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Senate District 19 candidates all say they're ready to work across the aisle

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Senate District 19 candidates all say they're ready to work across the aisle

TOPSHAM — The three candidates in the Aug. 27 special election in state Senate District 19 are from different towns and different parties.

But they claim a common goal of reaching across party lines to in the Legislature.

The three contenders for the seat being vacated by former Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, are Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic, a Democrat; Daniel Stromgren, a Maine Green Independent; and Paula Benoit, a Republican who held the seat before being defeated by Goodall.

Goodall left the Senate in order to accept a presidential appointment to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Senate District 19 includes Sagadahoc County and the Lincoln County town of Dresden.

Benoit, 58, held the Senate seat from 2006-2008. She also owned and operated the Magnolia and Baby Magnolia gift stores in downtown Bath.

"I had so many people call me and ask me to run," Benoit said last week, noting that moderate and fiscally conservative Democrats had called and asked, along with many Republicans.

"I've been there, done that," she explained. "I've (served in) Augusta, I don't have to get acclimated with the system, I know what goes on up there. ... I know the working body of the Legislature. ... I can get to work."

A press release for Benoit noted she has been recognized for her work on adoption rights, and that she tried to overturn a tax on goods and services, including health insurance claims and beverages.

Vitelli, 64, is director of program and policy at Women, Work and Community. She serves on the Maine Economic Growth Council and was president of the Midcoast Economic Development District.

She has also served on the Community Development Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Arrowsic School and Regional School Unit 1 Transition committees, and the Maine Human Resources Development Council.

Vitelli received the Entrepreneurial Excellence award in 2006, was named Women's Business Advocate of the Year in 1997, and was inducted into the Maine Women's Hall of Fame in 1995.

"I've spent over 30 years working to help create jobs, and helping mostly adults return to school so they can get the skills they need to get good jobs, finding careers that will be rewarding in the long term ... and starting small businesses," she said.

Vitelli participated last year on the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future. "I really saw that as an exciting step in the direction that I've been going in for a long time," she said.

Stromgren, 40, is a clinical social worker and has been a member of the Maine Greens since the party's 1994 inception. He has worked on several Green Party campaigns and on national party issues. An adoptee, he has been a longtime advocate for adoption rights.

Stromgren has also worked as a legal researcher, helping small business growth in Portland, and supporting local economic development. He has more recently been a mental health provider for several area agencies.

Having looked at the political climate, he said, it seemed as though Republicans were running against Democratic President Obama, and Democrats were running against Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

"I decided we needed somebody who wasn't running for anything, except for the people of District 19," Stromgren said. "And that they needed representation that was without partisan motive."

"I go to Augusta not beholden to anybody," he added.

Party gap

All three candidates expressed desire to bridge the gap between political parties in Augusta.

"Clearly there are party divides, and I think unfortunately the governor has not helped bridge that gap – the genuine disagreements that exist," Vitelli said.

But she said she has seen progress in that direction.

"The parties do and can work together, and come together," Vitelli said. "... When it comes down to making some of the toughest decisions, and even some of the more enlightened decisions ... the parties do come together, and can do the compromising that's necessary to come to agreement.

"And I want to contribute to that," she added. "I've had experience over the years working both sides of the aisle, if you will, as somebody who's an interested citizen wanting to get some programs in place."

Stromgren said that as a social worker he has "developed a lot of skills in communication and negotiation, where I work with clients on a regular basis to achieve common goals and to reach consensus about issues in their lives, and we don't bring party affiliation into it.

"I think what we need in Augusta is somebody who's willing to say that it's really not about drawing lines in the sand or creating anxiety among the electorate, with these 11th-hour decisions and these threats of government shutdown and loss of jobs," he said, "and that legislation can happen, and should be happening, prior to ... that last-minute fear factor."

Benoit said she is "able to get along with people and work across party lines, and the gridlock up there has been terrible, just terrible. So I think I bring that to the table, for sure."

When Benoit lost her bid for re-election in 2008, she said, Democrats expressed their disappointment because they appreciated being able to work with her. "I was not afraid to ask questions (of) both sides," she said, "and get to the heart of what a common denominator was so that we could work it out.

"I would be part of the solution, right from the beginning."

Taxes, education, health care

If elected, Benoit said she would "look at the legislation that's on the books right now, so that I can figure out where to go with that, to finish out the cycle (to) 2014."

She said she would also like to look into re-establishing the circuit breaker property tax relief program. She said many Mainers live on a fixed incomes, and people have asked if she can do anything about that, "because in the communities that I represent, that's a major decrease for them."

Education is a concern for Vitelli, a former preschool teacher. "Teachers need to be valued," she said. "... I really want to do what I can to encourage and support public education."

Health care is another concern, she said, "because if people don't have access to affordable health care, it's going to be difficult for them to contribute economically, and to support their families, and be their best. So we have to take care of that."

Stromgren said he wants "to figure out this health care debacle that we have going on, and ... we really need to make the electorate informed. We tend to speak – when we talk about health care – in a language that most people, unless you're directly involved with it, don't understand."

He also wants to work to get the state's electrical grid "back up to speed, so that we can be competitive."

"Small business education and the state's infrastructure are all important, and there are ways to develop those in a green manner that doesn't necessarily change the character or the nature of our state," Stromgren said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.