An incumbent Portland state representative faces a primary election challenger for the first time July 14 in a traditionally Democratic district.
The Democratic primary in House District 43, which includes North Deering and part of Falmouth, pits incumbent state Rep. Ed Crockett, 58, against challenger Bob Mentzinger, 52.
Crockett, who is the president of Captain Eli’s Soda, is a lifelong Portland resident and has worked his entire career in the food and beverage industry. He has a degree from the University of Maine at Orono, and has lived in North Deering for the last 30 years. His wife is a lifelong resident of North Deering, and the two have three children who have gone through Portland Public Schools.
Crockett was unopposed in the 2018 primary and general elections.
Mentzinger, a public relations executive who works with progressive campaigns and recently worked for Trueline in Portland, is originally from New Jersey. He said he has lived in about 10 different states, before settling in Maine in 2003 when he became a reporter at the Kennebec Journal in Augusta.
He later served on the Regional School Unit 38 board in Readfield, and has been a Portland resident since 2018.
Why are you running, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Crockett said he is running because, in addition to enjoying the experience of his first term, he believes he has positioned himself to make a bigger impact moving forward.
He said he originally ran because he was “frustrated and embarrassed” by what was going on in politics, and was encouraged to run by peers. He said while elected office is usually a “thankless” job, “it is such critical work we do in Augusta.” He said he hopes to keep working on issues that are “core to House District 43,” including education and health care, as well as keeping property taxes in line.
“Those are things we’ve made nice, incremental gains in, but we can continue to do better,” he said.
Mentzinger said he is running in part because Crockett has missed dozens of votes and has voted with Republicans “on a number of major issues.”
“I got active on wanting to provide representation to the district that was more in line with what we expect,” he said.
Mentzinger said there are several things he wants to accomplish, but recognizes many ideas may have to wait because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He hopes to change Maine’s nickname from “Vacationland” to “Educationland,” in the hope it will attract more out-of-staters to come to Maine for college, and stay after graduation to start businesses and families.
He also said he wants a forward-thinking plan for when marijuana becomes legal federally, by legalizing marijuana exports for Maine growers. That way, he said, Maine is poised to immediately be ready for sales on the first day.
Mentzinger also said he wants to level the estate tax threshold, which former Gov. Paul LePage raised from $1 million to roughly $11 million for families.
“I want to get that estate tax moved down to a level where we’re taking care of real needs and not people who have a yacht and want to buy another yacht,” he said.
How would you rate the Mills administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic?
As someone who works in the food and beverage industry, Crockett said he has been adversely affected by the way Gov. Janet Mills and her administration have handled the pandemic. He said he has been furloughed since March, and a quarter of his business is in restaurants and the hospitality industry.
“Personally and in the bigger picture, that has been a struggle,” he said.
But he also said he thinks Mills is doing an “outstanding job” given the circumstances, and most people would not envy her position. He said the Mills administration “nailed it” during their first 60 days of response, with the goal to flatten the curve and keep Mainers safe.
“I think 100 percent of the people in the state on day one thought that was the top priority,” he said. “As this has progressed and we go into the summer, which is a critical economic period in the state, the balance comes into play.”
Crockett said there are some things he would have done differently from Mills. For example, when Mills announced her four-phase plan to reopen the economy on April 28, she required a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming in from out of state for the entire process, through September.
“Ideally I would have thought it would go through phase two, through June,” he said. “It basically took all the hope away from businesses of having a summer.”
He said the Mills administration has done a good job adjusting to changing circumstances, loosening some restrictions while tightening others.
“We are all trying to figure this out together. Nobody knows the perfect answers,” he said. “I think keeping hope alive is good for everybody.”
Mentzinger said the Mills administration’s handling of the pandemic has been “excellent.” He praised Mills’ “data-driven and geographically optimized response,” saying “what works for Cumberland County won’t work for Aroostook County.” He also said restrictions in place now won’t seem restrictive in the weeks to come.
“She’s been great, erring on the side of public health,” Mentzinger said. “We are the oldest state in the nation, we are a state that really relies on outsiders coming from hotspots like Boston and New York City, and I think she’s tried to rein in the worst possible outcomes.”
He said it’s an “unprecedented thing” to have to willingly shut down your economy, but said Mills has a good team around her. He said it is sad that she inherited some problems from the LePage administration, such as an unemployment system where it’s “deliberately hard” to sign up for benefits.
What is your general view of the administration’s work so far?
In general, Crockett said, the Mills administration has been outstanding. He said he wasn’t in the Legislature during the LePage years, but has heard anecdotally there is a “night-and-day” difference. He said a lot of the work that needs to be done in Augusta “has to do with listening, communicating, and taking all that partisan crap and putting it aside and trying to move forward.”
“That certainly was the feeling I got during the past session, and Gov. Mills exhibits that and encourages that behavior,” Crockett said. “It’s been a breath of fresh air and something this state sorely needed.”
Mentzinger said he probably agrees with Mills 95 percent of the time. He acknowledged many things are on hold because of the pandemic, but said he is in favor of the work she and her administration are doing to increase Maine’s tourist economy, and diversify the economy overall. He said Maine’s economy “is on the rocks now,” and will need “strong federal intervention.”
“I think the Mills administration is laboring under a Republican legacy,” he said. “And the best thing I can do is get elected and help her carry forth her agenda.”
How would you describe the atmosphere in Augusta?
Crockett said he couldn’t say if there has been an improvement in Augusta, since he didn’t serve while LePage was in office. But he described himself as “very collaborative” by nature.
“I have no problem talking across the aisle and looking to collaborate with anybody, regardless of party,” he said. “Can I say I’m in the majority on that? I probably can’t go that far. There’s still a lot of partisanship in Augusta, but it’s improving.”
Mentzinger said the Maine Legislature is “more functional than most, and definitely more functional than Congress.” He said there are more bipartisan bills in Maine, which is progressive. He listed ranked-choice voting, same-sex marriage and a ban on foam containers as areas where Maine has led the way.
“There are some reasonable Republicans still left in the world, and I think some of them are here,” he said.
He added that the Legislature’s committees are staffed to create more bipartisan legislation. “Augusta is as good a citizen legislature as you’re going to find,” he said.
Do you support the so-called Clean Energy Connect?
Crockett said he has not made up his mind on the corridor, which is a Central Maine Power project that would bring hydropower from Canada through Maine and into Massachusetts. Crockett said the issue hasn’t fully come before the Legislature, other than votes on things like surveys.
“I’m going to be very interested in what the citizens decide in November, and respect what the constituents want,” he said.
Mentzinger said he is opposed to the corridor because it’s the latest in a series of bad CMP decisions for Mainers.
“They have very few jobs here,” he said. “They take too long to get blind spots back up after minor storms. They shut people off in the winter, they have overcharges, and they took a lot of money in 2008 to put in smart meters, which cost hundreds of meter readers their jobs. I’m not ready to bend over backward for a company that has that record.”
Mentzinger said if CMP comes with a better plan with a better deal for Maine, then he could change his mind and support it.
“There’s a lot of trust to build here and a lot of explaining to do as to how life might be better and different for Mainers,” he said. “There are no jobs guaranteed to Mainers or union workers. I won’t stand for it unless they come with much more benefits for the people of Maine.”
Should ranked-choice voting in Maine be continued as is, be abolished, or be extended to additional elections?
Crockett said he is “fully in support” of ranked-choice voting, and believes it should be extended to “all levels of government.”
Mentzinger said he also supports RCV. He said he voted to expand it on Super Tuesday to all city elections, and when it came to Maine for the first time. He said he rejects the effort by Maine Republicans to overturn it.
“Because they don’t understand math over there doesn’t mean ranked-choice voting is a fraud,” he said. “It’s not. … I’m a big fan of ranked-choice voting, that was one of the things Maine pioneered, and it’s been working fine.”
How would you address institutional racism or change policing if you were elected? Would you support reductions in police budgets?
Crockett said he supports the Black Lives Matter protests, saying “we need to make these issues a top priority in Augusta.” He said people need to listen and act appropriately now.
As for reduction in police budgets, Crockett said he would have to “better understand the specific proposals before considering that.”
“I’ve lived in this city for over 50 years and am very proud of our Police Department,” he said. “There is definitely room for improvement and hopefully that means more opportunities for people of color. Maybe the budget should grow to address those shortfalls.”
Mentzinger, meanwhile, said the city has “shown itself dangerously tone-deaf regarding the protection and safety of people of color in the city,” and pointed to the City Council’s rushed press conference to show support for City Manager Jon Jennings. During recent BLM protests, protestors asked for Jennings to resign.
“Such a defensive lack of accountability amounts to maintenance of the current power structure and contributes to a crisis of confidence in police that has fueled the national uprising against state violence toward people of color,” Mentzinger said.
He said there are several steps the state and city can take, including cutting police funding to address more pressing social needs, such as mental health and housing insecurity. He also said there is room for other police reforms, such as banning police from receiving military-grade weapons from the federal government, and prohibiting the use of facial recognition technology.