BANGOR – Democrats running for governor competed for the endorsement of paper mill workers Thursday as they talked about health care, jobs and taxes.

The United Steel Workers asked the candidates to share their thoughts on several issues during a forum at the group’s spring convention at the Bangor Ramada Inn. The union represents about 3,200 workers, 90 percent of whom work in Maine paper mills, said union president Patrick Carleton.

About 50 workers from Skowhegan, Madawaska, Bucksport and other mill towns attended, and many asked questions.

Carleton said the union normally does not endorse a candidate before a primary, but is considering it this year. Whether to endorse or not will likely be decided today, when the convention continues.

“We certainly support all five Democrats,” Carleton said. “They know our business and they know what we need.”

The Democratic field Thursday agreed on many core union issues, such as requiring workers be paid the prevailing wage for school construction, banning replacement workers, and helping employees acquire mills if management is reluctant to sell.

But they also tried to distance themselves from the pack.

“Unlike the folks up here at the table, I’m not part of the establishment,” said Rosa Scarcelli, who runs a company that builds housing for low-income buyers. “It’s time for a new face for the Democratic Party.”

Steve Rowe, a former state attorney general, said people throughout the state are worried about the economy.

“I know if you go east, west and north of here, it’s gets worse,” he said. “People need jobs.”

Democrats Patrick McGowan, John Richardson, Rowe, Scarcelli and Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell are running in the June 8 primary. Former Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion is running as a Democratic write-in.

The winner will face one of seven Republicans — Les Otten, Steve Abbott, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, Sen. Peter Mills, Bruce Poliquin, Bill Beardsley and Matt Jacobson — and one or more unenrolled candidates who don’t compete in the primary.

One area of disagreement at the forum concerned whether the state should require all Maine companies to provide paid sick days.

Mitchell, a lawyer and Senate president, sponsored that legislation this year, but it failed.

“We met a wall of resistance before anybody talked to us,” she said, noting that the business lobby opposed even a scaled-down version of the bill.

Rowe and McGowan said they, too, supported the bill.

But Richardson and Scarcelli said it was not a good time to put more mandates on Maine businesses.

“We need to get at the core issue, which is improving the economy,” said Richardson, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

McGowan, who resigned his job as commissioner of the Department of Conservation to run for governor, touted his family ties to mill workers, including cousins and in-laws who work in the industry.

He, along with the other candidates, said they support adding liquefied natural gas to the state’s mix of energy options.

“We will build things in my administration,” McGowan said. “We will hopefully build 10 new paper machines.”

Rowe said eventually, the state will rely more on renewable energy sources such as wind, tidal and solar power. But for now, natural gas should be another source, he said.

A worker from Madawaska asked the candidates whether they would support single-payer health care, even though it is not part of the final bill passed by Congress.

All said yes.

“Health care is killing us and we have to change it,” Scarcelli said.

Richardson said he would take a regional approach.

“I would look to create a three-state northern New England program with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine,” he said.

When it comes to taxes, the candidates urged the workers to vote “no” on Question 1, which would repeal a state law changing the state tax structure. The law lowers the top income tax rate, replaces exemptions and deductions with a credit system and applies the sales tax to more services.

One worker asked the candidates whether they would support a higher tax rate on Mainers earning more than $500,000 a year.

Mitchell said the law that is up for a vote requires those who make more than $250,000 to pay more in income tax.

“This is a huge step in the right direction,” she said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]