the atmosphere in Augusta? Could it be improved and if so how?

Cloutier said he thinks the tone of the current administration and the tone taken with the public have improved from the previous administration.

“There’s no more taunts and racial undertones to things and I hope that continues,” he said.

Lookner said he is happy that the Democrats have the “trifecta” of control of the Blaine House and both houses of the Legislature, but wishes they would push a more progressive agenda instead of settling for incremental change.

“We’re just in an extraordinary moment right now, and the stage was set for this, even before coronavirus and before the Black Lives Matter marches,” he said. “Democrats need to lead. We need to set an agenda. We need to have a progressive vision and move in that direction.”

Helping working people across the state, Lookner said, could heal economic and racial divisions and level the playing field. Working-class whites, black and brown people can all benefit from treating health care and housing as human rights, he added.

Do you support or oppose the so-called Clean Energy Connect, and why?

Cloutier said the corridor already has the permits it needs to proceed, but it is not clear whether it has an agreement with Hydro-Quebec, and if Hydro-Quebec will even have the extra electricity to supply through the corridor.

“If the Hydro Quebec permits are not fulfilled,” he said, “then I think that reopens the whole question.”

He said he thinks whatever is done should be the best economic and financial deal for the people of Maine, and the Hydro-Quebec deal doesn’t meet that test. But he recognizes that it has potential for great environmental benefit, so he is conflicted on the issue. He also said he is more interested in pursuing offshore wind energy.

Lookner said he opposes the corridor because he doesn’t see a benefit to Maine people. Billed as bringing 1,500 temporary jobs to the state, he said it may only bring 30 permanent jobs, and will leave a lasting scar across the landscape. He supports creating a publicly owned utility to replace Central Maine Power, accountable to ratepayers rather than to shareholders.

Should ranked-choice voting in Maine be continued as is, be abolished, or be extended to additional elections?

Cloutier said he would like to see ranked-choice voting extended. Although he did not like it at first, he said he has come to think it is a good idea. Other democracies that do not have runoff systems have had trouble with plurality elections where people ascend to important positions who are unable to command the majority, he said.

Lookner said the people of Maine have voted on ranked-choice voting twice and that Republicans behind a third initiative to prevent it from being used in the presidential election are engaged in a “terrible use of the people’s veto.”

He said he backs using it for all elections and would like to see it extended through a constitutional amendment.

“When Paul LePage won with 38 percent of the vote in 2010,” Lookner said, “he did not represent the majority of Mainers.”

How would you address institutional racism or change policing if you were elected? Would you support reductions in police budgets?

Cloutier said Portland has an excellent, responsive Police Department.

When he practiced criminal law, he said, he and his partners were aware that some police officers had a problem “keeping their hands to themselves,” and the city was often called upon to pay damages for police assaults.

He said he was involved during a period of reform about 15 years ago, when Portland went through a U.S. Justice Department task force review.

“(The Justice Department) actually encouraged us to increase what we had already started, which included community policing and de-escalation training, things like that,” Cloutier said, “so we did that.”

He said they also found that to counteract racism, it wasn’t enough to just hire black, brown or Asian males.

“One of the things I noticed is, you can do that and not much changes,” Cloutier said. “But if you start hiring women, all of a sudden, the good-old-boy network starts to evaporate. And that is, I think, exactly what happened with the Portland Police Department.”

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office also includes men and women of different races and ethnicities, he said, and includes training in community relations and de-escalation. It is also one of the few nationally accredited sheriff’s departments in New England.

He said he believes removing resource officers from schools in Portland would be unwise.

“There’s no question you’re substituting a police officer for a teacher sometimes in terms of what you can do with the budget, but both of those can be important people to have in the school community,” Cloutier said. “You know, the bullying problem in schools doesn’t ever solve itself. So having that kind of authority figure and assistance figure in the schools, to me, has always made a lot of sense.”

Lookner said he is “absolutely, 100 percent”  in support of reducing police budgets.

He said a big portion of that money could be redirected to things like housing, substance abuse treatment, education, jobs, and preventative programs rather than punitive policing, and criminalizing poverty.

“Is this really making us safer?” he asked of the 30 percent of Portland’s municipal budget going to the police. “I think if people are honest, the answer is going to be no.”

Law enforcement does the opposite of protecting and serving, he said, when it terrorizes predominantly minority communities.

He also said the state needs to do more work with its native community, and give the tribal communities more sovereignty. In addition, he said, some kind of compensation should be given to the descendants of the residents of the biracial community at Malaga Island, who were forcibly removed in 1911.

Black Lives Matter marches are creating real change, Lookner said, even more so than going through the legislative process.

“They are beautiful, powerful and heartbreaking,”  he said. “Don’t let it off, we’ve got to keep up the fight on all levels. That’s how we’re going to change this country so it works for everyone and not just a handful of billionaires.”