Monday, March 10, 2014
By MICHAEL SHEPHERD Kennebec Journal
Voters in Sagadahoc County and Dresden will choose a former lawmaker, a women's business advocate or a social worker Tuesday to represent them in the state Senate.
The stakes are high for partisan interests. More than $146,000 of outside money -- most of it benefiting Democrat Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic -- had been spent on the race for the Senate District 19 seat as of Friday.
The seat was last held by Democrat Seth Goodall of Richmond, who resigned in June to head the New England offices of the federal Small Business Administration.
A win for the Republican, Paula Benoit of Phippsburg, who was elected to the seat in 2006 and beaten by Goodall in 2008 by 162 votes, would be a setback to Democrats as they gear up for a likely 2014 gubernatorial race featuring Gov. Paul LePage, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.
A third candidate, Green Independent Daniel Stromgren, is a social worker who describes himself as a moderate Green.
If Benoit or Stromgren wins, the number of Democrats in the 35-member Maine Senate will be down to 18, the smallest number needed for a majority.
Democrats and their allies have spent more than $96,000 in independent expenditures to bolster Vitelli's bid with campaign literature, ads and other campaign infrastructure, with more than $78,000 from the state party committee itself as of Friday.
Republican interests have spent nearly $51,000 to help Benoit's campaign. More than $46,000 of it has come from the state party.
Benoit and Vitelli mostly stick to party lines, highlighting their experience in business.
Benoit says the state's welfare system is too large and crowding out funding for other priorities of government.
Vitelli says workforce development, expanding access to health care and supporting public education are her priorities.
Stromgren says he's focused on solving Maine's problems, not simply saying what's wrong.
DEMOCRAT ELOISE VITELLI
Vitelli, who has worked for more than 30 years as director of program and policy development for Women, Work and Community, a statewide group largely focused on improving the standing of women in business, said her profession prepares her for service.
At the State House, she said her main goals would be to tackle workforce development and education, issues she has already been working on.
For example, she worked with the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future, which was assembled in December to report out a bill addressing Maine's skills gap.
The bill the committee crafted passed, and it is set to improve the transfer of credits between the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System, also aiming to reduce waiting lists for popular community-college programs while providing financial assistance to adults who went to college but didn't earn a degree.
Vitelli said Maine's largest workforce challenge is "finding the right people for the right job and supporting both the workers to make sure they can further hone their skills, and employers so they understand how they can bring people along once they're in the job and pay them a fair wage."
REPUBLICAN PAULA BENOIT
Benoit, who has owned a gift shop in Bath and co-owned a hair salon, said her experience tells her Maine has a shortage of qualified workers, largely because of a bloated welfare system.
"I've had people apply for jobs in my business where I knew I couldn't hire them," she said. "They had never worked, and that's a burden on the business owner to have to pay them to train them how to even have decent manners with the clientele."
In Augusta, she said her priorities would be on veterans' issues and enhancing property-tax relief programs.
Benoit said she's in line with LePage's fiscal conservatism and his ideas for educational reform. On his provocative speaking style, she is less enthusiastic. She said he and the media are at fault for the focus on his off-color comments, but his style wouldn't match hers.
"I don't get ruffled. I'm just not a fighter," she said. "That's been very helpful to me over the years because I can bring people together."
GREEN INDEPENDENT DANIEL STROMGREN
Stromgren is running an unusual campaign for a Green, saying he's somewhat conservative for those in his party, which typically runs to the left of Democrats.
"It seems like, frankly, Republicans want to run against President Obama and Democrats want to run against Gov. LePage," he said. "What I saw was an opportunity to really not run against anybody, but run for District 19's citizenry."
He's running on policy-oriented platforms.
For example, he would like to redesign Maine's energy grid using incentives to convert to renewable sources of energy, like solar, wind and tidal power, selling unused power to a new state energy bank that could compete with bigger utilities on cost.
Stromgren said he opposes the potential shipping of tar sands oil because Maine would mostly be a pass-through state, not gaining the reward of cheaper fossil fuel.
He also shares many priorities of Democrats, saying Medicaid expansion could help to control health care costs instead of having the state or hospitals provide care when people without health insurance go to the hospital.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 621-5632 or at: