Democrats vie for Portland state Senate seats

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It is a rare political moment when there is no incumbent in Portland’s two state Senate districts, which has set off a spirited campaign among Democrats in the June 14 primary election. The winners will be heavily favored to beat their Republican opponents in November.

Three candidates are facing off in each of the two districts that encompass Portland. District 27, now represented by Justin Alfond, who stepped down because of term limits, covers the peninsula areas of Portland, downtown, and the USM area. District 28 covers most of the off-peninsula areas of Portland, including the Deering neighborhoods and part of Westbrook.

District 27

In this race, two current state representatives are joined by a newcomer to politics, Charles Radis, a semi-retired rheumatologist from Peaks Island.

Ben Chipman, 40, who now represents District 40, is a former Green Party activist who was elected to his current seat as an independent, but joined the Democrats late last year.

“I’ve always caucused with the Democrats, so it made sense to enroll as a Democrat,” Chipman explained in a phone interview.

A Brunswick native and graduate of the University of Maine, Chipman has spent most of his career in the political world, serving as a legislative aide to Rep. John Eder from 2002-2006. Chipman says he has not been active with the Greens since 2009.

He is best known as the determined leader of the effort – ultimately unsuccessful – to impeach Gov. Paul LePage during this past session. He cites other legislative accomplishments, including working with rural legislators on tax policy to increase the lodging tax in order to double the homestead exemption.

“I’ve focused on achieving a fair tax policy,” he says.

Chipman also co-sponsored legislation to expand drug treatment, expand community policing, and to stop the cutbacks at the University of Southern Maine.

Chipman stresses that he is the only candidate in his race using Clean Election money to fund his campaign, saying that voters in his district have always backed the clean election system, and he wants to reflect that commitment.

Diane Russell, 39, has served four terms as the state representative from District 39. The Bryant Pond native has developed a strong following on the Hill, and is well-known for her activism and leadership on causes that include marijuana legalization and ranked choice voting, both of which will be on November’s ballot.

A strong Sanders supporter, Russell also led the recent successful campaign at the Maine Democratic Convention to require superdelegates in future elections to back the nominee chosen by the popular vote. She has said she wants to continue the effort to expand MaineCare, and to support services for veterans, and brings the skills of working with rural legislators to achieve these goals.

The newcomer in the race is Peaks Island resident Charles Radis, 63, a rheumatologist and former public health doctor on the Casco Bay Islands. Radis says his medical background and pubic health experience would be put to good use at the Legislature.

The New Jersey native, who came to Maine to attend Bates College, says he would work with Republicans to develop majorities to override LePage’s vetoes. “I would look for common ground,” said Radis. “You can’t fight and denigrate Republicans and expect to get votes to override the vetoes.”

He would propose a new local option sales tax to increase revenues for municipalities that could go towards education funding. It would face an uphill battle in the Legislature, but Radis would sweeten the deal by sending one third of the revenue to the state, while allowing the municipalities to keep two thirds, hoping to entice rural legislators to back the plan.

Radis questions some of the decisions made by current party leadership, saying it was a mistake not to sue LePage when he failed to issue voter-approved bonds.

Radis has reservations about the initiative to legalize marijuana that will appear on the November ballot. “I have concerns about managing another drug in the midst of an opioid epidemic,” said Radis. “I’d rather not have Maine be the first.” He is also unsure about the proposal for ranked choice voting.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Mark Lockman and Green Party candidate Seth Baker in November.

Senate District 28

The three candidates seeking the nomination in this off-peninsula district all have experience with elective office.

Mark Dion, 61, is a three-term representative from Portland’s District 43, which includes part of Falmouth. He is well known as a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland deputy police chief. He voted against the move to impeach LePage in the last session, and sees himself as a pragmatist who can work with Republicans. He said the impeachment effort did not rise to the level of a constitutional crisis, but was politically motivated, rather than a structural crisis that threatened the operation of government.

“Solving problems is our job,” says Dion, a Lewiston native who says his six years of legislative experience would make him an effective senator. He has been active in setting drug policy, and worked to keep possession of heroin a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. He favors law enforcement diversion programs to get drug users into treatment, rather than using the threat of a felony charge to force addicts into treatment.

Jill Duson, 62, is well known in Portland politics, having served as school board chairman, and several terms on the city council. A retired attorney and Chester, Pennsylvania, native, Duson got her start working in legal services for the elderly in her hometown. She soon was active in bringing about nursing home reforms.

She wants government be more effective, and is frustrated with the current state Department of Health and Human Services, which seems to show “a commitment to non-performance.”

Duson says she learned the power of activism when, as a young black student in Chester, she first attended a segregated school. Many women in the community then picketed for better schools, and Duson “observed what people can get done when they work in the common interest; they brought the system to its knees.”

On the council, Duson has been willing to stake out independent positions, and not follow the expected line of liberals. She voiced concerns about the effort to remove citizenship requirements for voters in local Portland elections, and spoke about the value of the citizenship application process. (That issue was the subject of a referendum vote that failed in Portland.)

“Sometimes people feel they know how I think and can pigeonhole me because of the color of my skin,” she said.

The Westbrook candidate in the race is Ann Peoples, 69, who served four terms as a state representative from Westbrook before term limits kicked in.

One of her key issues is transportation planning. She has been a representative on the regional transportation planning council, working to develop a long-range plan for infrastructure.

“It just keeps getting worse,” she says. “There are no Democratic or Republican roads, just bad roads,” she observes.

She has long been active in Westbrook politics, serving on the planning board and two terms on the city council.

Peoples is also interested in issues of aging, and providing support so people can remain in their homes. Her husband, Patrick, is in a wheelchair, and often accompanies her to Augusta.

While she is a committed Democrat, she bemoans the party’s willingness to walk into political traps that have caused an unnecessary furor. One example is the debate over military recruiters in high schools.

Asked about what the Legislature can do to improve the state’s nagging problem of poverty and lack of opportunity, she says there needs to be a focus on improving infrastructure and broadband access, but there is a larger problem of low expectations and fear of change.

“Mainers are too ready to accept being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Why can’t we have nice things. We don’t think we deserve nice things.’ And until we demand nice things we won’t get them.”

The winner of the primary will face Karen Usher of Westbrook in November.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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