PORTLAND — Voters in Maine House District 115 have a choice between two candidates who say they have similar political views, but different personal strengths.
Democrat Erik Jorgensen and Green Independent candidate Seth Berner are competing to replace Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, who is not seeking re-election. District 115 covers the Back Cove neighborhood.
Jorgensen has worked in nonprofit organization management for more than 20 years, and until recently served as executive director of the Maine Humanities Council, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also serves on the board of directors of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
Running for political office for the first time, he said he values being a Democrat.
“I have nothing but respect for (Berner), and I think if you lined us up together, our opinions would be very similar. But I do feel that party affiliation is something that distinguishes us,” he said. “… Politics is a team sport, and I think (you are) more effective if you’re part of a large team.”
But Berner, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Lovejoy two years ago, said voters should not be afraid to choose a candidate who isn’t backed by one of the two major parties.
Without a Republican candidate in this year’s race, the district’s voters “should be comfortable knowing they have the freedom to vote for the candidate who’s going to do the best job,” he said. “In District 115, it’s 100 percent safe to vote for a third-party candidate.”
Berner agreed that Jorgensen and he share similar progressive views. But he said his experience advocating those views legally and politically gives him “a more coherent view of the way issues fit together” and that he would take a “holistic approach” as a legislator.
Berner devotes his legal practice to issues of poverty and social change, he said. He has served on the executive committee of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP for eight years, and worked on the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
Jorgensen said his previous experience has given him insight into Maine’s diverse culture. At the Humanities Council, he worked with “community groups, schools, colleges, prisons, tribal entities, and local organizations from Madawaska to Lubec, from Kittery to Camden to Norway,” according to his website.
“My work has taken me all around the state, so I know Maine from top to bottom, and that’s something I can use to help serve Portland,” Jorgensen said.
Dealing with cultural and historical issues at the Humanities Council helped him “see how the state has evolved, and where ideas come from. That’s a useful public policy lens to look through,” he said.
Both candidates agreed that growing Maine’s economy is a priority, but one that requires more than a quick fix.
“We can’t snap our fingers and expect to fix (the economy),” Berner said. “We might not fix anything at all.”
Rather than simply trying to attract businesses, he said, Maine must attract ones that are going to invest their earnings in the state. And employees must be able to invest theirs as well.
“The state’s going to have to provide some sort of infusion so that its citizens can participate in the economy,” he said. A graduated income tax that is “based on the ability to pay” would be such an infusion, he added.
Jorgensen agreed with the need to change the tax system. “I think we should be looking comprehensively at the whole tax code,” he said. He called the current code “loophole-ridden” and said the state cannot afford to make large tax cuts.
“We need to continue providing services predictably,” he said.
While he supports “prudent” regulatory reforms designed to make the state more business-friendly, Jorgensen said those changes must not dilute the “Maine brand” that attracts employers and employees in the first place. One example of that risk, he said, is environmental policy.
“Without a superb environmental protection policy in place, we could just be a cold, far-away place with high oil prices,” he said.
Jorgensen also insists on the need to maintain social welfare policy. “We’ve got to keep our safety net intact,” he said. “I worry very much about the cuts to social welfare programs that have been happening.”
He said Maine bears a heavy burden in social welfare costs because of a large population that is elderly and poor. “It’s too simple to ask how we can reduce our state’s social welfare spending to something like the national average … just by cutting, cutting, cutting,” he said.
What’s more, costs eliminated by social welfare cuts eventually return when former beneficiaries end up receiving other services, whether in a hospital emergency room or a local jail, according to Jorgensen.
“The needs don’t disappear,” he said.
Berner goes even further. The state should offer more in order to move people off the rolls of entitlement programs, he said. State-funded addiction treatment is an example of social welfare services that eventually pay for themselves.
“In the short term, there are costs,” he said. “But in the long term, (those services) are going to turn the recipients into people who can participate in the economy. And it won’t take that long.”
Berner said he sees a much larger role for alternative sources of energy in the future. In fact, he said, the earth’s changing climate makes those new sources a necessity.
“The scientific evidence shows that (global warming) is a result of what we’re doing – it’s related to our use of energy,” he said. “So we have to reduce our dependence on (fossil fuels), especially since there’s a limited supply of that resource.”
While he’s open to alternatives such as wind power, he said that “just because it’s wind power doesn’t mean that the conversation shouldn’t go further.” When deciding which alternative energy sources to support, the state must consider the dangers that even wind power can present to a fragile ecosystem.
Even better than state-supported alternative energy production is sources that are “small in scale, and locally controlled,” Berner said.
Jorgensen said he believes in exploring a wide range of alternative energy sources, as well as ways to conserve energy through public transit. “I think we should incentivize these sources any way we can, whether that’s through a subsidy or some sort of tax measure,” he said.
He said he is open to the use of offshore wind turbines, as well as tidal power and geothermal energy. He also supports the use of wood pellets, which are a dense, efficiently burning type of wood fuel made from forestry byproducts. “Because the entire supply chain is in Maine, it’s a local, renewable resource,” Jorgensen said.
But he also urges caution. “None of these alternatives is without fault,” Jorgensen said.
Both Jorgensen and Berner say they will vote yes on Question 1, the referendum asking if Maine should issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I’m 100 percent in favor. Marriage is an expression of love, and every human being is entitled to that expression,” Berner said. “Of course, people are entitled to their religious beliefs about the issue. But in a secular society, those beliefs should not be the basis of law.”
Jorgensen said, “I’m going to vote yes. I think the question is very exciting for Maine, and it’s an important civil rights issue. In 10 more years, we’re going to be asking why we didn’t do this before.”