Brunswick Democrats will head to the polls on June 10 to choose between two veteran public servants who have waged a long and, at times, feisty primary campaign for an open seat in the Maine Legislature.
The District 50 race between Ralph Tucker and Jackie Sartoris is Brunswick’s first contested Democratic primary for a legislative seat in 14 years. With Democrats outnumbering Republicans within the town by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and Brunswick’s history of electing Democratic lawmakers, the primary winner could enter the fall election with a numerical edge over Republican contender Mark Holbrook.
The spirited District 50 primary has drawn involvement from statewide groups. The campaigning also began earlier than most legislative races, with Tucker officially announcing his candidacy last June followed by Sartoris in September, although she had been openly discussing plans to run for some time.
“They have been everywhere: knocking on doors, engaging groups and talking about the issues,” said Trish Riley, chairwoman of the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee. “But it is always good to have a choice between two good candidates.”
The two candidates are vying to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Charlie Priest, a Democrat representing District 63 who is prevented from seeking a fifth term because of term limits. Brunswick’s legislative district boundaries were recently redrawn and renumbered in the case of District 50, which now encompasses most of the town east of Maine Street and Federal Avenue.
Tucker, 66, is a retired lawyer and Maine District Court judge who served 11 years on the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, including seven years as chairman. At the local level, he served six years on the Brunswick School Board – including two years as chairman – as well as a year on the Town Council before stepping down to become a judge.
He has made education his top issue, pledging to work to increase state funding for public schools. He is also strongly critical of the charter school push in Maine.
Sartoris, 49, is an elder-law attorney who served four terms on the Brunswick Town Council and recently served on the town’s sewer board. She formerly handled public policy issues as a state planner before entering the University of Maine School of Law in midcareer. The environment and health care are among Sartoris’ top issues.
The two candidates share many political platforms. Both said they favor enforcing or strengthening air and water quality laws and are pro-union, although Tucker was one of only three Democratic primary candidates to receive an endorsement from the AFL-CIO of Maine.
Both support President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and believe that Maine should expand its Medicaid program, as allowed by the federal health care reform law but opposed by Gov. Paul LePage and many Republican lawmakers.
“Ralph and I are not going to have a lot of differences in broad policy areas,” Sartoris said. “Where I do think we differ is in our track record of getting things done. And I think I have that track record.”
Sartoris said she worked to implement single-sort recycling as well as Brunswick’s pay-per-bag trash collection system while a member of the Town Council. While working for state government, she co-directed a task force of environmental groups, development interests and others that laid the groundwork for changes to the state’s wetlands protections laws.
Tucker, meanwhile, said his seven years on the judicial bench and 11 years on the Workers’ Compensation Board – serving under both Democratic and Republican governors – will help him “approach problems in a deliberative, logical fashion.”
“I have been a judge and I have interpreted the law in hundreds and hundreds of cases,” Tucker said. “I have been the head of a state agency, so I understand the budget process (in the Legislature). And I have been on the local school board, so I have seen it from that side, too.”
Several dust-ups between Tucker and Sartoris have created a buzz in Democratic circles in Brunswick and beyond. Arguably the most notable source of tension has been over money.
Sartoris chose to pay for her legislative bid through Maine’s public campaign financing system, commonly known as the Clean Elections program. Publicly financed candidates can receive up to $1,429 for their contested primary campaigns – and $4,724 for the general election – in return for agreeing to eschew private donations.
Tucker said he supports the Clean Elections program but argued that it has been “gutted” by a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down “matching funds” for publicly financed candidates to help them compete with privately financed candidates. Tucker said he chose a private campaign to ensure he can compete financially during the general election.
“If you’re a realistic candidate, you have to be prepared for a well-funded opponent,” he said. “In this day and age it costs a lot to reach voters.”
As a result, Tucker has been able to raise nearly $9,200 – including a $1,000 loan from himself – and had spent nearly $8,800 on the campaign through May 27. Part of that money has been used to purchase a 30-second video ad. Sartoris said she has only had enough money for one mailing plus other promotional materials and does not expect to have enough money to purchase ads.
Sartoris has tried to make Tucker’s acceptance of outside contributions an issue in the campaign.
“I absolutely think the way you run a campaign should be something that voters pay attention to,” she said.
The two candidates also generated headlines in the Brunswick newspaper when Sartoris complained that Tucker had violated local ordinances by placing campaign signs on a few properties on the day of the Democratic caucus. Brunswick ordinances prohibit campaign signs earlier than 60 days before an election.
But Tucker said courts have ruled such restrictions unconstitutional and he even checked with the town police before putting up signs on the lawns of eight supporters.
“It was a surprise to me that my opponent wanted to enforce an unconstitutional ordinance,” Tucker said.
Riley, who chairs the town’s Democratic committee, acknowledged that the primary campaign has been lively but described the tone as largely positive.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: