TOPSHAM — Three candidates are on the Nov. 4 ballot in the new state Senate District 23, which includes all of Sagadahoc County and the Lincoln County town of Dresden.
Incumbent Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, is seeking a second term in the former District 19. Challenging her are Republican Linda Baker, of Topsham, and Green Independent candidate Alice Knapp, of Richmond.
Baker, 66, is the widow of former Topsham Fire Chief Clayton “Skip” Baker; she has three children and five grandchildren. She taught in Bath from 1980-1985, and at Mt. Ararat High School from 1985-2011. Baker now teaches at Merrymeeting Adult Education.
She served on the Topsham Board of Selectmen for three years in the 1980s, and spent five years on the Blaine House Scholarship Selection Committee, and 10 on the Jobs for Maine Graduates Advisory Board.
Baker said she long considered a run for the Legislature, but wanted to wait until retirement from full-time education to do so. “I was just too invested in my students,” she said.
Baker said she is concerned about the “deterioration of the intent of our social services … I have a firm belief in taking care of those in our country, our state,” who are most in need, she said, such as children, the elderly and disabled.
“But … I believe that we need to educate people to understand that our social service systems were never intended to be a career,” she said. “They are intended to benefit, to help people get on their feet, to help them grow and become independent.”
“I don’t believe in enabling,” Baker added. “I believe in helping.”
For many years Baker was a registered independent, but she said she has always aligned more with Republican ideas and ideals. The key to getting people of different parties to work together, to bridge the political divisiveness that many consider to have plagued Augusta, she said, is “simply listening with an open mind.”
She added that “we do need to compromise. Our whole nation is built on a little give and take, and a little understanding. I really believe it can be done; I don’t think most people like to be adversarial.”
“Our youth is bailing out of the state in record numbers, and it’s always broken my heart,” she said, adding that her years in the classroom have given her a strong understanding of the needs of families and youth.
Knapp, 54, has had her own law firm in Richmond since 2002. She has been practicing law in Maine since 1989, starting as a business lobbyist and working two legislative sessions at the Statehouse. She later joined the state Bureau of Insurance, spending 11 years as an insurance regulator, employed part of that time as a staff attorney supporting the bureau’s Market Conduct Division.
She then joined the Bangor health law practice of Duane Morris, a firm based in Philadelphia, but ultimately decided to start her solo practice.
Knapp, a founding and current board member of Maine AllCare, said she has always been interested in politics, but noted that she has never liked partisan politics and has a long history as an independent. Her interests in politics and society have led her on her career path, she said.
She served on the Richmond Planning Board from 1991-1998, co-chairing it from 1995-1998, and then spent most of 1998-2005 on the town’s Board of Selectmen, the final year as chairwoman.
“My work as a selectman really drove my activism on property taxes, because our property taxes relative to our per capital income are the sixth-highest in the country,” Knapp said. “And they’re incredibly regressive – no regard to ability to pay.”
Knapp, whose other service includes the Sagadahoc County Budget Advisory Committee (2005-2008), ran unsuccessfully as an independent in 2004 for the state Senate.
“I think I’m a much better candidate now that I’ve had a solo practice for 12 years, and I’ve had the benefit of talking to so many people in my community,” she said.
“Maine is an amazing state full of amazing people, and it doesn’t matter if they’re Republicans or they’re Democrats,” Knapp added. “It’s the parties that drive me crazy. … Parties are all about maintaining power, and catering to their base. And they’re locked into their ideology.”
Knapp said she is a “people person,” which should help bridge the partisan divide. “I’ve learned over the years that … you have to develop the personal relationships with people so that they at least listen to you,” she said.
Vitelli, 65, is married and has two children, and was elected in Senate District 19 last year in a special election to replace former Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond.
She is director of program and policy at Women, Work and Community, serves on the Maine Economic Growth Council, and was president of the Midcoast Economic Development District.
Vitelli, who served in 2012 on the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, 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.
She 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. Vitelli was also president of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Vitelli said she is running for another Senate term “because I did a good job my first year and had a good time, and want to continue the work.”
She called herself a practical person with “a deep desire to do what I can to improve conditions in Maine, and the focus for me has long been on helping people find good jobs, get the education and skills that they need, and start small businesses. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 30-plus years.”
Vitelli said staying focused and developing some level of knowledge is a big challenge in the Legislature. “We need to continue to do that better and to rely on each others’ areas of expertise to educate and inform us on the whole array of issues that we have to deal with,” she said.
Even in her one year in Augusta, Vitelli said, she did not find the partisan gap to be as wide inside the Capitol dome as it may appear from the outside.
“I find my colleagues … to be much more congenial and willing to work together than the think the public perception is,” she said. “… I really found that people on … all sides of the aisle come there because they want to do positive things. And we work together to do that.”