Thursday, April 17, 2014
If state Sen. Justin Alfond ends up with a tight race on Nov. 6, he has only himself to blame.
His opponent, Green Independent Asher Platts, got his first lessons in running a campaign from Alfond and the League of Young Voters, the political organization Alfond helped get started back in 2008.
Now, instead of turning those organizing and mobilizing skills against a Republican, Platts has set his sights on moving Democrat Alfond out of his perch representing the Portland peninsula in Augusta. Getting attacked from the left might seem like surprise to the reliably progressive lawmaker, who has a good shot of becoming Senate president if his party retakes control, but Alfond is taking it in stride.
"This is a validation of the work the league did and the work that it is continuing to do," he said. "It shows the power of the league to educate young people so they could play a huge part in the political process."
Nobody is doing any polling, but Alfond is the clear favorite and the race is probably not close. But as a brotherly squabble in the progressive family, it's a fun one to watch, and it gives people around the state a window into the complexity of Portland politics.
In a state and nation that we are constantly reminded are closely divided between red and blue, the real races in Portland are between blue and green. The League of Young Voters, which started as a training ground for outside agitators, has become a key part of the city's political architecture, and a league endorsement these days carries as much weight as one from the Chamber of Commerce. (The league backs Alfond in this race.)
The big debate in Paul LePage's Augusta might be how many people can you cut from MaineCare, but in Portland it's what's the best way to get everyone covered with health insurance.
You can't do anything unless you get elected, and it was learning the mechanics of how that gets done that brought Alfond and Platts together for the first time.
Platt, now 29, was a budding political organizer on the University of Southern Maine campus when he attended a meeting of what was then called The League of Pissed Off Voters at Reiche School, in the spring of 2008. He was so promising that he was given a scholarship to go to Ohio for training, a trip that Alfond also made.
They learned about canvassing, creating literature, working the polls and other nuts and bolts of building a movement.
They were taught that progress is slow. "They got us thinking in terms of 15 years," Platts said.
Since the 2004 campaign, Platts has worked for Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaigns and made a film about the Occupy Wall Street movement. He has an online persona as "Punk Patriot" and hosts a video blog (where you can see some political humor and buy a T-shirt with the slogan "Kill and Eat the Rich").
His decision to take on Alfond was more practical than personal: "At the time I was moving from sublet to sublet and I didn't known where I would be living." Senate districts are bigger than House districts, so he figured that he had a better chance of meeting the residency requirement if he ran for the Senate.
But Platts said there was enough policy space between the two to justify a race.
Platts said he opposed the Democratic tax reform that was passed in 2009 and later overturned by a Republican-led people's veto the next year. By flattening the income tax rates and broadening the sales tax, he said, Democrats shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the lowest-income Mainers.
Since then, Platts says, Alfond and other Democrats have accepted the Republican belief that austerity will build the economy, and their dependence on corporate donors limits their ability to fight back.
"I don't know if Justin has been as bold or acted like a leader, at least on the issues that I care about," Platts said. "I think if you want to be outspoken, the Democratic Party will tie your hands."
Alfond says he represents his district best by working with lawmakers from other parts of the state and those who belong to the other party -- a must when you are in the minority. He has been an outspoken critic of Gov. LePage, showing an ability to get under the chief executive's skin. That alone ought to be enough to win him re-election in the city gripped by a severe case of LePage-phobia.
In the end, most Portland voters will probably agree with Alfond, and he will learn a valuable lesson.
Be careful whom you help.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: