Term limits prevent state Rep. Erik Jorgenson, D-Portland, from seeking reelection this year. Three people are on the ballot for the seat in the July 14 Democratic Party primary in House District 41.
The candidates are former Portland School Board member Laurie Davis, 68; former party Chair Benjamin Grant, 42, and newcomer Dr. Samuel Zager, 45.
Davis, originally from Augusta, is retired, having worked in education, including managing the TRIO program at the University of Southern Maine. In addition to serving on the School Board, she served on the city’s Charter Commission for a year in 2009. She has lived in Portland for 40 years, and has a Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University and a master’s degree in education leadership from USM.
Grant is originally from New Hampshire, and moved to Portland in 2001. He is a lawyer at McTeague, Higbee & Case, a law firm based in Topsham. He attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then the University of Maine School of Law. He served as Maine Democratic Party chair from 2011-2014, and was a senior adviser to Gov. Janet Mills during her campaign.
Zager, who was born in the Philippines, previously served in the U.S. Navy, including deployment in Afghanistan. He attended community college in the Pacific Northwest, before earning a bachelor’s degree at the U.S. Naval Academy. He received a master’s in economic and social history from Oxford University in Great Britain and has a medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He moved to Portland in 2011, now practices medicine at Martin’s Point, and volunteers as a doctor in the Portland Public Schools.
House District 41 includes the Deering Center, Highlands, Libbytown, Oakdale, Rosemont and other neighborhoods. There are no Republicans on the ballot, so barring a write-in candidate, the winner of this primary will be the winner of the seat in November.
Why are you running? What do you hope to accomplish in the Legislature?
Davis said she is running partly because she wanted to see a woman on the ballot. She said when she first served on the Charter Commission, there were very few women running for elected offices.
“That’s not the only reason I’m running, but I believe the representation is important and a woman’s voice is important,” Davis said.
Davis also said she participated in a program that urged Democratic women to run for office. Its other participants have included Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and Sara Gideon, the current House Speaker who is a candidate for U.S. Senate.
“I want to go to Augusta and join them and represent Portland,” Davis said.
Davis said she has experience getting laws passed, having worked on several initiatives, such as changing Maine’s smoking laws and lodging taxes.
Grant said he is running because he sees an opportunity to “make some real progress” in the state. During his time leading the party, during Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s first term, he said “Maine backtracked quite a bit.”
“We have an opportunity to move forward under Gov. Mills,” he said. “I think we’ll have the opportunity for fundamental changes, and I’m ready to put my experience to work.”
Grant said his top priority is to strengthen public education, and increase state funding to the 55 percent mandate, which has never been met. In general, he said, the public education system needs more support, including empowering teachers and closing the achievement gap.
Another area of interest for Grant is the workplace. He is a labor lawyer by trade, and he said coming out of the coronavirus pandemic there are ways the state can improve workplaces, by encouraging more workers to form unions and provide better workers’ compensation.
A third area of interest is around health care. Grant is a proponent of a single-payer system and said the state needs to “sever the tie” between employment and health insurance.
Zager said he has always had a desire to help others, which led him to the Navy, and then from being a “warrior to a healer.” And although that took returning to school to become a doctor, Zager said he’s “never shied away from difficult forms of service.” Zager also said he’s been involved in advocating public policies since becoming a doctor.
“As I take care of patients, I think of racial-ethnic biases, economic opportunities and other social determinants in disease,” he said.
He has testified before the Legislature, writen opinion pieces for newspapers and tried to speak up wherever he could, he said. Topics have included protecting libraries from being closed in poorer neighborhoods, defending the Affordable Care Act, and establishing health-care task forces in Maine
“People said I keep bringing an authentic voice, and they said I could do a lot in the Legislature,” he said.
Zager said the most pressing thing he’d like to work towards accomplishing is a smooth recovery from the pandemic. Longer-term projects he’d like to work on include more access to health care, environmental protections, and renewable energy.
“We have a 10-year window or so where it’s do or die for the environment, and Maine is well-positioned to take the lead in renewable energy,” Zager said.
He also listed the intersection of health care and education as an area of interest, as well as promoting gun safety.
How would you rate the Mills’ administration’s handling of the pandemic?
Davis said she has felt very confident in Mills’ leadership during the pandemic. She said she is pleased with Maine’s reliance on “science and data” and praised the governor’s willingness to change her approach based on what the data says.
She said while there have been problems with people struggling with unemployment, she attributed that to former Gov. Paul LePage creating “low staffing levels” at the Department of Labor.
“The state has been responding as well as it can,” Davis said.
While some people are hoping for a return to normal life once the pandemic is over, Davis said she doesn’t see that happening. She said this is an opportunity to “reimagine Maine” on several levels, including its economy, the tourism and hospitality industries, and others.
“It may not be a wise place for Maine to put all its economic eggs in one basket,” she said. “Being part of the Legislature, which will deal with these issues and look at it as an opportunity to do things differently to strengthen the state, is a really engaging idea for me.”
Grant praised the Mills administration’s handling of the pandemic “given the hand they were dealt.” He said the pandemic is a problem that requires leadership from the federal government, which is not happening.
“Given that lack of support, I think Gov. Mills is doing a good job in an environment where we don’t know all the answers, we don’t know what will stop the spread, we don’t know when this will peter out or when we can snuff it out,” he said. “I think she’s done a good job of managing the health side first and the economic side second. In order to solve the economy, we need to solve the health side first.”
Zager also praised the administration’s handling of the pandemic, saying it was “important to recognize there are no options that everyone would be happy with, and no options that are easy.” He said every choice a government makes would cause pain somewhere, but it must try to minimize that pain and try to find a net benefit.
“That’s not unlike what we do in medicine,” he said, explaining that a patient may have experienced something awful, and to get to a better place is difficult.
He said the administration has worked to bend the curve in the right direction after Maine started off at the “back of the pack,” and Mills’ early actions led to positive results.
“We have plenty of ventilator spots available,” he said. “There was a real concern we would run out in Maine and nationwide. I think she has done a great job.”
He also praised the administration’s work in making decisions that are evidence-based and being refined and updated according to current conditions.
What is your general view of the administration’s work so far?
Davis said she has been pleased with the administration so far, particularly in the area of health and human services. She said she has a foster daughter, and has worked as a guardian with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Maine, and she believes the Mills administration had done good work for youth in foster care. She said she’s also pleased with the number of women in leadership roles in the administration.
Grant said he gives the administration “high marks” in general. He said he didn’t accept a position in her administration in part because he knew he wanted to run for this open seat.
“I think they’ve done really well,” he said. “It’s a great set of commissioners who are experts in their fields. I think it’s a tough time to come in with all the pent-up demand after eight years of LePage. But she’s done a lot of good things.”
Zager said the administration has been “terrific” overall. He said it has increased Mainers’ access to health care by expanding Medicaid, which resulted in “tens of thousands” of residents having access to health insurance they didn’t have before.
“If those people did not have health insurance, that would have exacerbated the pandemic,” he said. “It’s a great example of how a systemic change before a crisis can reduce the severity of a crisis.”
Zager also praised the administration’s work on the opioid crisis, as well as its work on education.
How would you describe the atmosphere in Augusta? Could it be improved and if so how?
Being from Augusta originally, Davis said, has given her the opportunity to observe the atmosphere in the state’s capital for some time. At times, she said, it has been very polarized, and things were “particularly difficult” during the LePage administration.
“I don’t think that serves Maine well,” she said.
Davis said legislators should be able to work together, and she believes they can. She said she’d like to see the Legislature work like the Portland School Board, which is a nonpartisan entity focused on nonpartisan issues.
“I think we can do that at a state level,” she said. “Just because national politics have gotten polarized doesn’t mean the state has to be. Building bridges will make things different.”
Grant said he doesn’t evaluate Augusta based on a perceived partisan divide, but instead on results. He said anything else is “static and noise.”
“The question for me is are they passing laws to help the people of Maine?,” he said. “And this Legislature is doing a good job of that.”
Zager said the atmosphere in Augusta is much better with Mills in office than it was when LePage was governor. He said LePage wouldn’t allow his administration to talk to the Legislature, which led to governmental dysfunction.
“I couldn’t believe he would prevent one branch of government from talking to another,” Zager said.
“There’s always a little disagreement,” he said, “and that’s good. Good ideas rise to the top.”
Do you support or oppose the so-called Clean Energy Connect, and why?
Davis said she does not support the Clean Energy Corridor, which is a Central Maine Power Co. project that would bring hydropower from Canada through Maine and into Massachusetts.
She said she’s “not convinced it’s clean,” and there are other, better ways to fulfill energy needs. She also said the corridor poses a threat to the Maine environment that cannot be undone.
“I don’t think Maine benefits enough from it,” Davis said.
Grant said he does not support the corridor right now, and hopes there’s still room for it to be changed.
“I think the deal Maine is getting is not good enough,” he said.
Grant said he would like to see a law proposed for environmental litigation and compensation for Maine, and hopes there is room for Maine to get a better overall deal.
Zager said he’s not “particularly supportive” of the corridor, but said it’s a complicated issue. He said he is suspicious for a few reasons, including that it’s not clear it would produce any new renewable power, instead just redirecting power. He also said there’s the question of environmental impact, and there could be an impact on the Maine economy regarding how it may affect tourism.
“I’m very much in favor of green power, and I think there’s an alternative to do that that doesn’t have the drawbacks that the CMP corridor seems to have,” he said.
Zager said he is also skeptical since several environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, oppose the project.
Should ranked-choice voting in Maine be continued as is, be abolished, or be extended to additional elections?
Davis said she is “an absolute supporter” of ranked-choice voting. She said she was on a subcommittee set by the city’s Charter Commission to examine alternative voting systems, including RCV. She said the subcommittee convinced the larger committee to support the voting mechanism.
“I would like to see it expanded,” Davis said. “I think it makes elections more collegial, it gives people a chance to support more than one person in different ways. And it’s not complicated.”
She said it was proved to work in the 2011 mayoral election in Portland, where it was first used. In that race, several candidates ran for the seat, and RCV “enabled a lot of people to run and a lot of people to build support” in order to ensure the winner had a majority of the votes.
Grant said he tries to be “realistic” about RCV. He said it’s “here to stay for the elections we have,” but said the chances of expanding it throughout the state are “slim because the Republicans have made it a partisan issue.”
“I’ll support it as it exists now, and I want it for state races,” he said.
But Grant said he’d like a system to ensure that in general elections a candidate has to win a majority of the votes. He said a runoff system like this was used in California, and ensures a two-person race.
Zager said he supports RCV and thinks it should be expanded statewide. He said as with any issue, there are opportunities for unintended consequences, such as potential for voter confusion. But he said overall, an automatic runoff tallied on a computer is inexpensive, and it maximizes the chance of the outcome aligning with the will of the voters – “as opposed to when LePage was elected with a minority of voters due to a split ballot.”
“I think ranked-choice voting is a little bit more complicated,” he said, “but I do believe we can continue to utilize it and it will be good for democracy.”
How would you propose to address institutional racism or change policing if you were elected? Would you support reductions in police budgets?
Davis said having worked on reducing institutional racism both on the School Board and at USM, she knows “institutional racism exists and perpetuates discriminatory policies and practices within organizations and institutions resulting in systemic racial inequalities maintained by society as a whole.”
She said the first step in addressing any issue is “making sure that there is sound data and information and increased education about the issue,” and then political leaders must join institutional leaders to change practices, policies, laws and systems.
As for police budgets, she said policing and law enforcement need to be “reimagined and refocused on building and maintaining community safety.” She said adopting clear and explicit “evidenced-based” use-of-force policies can reduce violence, as can stopping the “militarization of local police by prohibiting the purchasing of surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense.”
“Research has shown that funding community nonprofits that work to build community also reduce crime, and I believe that shifting funding from enforcement to prevention can help to strengthen community safety,” Davis said.
Grant said one of the toughest areas needed to address institutional racism is in the public education achievement gap, which he wants to prioritize. He said he believes in pursuing the “8CantWait” agenda, a set of proposals for eight use-of-force policies aimed at reducing police violence.
“I also believe the state should step in to further limit the subjects of bargaining between the police and government entities, so that collective bargaining agreements are not the primary impediment to reform and review,” Grant said.
Grant said simple reductions to police budgets are “not sufficient,” and there should be a wider range of actions in policing, which may require more funding and different staffing, such as mental health providers and crisis negotiators.
“I do believe in reducing expenditures on weaponry, but the money should be redirected to tasks that provide a greater good,” he said.
Zager said he is “horrified” by the ongoing systemic racism in the country, and said policing and the criminal justice system are just part of it. He said in Maine, black individuals are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.
“I can’t explain that in any other way than there’s a systemic problem,” Zager said. “Some of that is policing perhaps, some of that is the judicial system and some of that is economic factors, like people who can’t afford bail are incarcerated at higher rates.”
Zager said education is also a factor, saying a black student has a better chance of graduating high school if at some point they have a black teacher. So if Maine has an education system with few black teachers, the chances for black students to graduate high school diminish. He also said there can be more done with health care, as there can be racial bias in health-care coverage.
“I see and am horrified by the systemic racism that exists, which is separate from individual racism,” Zager said.
Zager listed the “8CantWait” campaign as something some Maine communities have begun employing, but said there is still more work to be done.
As for police funding, Zager said we have asked police and schools to do too much, often asking these officials to be mental-health workers. He said he is in favor of scrutinizing police budgets, and potentially reducing them, but only after evidence-based reviews.
“We have a crisis in mental health care in this country, and we don’t have enough people going into that industry,” he said.
This leads to small problems becoming big problems, which often lead to police getting called, he said.
“These things are definitely treatable, and if left untreated can often lead to someone getting mixed up in the criminal justice system,” Zager said. “That’s the wrong way to treat mental illness.”