Similar roots produce political contrast in House District 120 election in Portland

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PORTLAND —  Two-term incumbent state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is being challenged by libertarian Republican, and political newcomer, Davian Akers in House District 120.

District 120 includes the city’s East End, Old Port and downtown.

While the candidates disagree on subjects from job creation to energy independence, they said their working-class roots have influenced their political perspectives.

Russell, 36, is a public relations consultant who first sought office while working as a clerk at Colucci’s Hilltop Market on Munjoy Hill. She still can be found serving customers there each Monday.

“I have a connection with my district that most legislators don’t get to have,” she said. “Working behind the counter, I know my constituents. They’re not just not voters, they’re my friends. I know their kids, I know their dogs, I know their stories.

“I never forget where I came from, or who I represent … there’s a level of accountability there. I just don’t want to let my people down.”

Akers, 31, started work at age 10, helping out at a vegetable stand in Casco. Later, he went into his family’s flooring business, and then worked in sales for a marketing firm. Recently laid off from that job, he has refused to apply for unemployment benefits. Instead, he is devoting his time to campaigning.

“I could just sit in front of the TV and get angry about the situation I’m in, and that the nation’s in,” he said. “But I decided to do something about it.

“People have a responsibility to live their lives independently. We don’t need government controlling our lives.”

Business in Maine

Akers said that increasing such independence from government will help Maine attract businesses and ultimately create jobs. He praised the tax cuts of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration as a “great step” toward business growth, and said he’d “like to see more of that.”

A former restaurant server, Akers said he advocates eliminating taxes on gratuities, a major source of income for the state’s many hospitality workers.

He also said he supports the “stripped-down form of government” in New Hampshire, which has no sales tax or state income tax and where taxes that do exist “don’t cater to a lot of (benefit) programs.

“Maine has always been an independent state,” he said. “We can follow suit.”

At the same time, Akers said he’d like to see the state government take a more active role in marketing Maine as a business destination.

“Why is Maine behind the times in marketing? I would like to see Maine evolve into a more vibrant, business-friendly state, and we can do that if we do more to market our uniqueness,” he said.

In contrast, Russell said the state already is friendly to businesses. 

“Frankly, the idea that we’re not business-friendly is not reflective of reality,” she said, citing the success of small businesses in Portland as proof. Tax incentives, she said, are not the key to economic growth.

“Business owners say, No. 1, they don’t need new tax breaks. They need customers,” she said. “And No. 2, they need access to affordable capital.”

One solution, according to Russell, is the creation of a state-owned bank that would hold public funds and then partner with community banks to offer low-cost loans to local businesses.

The state bank would plow investments back into the community while freeing capital for business growth, according to Russell.

“You would be addressing a core component of what small business owners consistently say they need,” she said. “And one of the returns on investment is the creation of jobs in the local community, which leads to spending money … and creating customers, which is the other component.”

The idea is modeled after the success of the Bank of North Dakota, the only state bank in the nation, she said. In 2011, she introduced legislation to create a similar bank in Maine, but the bill was defeated in committee.

Russell said the proposal is one part of a comprehensive platform she calls her Maine Street Economic Opportunity Agenda, which also includes steps such as improving workforce education and training.

Commenting on the plan’s goals, she said, “People should be climbing into the middle class, not falling out of it.”

Social welfare

When it comes to social services, Akers said he empathizes with people who receive public benefits. “I’m running as a Republican, but that doesn’t mean I’m insensitive,” he said.

At the same time, he said he is “blown away by the loopholes in the system,” and that Maine needs to do a better job of stamping out inefficiency and abuse in its welfare programs.

“If our programs are not efficient, then restructure them or close them down,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in the business of just handing out cash … the state has been pandering to people without really encouraging prosperity and responsibility.”

Again, he used New Hampshire as an example. “(New Hampshire) has fewer (social welfare) programs, but the ones they have work well,” he said.

While Russell also supports closer management of programs such as MaineCare, she said all public expenditures should be scrutinized equally.

“Why are we having a conversation about welfare for parents who are trying to put food on the table for their kids, when we’re not having a conversation about corporate welfare?” she said. “I’m not immune to the idea that we should restructure the Department of Health and Human Services, but if we’re going to have a conversation about that, why aren’t we having a conversation about where (tax breaks) are going?

“We live in a society where we take care of each other … In these economic times, millionaires should be giving to charity, not asking for it from their government.”

She said the state needs to continue providing consistent, predictable social services, and that disrupting those services can be more costly.

“It requires oversight, but if these services are managed, people can live full, healthy lives, and be less dependent on the system,” Russell said.

New sources of energy

Both Akers and Russell said they are open to greater use of alternative energy sources in Maine. But Russell said discussions of the state’s support for solar, wind and tidal power miss a fundamental issue.

“Before we get caught up in (alternative energy), let’s capitalize on the energy we’re wasting,” she said. “The cheapest form of energy is energy never used.”

Weatherizing more houses in Maine could save the state 30 to 40 percent of its home energy costs, while reducing the environmental impact of fossil fuels, according to Russell. In addition, energy efficiency programs can have economic benefits, she said.

“The money we save through energy efficiency, instead of going to Wall Street or Saudi Arabia, gets recycled in the local economy. It puts real people to work,” she said.

But she believes the state must do more to support energy efficiency. “The governor has gone out of his way to denigrate and disintegrate the energy efficiency programs in our state,” Russell said.

Akers, however, believes that Maine’s energy independence hinges on private industry.

He admitted that as a result of the oil industry’s influence, “no one has been honest about the potential of alternative energy.”

Still, he said, “I’m all for private-sector development (of energy resources). Government is not an energy business.”

Same-sex marriage

Both Akers and Russell said they will vote for Question 1, the referendum asking if the state should issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the candidates cited different reasons for their support.

Akers said the state should not be responsible for licensing marriages. But if it is, then it should treat all couples equally.

“People should have the right to live the life they want to live,” he said. “But if government wasn’t affiliated with marriage, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

For Russell, Question 1 is a question of civil rights.

“I’ll be voting yes,” she said. “… There was a time when black people couldn’t marry white people. This is no different.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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