HARPSWELL — Republican Byron Watson and Democrat Joyce “Jay” McCreight are contesting an open seat in state House District 51, which includes Harpswell, West Bath, and a sliver of east Brunswick.
The two candidates have different views on how they will represent the district’s communities in the Legislature.
McCreight is focused on expanding health care and improving access to pre-school education across the state, while Watson is taking aim at marine resource issues and energy costs.
The two candidates are running for the seat currently held by Rep. Jeremy Saxton, D-Harpswell, who decided not to seek re-election.
A Brunswick native and former Brunswick School Board chairman, Watson, 35, has billed himself as the “local candidate” in the race. His family has lived in the area for generations and he has deep roots in the three communities in the district, he said.
Although running as a Republican, Watson said he is uninterested in partisan politics and, if elected, will serve his constituents, not his political party.
He said he is “sick of the bickering” in the Legislature and will partner with anyone to represent his district’s interests, even if it means “butting heads” with fellow Republicans over issues like cost-of-living adjustments for public employees.
“I’m really a moderate,” he said. “I’m not working for a party, I’m working for District 51.”
A single father of two, Watson works as a sales marketer for Bank of America in Brunswick.
He served one term on the Brunswick School Board from 2007-2010, including a stint as chairman. He ran unsuccessfully for Town Council in 2011 and failed to regain a seat on the School Board last year.
Watson’s tenure on the School Board was clouded after he sent what some regarded as an inappropriate email to then House Speaker Hanna Pingree in 2010, an incident that led to his ouster as School Board chairman.
At the time, Watson said he was the target of a political witch hunt and the incident was being used to malign him. In an interview this week, he said it now a non-issue for voters.
“Not one person has asked me about it,” Watson said.
Marine resource issues are critical to the people in his district and one of his top priorities, Watson said.
He said the state should be providing more funding for marine biologists and other experts to come up with solutions to the issues facing the shellfishing industry, and should also be boosting assistance to towns that are fighting a plague of invasive green crabs.
Moreover, the Legislature should take more of a role in creating an equal playing field between clammers and worm harvesters, who sometimes have a conflicting use of intertidal mudflats.
A bill introduce last year by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, that allows municipalities to close off small areas of mudflats to all harvesting for conservation was a good start, but doesn’t go far enough, Watson said.
“We need to make things fair,” he said.
High energy prices are also a priority for Watson. He said the high cost of energy is hurting business growth, and state government should back wind, solar and natural gas, and consider public-private partnerships, to improve access to more affordable forms of energy.
On the subject of charter schools, Watson called Harpswell Coastal Academy a “template for success” that other schools should follow.
He agreed that the state should look at the way it funds charters, but also said public schools should examine why they are losing students to charter schools and how they can adjust to reflect the needs of today’s students.
“They’re working on a 19th century model,” he said, “They need to be thinking about how to educate students in 2014.”
Finally, Watson said he will put veterans issues front and center to help protect their rights, he said.
A career social worker, McCreight worked in public schools in the Portland area for most of her 35-year career before retiring in 2013. She and her husband Tim moved to Harpswell six years ago.
“I wasn’t born there, I chose to be there,” she said.
Although this is her first campaign for public office, McCreight, 63, has been involved in local Democratic politics as chairwoman of the Harpswell Democratic Committee and treasurer of Saxton‘s 2012 campaign.
She has also advocated for women’s reproductive rights and Medicaid expansion in Maine. That work, and her participation in Saxton’s campaign, “inspired” her to run for office, she said.
McCreight said her campaign is another step in a long career of helping people.
“Taking it to the state level is helping use my voice in a different way,” she said.
McCreight said she has taken on the role of “communicator” in every group she has belonged to, and she will use that attribute to get work done in the Legislature.
“I have a proven record of interest and learning, and I’ll enjoy the challenge,” she said.
As a legislator, she said she would like to focus on expanding Medicaid, but also broadening educational opportunities for residents. That includes expanding access to public Head Start programs for young children, all the way to life-long learning for adults, as well as boosting science, technology, engineering and math programming in public schools.
McCreight also said she supports the KeepME Home initiative, pitched by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, which is a set of tax and housing incentives aimed at helping elderly people stay in their own homes.
“We’re the oldest state, we need to look at that,” McCreight said.
The state should consider reforming its tax structure in order to pay for its programs, McCreight said, noting that people who are able to pay more taxes should be.
“Obviously we don’t want to harm anyone, but we need to be fair,” she said.
Like Watson, she believes Harpswell Coastal Academy is doing “amazing” things for its students and the community. But overall, she said, the state needs to be “very cautious” about other charter schools, especially those that work on a for-profit model, she said.
“I support it when it works well,” she said.
The way the state funds charter schools should be examined, but McCreight said public schools should also look at their programs and how they might be improved to fit the needs of students.
McCreight said she would like to be in a position to address marine resource issues when they emerge.
The state should be addressing the marine environment as a whole, she said, but shouldn’t “swoop in” in an attempt to fix things if things are working well. She noted that people working in the industry sometimes feel they are being regulated too heavily, particularly in the realm of lobstering licenses, a perennial concern.
“People are frustrated that they can’t pass on or sell their licenses,” McCrieght said. “I’d like to look at that.”