PORTLAND — Two Democrats will face off June 14 in hopes of replacing state Rep. Diane Russell in House District 39, spanning the city’s East End and Casco Bay islands.
Andrew Edwards, 29, of 11 Smith St., and Peaks Island resident Michael Sylvester, 46, of 159 Central Ave., are each seeking the Democratic Party nomination in the June 14 primary.
Russell, who cannot seek a fifth consecutive term because of state term limits laws, has endorsed Sylvester. Republican Peter Doyle is the sole candidate seeking his party’s nomination for the seat.
House seats are for two-year terms. The general election is Nov. 8.
A criminal defense attorney, Edwards is making his first run for public office.
“I’ve always enjoyed talking to people. I’ve always thought this was something I would enjoy doing.” Edwards said.
It is his day-to-day experience as a court-appointed defender for often-indigent clients that is spurring his run, as Edwards is determined to help people with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Edwards said he has spent too many days in court defending people without resources to turn away now.
“It is not that these services never existed, but they have decreased in recent years, and it is hurting people,” Edwards said.
He advocates reforming the sentencing structure to allow judges more leeway in punishing low-level offenders.
“There is no reason the offenses should carry a fine that cannot be waived by a judge,” Edwards said.
While noting the Legislature has moved forward by no longer making heroin possession an automatic felony, Edwards said more treatment options must be made available for people in need.
“They want to get sober and there is very little we can do for them,” Edwards said.
He said his advocacy will extend beyond legal reforms to fight for more adequate state funding for social services the city delivers as a “service center” that draws people in need from throughout the state.
While some evaluation is needed on how best to spend the money, Edwards said more state funding is a must at Preble Street.
“Portland has tried to keep up with this, but it is a state-level issue. Portland does not have the resources to bear this alone,” he said.
He expects his legislative work to be detailed.
“It is not sexy to talk about budget line items and trying to get these services to merge,” Edwards said.
Edwards favors the creation of a national park in northern Maine, saying it would also draw tourists to Portland who are on their way to the park. He also favors reducing the state excise tax of 35 cents per barrel of beer to help boost breweries in Portland and Maine.
“I think it is a sensible idea that could provide benefits to local businesses. It is near and dear to my heart and stomach,” Edwards said.
Sylvester, a former Peaks Island councilor who was also chairman, is running on four key ideas, and riding a wave of local enthusiasm for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“I suppose between the presidential race and what is happening in Augusta, I decided it was time people stop blaming foreign-born people and start looking at the systemic problems we are facing,” he said. “My signs will say ‘Democratic Socialist.'”
If elected, Sylvester said he would work to ensure all Mainers have access to clean and affordable water. A first step is a bill banning municipalities from selling public water to private companies without at least putting the sale to a referendum vote.
Sylvester would also like a statewide inventory of pipes that enter residences to assess the threat of lead in water.
He also wants to expand on LD 1649, a bill to increase the availability and use of solar power in Maine vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage at the conclusion of the legislative session in Augusta.
The Legislature did not override the veto, but Sylvester said he would like to make a new effort that would also include ways to make solar power more available to renters.
He also advocates creating an option for a local lodging tax that could be used to fund upgrades to housing stock or financially assist tenants facing rent increases because their buildings have been upgraded.
Sylvester said he worries as much about the labor market and creating and retaining jobs that allow people to afford their homes, especially in the strong housing market.
Sylvester advocates a single-payer health care system in Maine.
“Government has a key role in assuring access to health care,” he said. “Clinics like the India Street clinic should be in Waterville and Lewiston and a model for the rest of the country.”
Once a union organizer and a co-founder of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, Sylvester expects to move his agenda forward with his negotiating skills.
“I’ve bargained with some of the biggest companies in the nation. I’ve always believed everyone should walk out feeling like we did OK, even if we did not get everything we wanted,” Sylvester said. “We can’t give up on the basic tenets of what social justice is or income equality is.”