Incumbent, challenger seek similar goals in Portland's House District 39

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PORTLAND — Democratic state Rep. Diane Russell is seeking a fourth term in November, her last before state-mandated term limits end her current tenure.

Lauren Besanko of the Green Independent Party is making her first run for elected office.

They are running for the seat in the newly created House District 39, created after the redistricting brought about by 2010 census results. Republican Ashley Ryan withdrew from the race earlier this month.

Their goal is just one of the things shared by the candidates in the district encompassing the eastern end of the city peninsula and Casco Bay islands. The distinctions between the two are found in their relative experience and how their respective parties can be viewed, they said.

Russell

Russell, 38, of 184 Congress St., has fought for the legalization of marijuana for much of the six years she has served in the House.

“Irrespective of who is in power, I will continue to work on the legalization front,” she said. She also pledged to introduce an equal rights amendment, similar to one that failed in a 1984 statewide referendum.

The amendment is needed socially and politically, she said, because of court decisions favoring the rights of corporations over people.

“I’ll believe corporations are people when a women gives birth to one,” Russell said.”(The amendment) would help pay equity and the dynamic of how women are treated.”

She was also critical of the failure of Democrats to put women in leadership roles after they returned to majority status in the Legislature in 2012.

“That dynamic has directly affected the decision-making paradigm,” Russell said. “It can be remarkably short-sighted. People have blinders and see things with a different set of lenses.”

Russell said the Legislature must establish the framework for legalization of marijuana and how it should be taxed, before sending the question to a statewide referendum. The need is more imperative because of local legalization in Portland, and questions on November ballots in South Portland and Lewiston.

She also vowed to press for an increase in the state minimum wage to at least $10 per hour, or $12 if the federal wage is increased to $10. The state minimum wage is currently $7.50 and was last increased in 2009.

Locally, Russell wants greater focus on the future and more funding for her alma mater, the University of Southern Maine.

“I want to fundamentally shift the paradigm on how we treat USM,” she said. “Southern Maine is the economic driver of the state. USM does not get a fair allocation of resources, and the administration has not done a good job of dealing with the issues USM is facing.”

Russell also advocated a local-option sales tax to relieve the property-tax burden, but said an even better measure would be to create local income taxes coupled with a strengthened “circuit-breaker” for property taxes.

“If you do it properly, you could tax the income of people doing business in Portland, which is huge,” she said.

Russell, who works in public relations with Confocal Communications, said she welcomes the electoral challenge she faces. But the reason to re-elect her remains clear, she said.

“Elections should not be something you just walk into,” she said. “I have built a reputation as a fierce advocate.”

Besanko

Lauren Besanko, 25, of 4 Monument St., shares an alma mater with Russell, having graduated USM in 2012 with a double major in psychology and criminology. She is now an events scheduler for the Green Independent Party.

“I decided to run because I believe in there being progressive women in government and Green representation in a town where there are so many people who want to see green initiatives happen,” she said.

She agrees with Russell on legalizing marijuana, increase the minimum wage, and restoring funding and a stronger mission for USM. She also wants to remove corporate influences from politics.

As a Green Independent, she said she is in position to end the influences.

“I am not corporately funded, I am not part of a corporate party. Therefore I cannot be beholden to anyone but the voters,” Besanko said.

In a sense, what Russell wants, Besanko wants more of: advocating a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, and ensuring that any legalization of marijuana will also protect small farmers who would like to grow it as a cash crop.

Russell’s last legalization bill called for a $50 excise tax on each ounce produced. Besanko would like a lower tax rate, she said.

She would also like to use her degrees toward changing law enforcement policies, especially concerning drug abuse.

“I would look to see we are not so punitive and have more rehabilitation, a more humanist take,” Besanko said.

Besanko also blamed USM trustees for not listening to students and faculty about university problems.

“I am appalled at what is going on at the university,” she said. “The education I received at USM I valued greatly. My professors were amazing, they were there to educate students not as people to perpetuate the status quo, but as people to change the world.”

A Gorham native, Besanko said she is also attuned to rural issues her party can fully address.

“Portland is kind of its own thing, but I know there are a lot of people in rural areas who get behind Green issues,” she said.

Besanko said Green Independent positions are too often miscast.

“The Greens are the true fiscal conservatives, because the initiatives they suggest are cheaper in the long run, even if they have upfront costs,” she said.

Besanko said she is enjoying her first campaign for office and finds it suits her personality.

“When I decided to do this, I knew it would be a growing experience and a way to focus on what I truly believe,” she said. “It would mean I am meeting more people and getting their insights. I am just by nature a very social person.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.