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BRUNSWICK — Republican Jennifer Johnson and Green Independent Fred Horch are challenging veteran Democratic state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky for his seat in Senate District 24.
District 24 includes Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, North Yarmouth and Pownal.
Gerzofsky has represented the area in Augusta for the past six years, and was a state representative from Brunswick for eight years before that.
The three candidates offer markedly different philosophies, legislative agendas, and perspectives on local issues, including economic development, marine resources, and the train layover facility proposed in Brunswick.
All three candidates are clean election-qualified in the race that will be decided Nov. 4.
Although this is her first campaign for political office at any level, Johnson said her inexperience can be an advantage.
“I’m not a career politician,” she said. “Unless you’re living what everyone else is living, you don’t get it.”
A life-long Brunswick resident, Johnson, 50, owns Johnson’s Sporting Goods, a retailer opened in Brunswick by her parents in 1968 that now has three locations in Maine.
Her background as a small business owner and single mother of two gives her an inside perspective on the struggles facing ordinary people and what legislators can do to help, she said.
Johnson said she has gained support from people across the political spectrum and would work across the aisle to get things done in the capital.
Johnson was hesitant to lay out a specific legislative agenda, but said she wants to make changes to improve the business climate in the state, particularly by addressing taxes on small businesses.
“You want to be able to pay your people, pay your taxes, and keep everybody employed,” Johnson said.
While she hasn’t seen the benefits of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s tax cuts, Johnson said she believes that he has the right ideas to help Maine businesses thrive.
Through her daily interactions with commercial fishermen, Johnson said she has a good handle on the challenges facing the fishing industry.
She faulted the Department of Marine Resources for acting too late to regulate species like sea urchins and elvers. She also questioned the number of licenses given out to marine worm harvesters and said the state should ensure equal access to its waters.
Johnson said she supports the proposed Amtrak layover facility in Brunswick because it could help bring more visitors, and money, into the area.
“Everybody needs the train, and if it brings more people into Brunswick, bring it on,” she said.
Johnson said she does not believe the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now Brunswick Landing, is being used to its greatest potential, as evidenced by empty stores in the strip mall across the street.
In contrast to Johnson, Horch has a detailed, if ambitious, legislative agenda that envisions fundamental change in the way Maine deals with poverty, elections, and energy policy.
Horch, 44, has run for the house in his Brunswick district twice, in 2010 and 2012. Both times he won roughly a third of the vote, enough to top the Republican candidate, but not to defeat the Democrat – something he attributes partially to questionable political tactics.
“When Democrats are threatened, they do things I’d hope they regret,” Horch said.
Now, his sights are set on higher office, although Horch admitted he is a long shot in a “gerrymandered” Democratic stronghold.
“If you have a pulse, and you are a Democrat, you can win in this district,” he said.
Horch grew up in Utah, before attending college in Pennsylvania and law school at the University of California at Berkley. He moved to Brunswick a decade ago from North Carolina and opened a “green” supply store on Maine Street, which he sold in 2011. He now co-owns an energy efficiency company.
He lives in downtown Brunswick with his Bowdoin college-professor wife and their three sons.
The state’s current election system benefits national parties that do not represent Maine’s political diversity and stifles new policy ideas, Horch said.
If elected, he said he would press to allow people to vote for as many candidates on the ballot as they would like, and the one with the most votes would still win.
The concept is simpler than other voter-choice systems, he said, and would open up the election field to new third-part candidates, boost voter participation and reduce the acrimony that pervades elections.
Horch said he would also work to make his concept of a “permanent fund” that would collect revenue from publicly owned natural resources and a pollution tax and invest it, giving annual dividends to Maine residents.
The fund is one way to include people, especially the poor, in the economy, Horch said, which he said he prefers to a bloated, “paternalistic” welfare system.
The state’s energy policy should also be changed to create a “solar grid” that would allow landowners to build solar arrays and sell energy back into the public grid, while improving air quality because of the reduced demand for fossil fuels.
Maine’s opportunities to produce clean energy are stifled by regulations that make importing fuels like natural gas cheaper, Horch said. He called natural gas pipelines in the state “a giant hose sucking money out of the Maine economy.”
While his proposals would mean fundamental changes in state government and are unlikely to survive as legislation right away, a seat in the Senate would give him the platform to force those issues into the conversation in the capital, Horch said.
While he is not closely familiar with marine resource issues, Horch said he wants to learn more about the challenges facing marine industries and meet people who make their livings on the waterfront.
While Horch lauded progress made at Brunswick Landing and acknowledged Gerzofsky’s prominent role in the redevelopment push, he criticized the senator’s involvement in the layover facility controversy, calling the project “a colossal screw-up” by all levels of government.
Although he would have liked to see the rail line extended to Brunswick Landing and the facility built there, the prominent role Gerzofsky has played in the issue until now means that whoever is elected will likely be deeply involved in it, Horch said.
“He’s created a huge mess, and now we all have to suffer the consequences,” Horch said.
First elected in 2000, Gerzofsky, represented Brunswick residents for four terms before being term-limited and winning a Senate seat in 2008. If re-elected, this will be his last consecutive term in the Senate.
He chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Security Committee and sits on the State and Local Government Committee.
Gerzofsky, 70, attributes his political longevity to the relationships he has built with the communities he represents through constituent services like regular, local office hours and using his connections in Augusta to help resolve local issues.
Despite what his opponents might contend, he said he hasn’t lost touch with the people he represents, even after 14 years in the Legislature. If anything, he said, the experience, connections and institutional memory he brings to the table are strengths.
“If I thought I was going to go to Augusta and just sit in my seat, I wouldn’t go,” he said.
His re-election agenda includes pushing the state to honor its revenue sharing commitment to municipalities, balancing educational funding, and expanding Medicaid, Gerzofsky said.
He also wants to see the new Southern Maine Community College facility at Brunswick Landing, which opened in 2011 thanks to part of an $8 million state bond he advocated, be brought up to code and filled to its student capacity.
The success of the bond issue indicated his ability to drum up support for his proposals from all over the state, Gerzofsky said.
“If it didn’t make sense for people in Millinocket why Brunswick Landing and SMCC should succeed, it wouldn’t work,” Gerzofsky said. “I made it make sense.”
The SMCC campus is part of the overall base redevelopment project, which Gerzofsky has been involved in from the start. Compared to other base redevelopments, Brunswick Landing has been an unqualified success, he said.
“It’s proceeding far better than we thought it would,” Gerzofsky said.
Protecting marine resources and helping people who make their living on the waterfront factor heavily in Gerzofsky’s legislative efforts, leading him to call himself the “champion of the clammers.”
Last year, Gerzofsky pushed the first bill to help communities in his Senate district combat green crabs and close off mud flats to all harvesters. The bill sparked an outcry from marine worm harvesters, but Gerzofsky said the controversy was based on misconceptions about the bills’ impact. He noted that four communities have started anti-green crab pilot projects under the law.
Gerzofsky has also courted controversy through his role in the battle over the Amtrak layover facility in Brunswick. When he learned about the proposal he set up Senate hearings to give people a chance to ask questions and voice their opinions, Gerzofsky said.
He said his support for the facility is contingent on the full clearance from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but he’s still not certain that the desired location, near a residential area in west Brunswick, is the best choice.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky