SOUTH PORTLAND — Two Democratic candidates with histories of community activism are seeking their party’s nomination in the House District 32 primary.
Richard Rottkov didn’t plan to be a legislative candidate this term, but when four-term Rep. Scott Hamann announced he was not seeking re-election, Rottkov said he decided it was now or never.
Christopher Kessler previously ran an unsuccessful bid as an independent candidate for the House in 2012, and said this year he is more confident than in the previous campaign, when he focused on appealing to voters on both sides of the aisle.
“I have core values and people can decide whether to support them or not,” he said. “I’m tired of waiting for change. There is no more important time for me to be engaged than now.”
District 32 includes part of South Portland and part of Cape Elizabeth. The primary is June 12, when the Republican Tammy Walter of Cape Elizabeth will be unopposed in the GOP primary.
Rottkov, 65, was raised in the Catskill Mountains of New York and moved to Maine in 2001 with his wife and two sons.
He is an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College, teaching oral communications and remedial college writing and reading. He also works with special education students at South Portland High School and is an usher for the Portland Sea Dogs.
“I’m happy when busy,” he said.
Rottkov has a master’s degree in communications from New York University. He worked as a sports reporter for the Associated Press, in public relations on Madison Avenue, and as the public relations director for the U.S. Soccer Federation.
But he said he always wanted to teach, which brought him back to school on a teaching fellowship, and he spent a decade teaching in New York City public schools before moving to South Portland.
In the political sphere, Rottkov is active on the city’s Democratic Committee, which is grassroots-oriented, he said. He was chairman of the committee from 2004-2008.
Rottkov is also active in the South Portland Land Trust; he has been a member since 2003 and served as president. He organizes the annual Earth Day cleanup and is also serving on the city’s Open Space Planning Committee.
Rottkov said issues he cares about are impossible to achieve unless there is a consensus among politicians. He said his main objective is to make government function again. He said partisanship is extreme, and even when compromise is reached, bills get vetoed, or citizen referendums are ignored or put on hold.
“I consider myself a consensus-builder – I’m a pragmatist,” he said. “There are narrow divisions that keep people from being heard and government from being successful.”
He said government should work for all people and focus on equality. His main issues are health care for all, strong public schools, growing the economy with green jobs, and protecting the state’s natural environment.
Rottkov said he supports Medicaid expansion, and is in favor of a single-payer form of health care.
“Government has an obligation to help the needy,” Rottkov said.
He said he considers himself both a progressive and a moderate. “I’m willing to talk and negotiate,” he said, adding he has a track record of getting things done, whether it was acquiring funding for the Clark’s Pond trails, or leading the campaign for the high school renovation referendum.
The candidate also said developing a green economy in the state with solar, tidal and wind energy should be a focus, and the economy could grow at the same time reliance on fossil fuels is decreased.
Rottkov also supports a free community college system, as proposed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He said this would create an incentive for students to stay in Maine to study and work.
“Despite what we see in Augusta and Washington, I’m optimistic things will change. Out of revolution comes evolution. There is change on the horizon,” Rottkov said, acknowledging momentum on gun reform and other issues.
Kessler, 35, moved to Maine with his wife in 2008 from upstate New York. They live in the Hinckley Park neighborhood with their two young daughters.
Kessler, who studied music in college at the State University of New York at Oswego, works as an energy auditor.
Although previously an independent, Kessler said he registered as a Democrat so he could vote for Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
He said he ultimately stayed in the party because Democrats want to fight for the same issues, including access to education, clean energy, affordable housing and universal health care.
Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy is a priority for Kessler, who said the state’s environment is its greatest resource, to be protected for future generations.
Kessler said he supports experience-based learning and free community college, and supports publicly funded health care for all Maine residents.
Kessler has been active in several community issues, including preserving public access to Willard Beach; serving on the city’s Energy and Recycling Committee; helping to lay the groundwork for the city’s climate action plan and working to restore Pope Preserve in Mill Creek.
Kessler has also been a vocal advocate for affordable housing and renter’s rights, and previously served on the city’s Affordable Housing Committee. He resigned in protest, however, after criticizing the panel’s composition as unrepresentative of the community and its findings as without any “meaningful protection for renters.”
He said an investment must be made in programs to develop affordable rental housing for working-class families.
“I know through my activism in South Portland that I have been able to make an impact,” he said. “I know I can’t change everything in Augusta, but I can make an impact. I have the stomach to do this kind of stuff.”