Histories of activism lead to Senate District 8 clash in Portland
PORTLAND — The race for state Senate in District 8 has a two-term incumbent challenged by a candidate who describes himself on YouTube as "the Punk Patriot."
Asher Platts, a Green Independent seeking his first political office, is taking on Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who has represented the district since 2008 and currently serves as assistant minority leader in the Senate.
District 8 includes the peninsula, the islands and the University of Southern Maine neighborhood, as well as the western neighborhoods along Congress Street and Brighton Avenue to the Westbrook line.
Alfond is a real estate and business entrepreneur who founded Bayside Bowl, an upscale bowling alley, restaurant and music space on Alder Street.
In the Senate, he chairs the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, whose accomplishments have included setting a 90 percent graduation rate for Maine high schools by 2016.
"As a business owner and a legislator, I think I bring a unique mix of leadership, experience and results to the voters of Portland," Alfond said.
Platts is a self-described "radical leftist" who worked on the 2008 presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and has participated in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Maine movements.
He said his mother was a community activist, and that he followed in her footsteps early, attending local meetings on environmental issues as a toddler.
Ten years ago, at the University of Southern Maine, Platts founded a nonpartisan activist group in response to the Gulf War. Later, he received political training through the Maine League of Young Voters – another activist group, founded by Alfond in 2004.
"I don't want to make the race a personal thing. I know Justin, I have a history with him, I like him," Platts said. "But I grew up as a low-income person. My father was a shop steward in a union. I've seen things from a different angle entirely."
Business in Maine
For Platts, that perspective includes making Maine a more attractive place for business.
"For people who are considering setting up shop in Maine, tax breaks just don't factor very high. The things that matter are infrastructure, the workforce," he said. "Are the right people going to be here? Are employees going to want to work here?"
He said he believes his campaign platform, which includes establishing a single-payer health-care system and free, universal college education, would create some of those incentives.
"The thing about single-payer health care is that it makes moral sense, but also financial sense," Platts said. "It's actually a cheaper system, and removes a huge burden, a tremendous amount of overhead, from employees and employers."
As a business owner, Alfond said he believes in the attraction of employers to Maine's quality of life. But he also sees a role for government in bringing business to the state.
"As a state, we have to be very smart and strategic about the assets we have and what our priorities are, and we need to be laser-focused on supporting our existing businesses here," he said.
"But we need to be asking, how do we get Maine's products into more people's hands outside of the state?" Alfond said. "How do we continue promoting the state, and all its assets? And how do we make sure that business and government are in synch and working together, so that there's real value created?"
Alfond also asks questions when it comes to social welfare programs.
He said determining appropriate levels of funding and benefits is not a simply matter of crunching numbers, because "you can make any data point convincing."
"The question is, are we ensuring our social investments are effective? Are we serving the people who are most in need? Do we have pathways so that people who can work can get to a place where they can find a job or serve their communities?" Alfond said.
"My fundamental value is that we have a responsibility to take care of those most in need," he said. "... We are a state that cares, we know our neighbors and we want to help them."
Platts said Maine should control spending on entitlement programs "not through cuts, but through attrition," and that a more equitable distribution of income would reduce the need for the state to provide benefits.
"I would like to create wages that are indexed to the cost of living, so people who are working can actually afford to eat," he said.
Platts said he also would like to create tax incentives that foster the development of worker-owned cooperatives that can bring benefits to employees.
New sources of energy
The candidates agree on the need for alternative-energy sources.
"The state should have a diverse portfolio of options in the energy mix, for consumers and for business," Alfond said. "We need to continue having that portfolio, of wind and solar, but also natural gas. And we need to make the system more energy-efficient.
"The best kilowatt of energy is a kilowatt not used, and I disagree with this administration's lack of investment in energy efficiency."
Platts said he, too, supports the development of alternative energy sources, such as solar power.
But he also feels that government should create a system that allows consumers to generate their own electricity and then "sell" the energy back into the grid. Greater tax incentives are needed for such widespread adoption of solar power, he said.
"We really need to be transitioning to solar energy ... and if everyone's generating power that way, that creates a more stable grid," Platts said. "But not everyone has the money for that investment."
The candidates also agree when it comes to answering the referendum question on same-sex marriage.
"I'll be voting yes. Every single person in the state of Maine deserves the chance to marry, and we as a state should be celebrating that commitment to each other," said Alfond.
Platts shared the feelings of his former fellow-activist.
"I'll be voting yes," he said. "I'm so happy that we have this issue on our ballot as an affirmative question, and I really hope that it passes."