CAPE ELIZABETH — Candidates for three seats in the state Legislature debated everything from charter schools to alternative energy Wednesday night at a forum hosted by high school students.
Cape Elizabeth High School students in the Advanced Placement government class moderated the discussion at Town Hall with candidates for House Districts 121 and 123 and Senate District 7.
In House District 121, which represents a portion of Cape Elizabeth, Republican Nancy Thompson and incumbent Democrat Kim Monaghan-Derrig are up for a rematch just a year after fewer than 200 votes decided a special election in favor of Monaghan-Derrig.
The two candidates disagreed on virtually every issue, butting heads on charter schools, same-day voter registration and same-sex marriage.
On charter schools, Thompson said she was “all for it,” citing competition as an important component in increasing the quality of education in schools.
“I’m thrilled that charter schools have been approved in the state,” she said. “Competition is the name of the game.”
Monaghan-Derrig said she was not completely against charter schools, but encouraged a strict cap on the total number allowed in the state.
“Maine doesn’t need 25 to 30 of them,” she said, noting the charter schools should not be publicly funded. “Who’s going to be benefiting, students or private profit-makers?”
In a lightning round of questioning, the candidates clung to party lines. Monaghan-Derrig approved of same-sex marriage and same-day voter registration, while Thompson wanted civil unions for the former and said she did not support the latter.
In a unique turn of events, all four candidates in House District 121 and Senate District 7 can credit their candidacies in part to Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, who is now running for U.S. Senate in District 1.
In 2011, Dill left her house seat for a state senate seat, forcing the special election between Monaghan-Derrig and Thompson. This year, she vacated the District 7 senate seat to jump into the U.S. Senate race, opening up the race to Republican Mike Wallace and Democrat Rebecca Millett.
Wallace and Millett, who are facing off to represent Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and the eastern portion of Scarborough, both agreed the economy was the top issue in this election, although their approaches to growing Maine’s economy varied significantly.
Wallace said lowering tax rates across the board would help encourage economic growth. Millett said her focus would be reducing medical costs, and in the short term, encouraging the Legislature to push for bonds.
A common thread that ran through every debate was the disapproval of partisanship and gridlock in the Legislature.
Millett said her experience on the nonpartisan Cape Elizabeth School Board will help her find common ground in Augusta.
“Frequently, if we all left the room a little bit grumpy, often we were able to make some decisions that helped move us forward,” she said.
In the Legislature, Wallace said it is important to be adaptive to challenges and work toward solutions.
“There will be times I will be standing against my own party and say, ‘this is what District 7 wants,'” he said.
In the three-way race for House District 123, representing part of both Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, the candidates also emphasized bipartisanship in the Legislature.
The Republican Jake Myrick and Independent Roger Bishop both approved of charter schools, although Bishop had reservations.
“There is nothing wrong in my mind with trying something else,” Bishop said. “The limit of 10 is fine. We should stop there until some time passes and we can do some measurements.”
Democratic candidate Scott Hamann said he does not support charter schools right now because of financial instability in public schools.
“School budgets are unpredictable and I don’t think it’s the right direction to go right now,” he said. “If (the economy is) more stabilized it could work. As it’s proposed I don’t support it, uniformly.”
When it came to discussing social welfare programs, the candidates were all over the map.
Myrick said MaineCare is being abused and needs to be revised.
“We have to provide necessary funds for the elderly, children and disabled, not the people who are able-bodied Mainers; we should encourage them to work,” he said.
Assessment of the program should be paramount, Bishop said. He stressed the importance of getting data from other states to assess where Maine stands and then working to reform the system.
“After a reasonable period of time you should be weaned off the system, unless they can prove they need that support,” he said. But he acknowledged the need for spending to maintain appropriate workloads for case workers assessing need.
Hannon said MaineCare needs to be de-stigmatized, noting his foster kids receive benefits from the system.
“It’s not bad people accessing MaineCare,” he said. “There are some inefficiencies and we should keep costs down and optimize quality.”
The same-sex marriage question split Myrick from his opponents, where he opposed it on religious grounds.
The students will also host a second debate between the five School Board candidates vying for three seats and a discussion with the three uncontested Town Council candidates.
The debate begins at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Town Hall, 320 Ocean House Road. The debates will be broadcast on Cape Elizabeth Public Access Channel 3 and rebroadcast several times before the election on Nov 6.