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PORTLAND — A former state representative has returned to the campaign trail to take on a political newcomer in the Maine House District 117 election.
Democrat Richard Farnsworth, who served in the Legislature from 1996 to 1998, faces Frederic Miller, who replaced David Caron as the Republican nominee in the race.
The candidates are vying to fill the seat held by Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who is finishing her third term and chose to make a bid for the state Senate.
District 117 covers parts of Deering as well as the Libbytown, Rosemont and Stroudwater neighborhoods.
Farnsworth, 71, said he was “happy to sit on the sidelines” of politics since he represented the area, which was then House District 32. But he said he reconsidered after speaking with Haskell about her decision to run for the Senate.
He said his prior experience in the House will allow him to quickly begin serving the district.
“In the first year, the learning curve for a legislator is 90 degrees, straight up,” he said. “But I can hit the ground running.”
In addition to his experience in Augusta, Farnsworth served for 18 years as executive director of Woodfords Family Services, a nonprofit agency for children with special needs. He cited this work as preparation for dealing with legislative issues related to MaineCare, the state Medicaid program.
Miller, 69, also brings experience in social services to his candidacy.
He said he has worked as a substitute teacher in special education for the Cape Elizabeth school system, and has served as a volunteer with the Spurwink Institute. His career also includes more than 50 years in broadcast journalism, working for television and radio stations in Portland, Bangor and Portsmouth, N.H.
With no political experience, Miller said he is not bound by traditional party ties and is more free to serve constituents.
“I’m going to be there for the voters. You need to take care of the people who put you there, that’s the first function of a representative … and I’ll be effective because I can get along with the other side,” he said.
“Politics has gotten hung up on party affiliation,” Miller said. “We need to put people over parties and politics. What we don’t need in Augusta is Washington gridlock.”
When it comes to improving Maine’s economy, Miller proposes a two-pronged strategy.
“The first thing that has to happen is that antiquated regulations have to go,” he said. “Then we have to promote Maine’s business environment, and sell the living daylights out of it.”
Miller said he supports the efforts of Gov. Paul LePage and his administration to relax business regulation, and that those efforts “have to continue.”
“These are the kinds of things that bring in new industry,” he said. “And when you bring in new industry, you create jobs and create tax revenue.”
At the same time, Miller said he would like to see reductions in the sales tax on some goods that Maine residents travel to New Hampshire or Massachusetts to buy tax-free, he said. These include over-the-counter medications, clothing and pet food.
Farnsworth, too, supports changes that would make it easier for businesses to operate in Maine. He said that commercial licensing and regulatory approvals should be expedited, so that new businesses can get started faster.
“But that doesn’t mean businesses don’t have to meet environmental standards,” he said, and called Maine’s environment “an important part of our place, which we can’t afford to lose.”
Farnsworth said the state also needs to carefully consider the future direction of its business growth.
“In the long term, we have to have a conversation with our population about how we want the business community to look in 25 years,” he said. That conversation must “focus with laser-like clarity” on issues such as how the state can develop its workforce, support the growth of existing small businesses and attract new ones, he said.
Those new businesses may be in emerging service- and knowledge-based industries, such as biotechnology and eco-tourism, which are well-suited to the state’s environment, Farnsworth said. He said the state should foster their development but concentrate resources where they can do the most good.
“We need to tie into and nurture those industries … and focus on the ones that can give us a leading position in the country,” he said.
If he is elected, Miller said he would support measures to move recipients of social services off the state rolls.
“Bill Clinton had the right idea,” he said, referring to the welfare reform law, known as “workfare,” which President Clinton signed in 1996. “Everyone who is able to work, must.”
He acknowledged that Maine “needs to take care of folks that need to be taken care of,” but said that the state’s generous social welfare programs have made it “a dumping ground for other states. That has to stop.”
Miller said the state should lengthen the periods that applicants for social services wait before receiving benefits. He also would institute closer, ongoing review of recipients and their cases, in order to “make sure the people on disability are really disabled.”
“The Department of Health and Human Services is going to have to do its job,” he said.
But Farnsworth urged caution before making changes to the state’s social welfare programs, especially MaineCare.
“Don’t chop the program,” he said.
Eliminating coverage for recipients forces them to obtain services in emergency rooms or other settings where the cost of care is more expensive, he said. Farnsworth called this effect “the balloon process,” since costs that are forced down in one place pop up somewhere else, just as a balloon can change shape.
“I’m not sure the (LePage) administration has taken a look at the ramifications of cuts,” he said.
Still, he said there’s room for “tightening up” MaineCare by clamping down on fraud and making sure that only properly qualified applicants receive benefits.
However, MaineCare has suffered from a “loss of professional expertise” that may hamper those improvements, and further cuts to the program will only aggravate the problem, Farnsworth said.
Farnsworth also said he is optimistic about many potential new sources of energy, such as solar, wind and tidal power. “In our efforts to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to look at a variety of options,” he said.
In order to determine which options are best for Maine’s environment, he said, “we need to experiment. Some will succeed, and some will fail.”
The state should be actively involved in research and development of promising energy technologies, such as the generation of tidal power in the Bay of Fundy, according to Farnsworth.
“When a new energy system has a potential to succeed, the state can provide the boost it requires to actually be successful,” he said.
Miller agrees. “The state needs to look at every energy alternative, both its upside and its downside,” he said.
He, too, supports the development of tidal power. But unlike Farnsworth, he also would like to see greater use of natural gas and clean-burning coal, he said.
While no single alternative energy source may be perfect, he said he believes there is opportunity for compromise. “Let’s look at the pros and cons of each source, and then let’s talk things out,” he said. “I believe we should shoot for a win-win.”
Miller also is equivocal when it comes to Question 1, the state referendum asking if Maine should issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He said he can see both sides of the issue, but that he is “leaning toward supporting (passage of the referendum).
“But my vote’s going to be last-minute. I won’t know for sure until I put a mark down in a box,” he said.
Farnsworth holds a stronger opinion.
“It’s only the right thing, the fair thing, to do,” he said. “I have no qualms about voting yes.”