CUMBERLAND — Candidates for the state Senate in District 11 squared off last week in a debate whose organizers will cast few, if any, ballots on Nov. 6.

Greely High School student government and debate team members – most presumably too young to vote – moderated the Oct. 25 debate between incumbent Sen. Dick Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, and Republican Chris Tyll, of Cumberland.

Woodbury is an economist who served three terms in the state House before winning the 2010 election for the Senate District 11 seat. The district includes Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth.

Challenger Tyll is a franchise owner of Pat’s Pizza in Portland, and previously served as a U.S. Navy SEAL in Iraq. He is a is seeking his first elected office.

The hour-long debate, attended by parents, teachers and students, touched on a variety of issues in a campaign that has attracted outside attention not often seen in legislative races.

Sophomore Harry Crosby asked the candidates to discuss the proposed use of publicly funded vouchers to let Maine students attend schools of their choice, including private and religious ones.

By transferring funds between school districts, “wide-open school choice hurts the people who can’t afford to be hurt,” Tyll said. Such a voucher system would concentrate funding in affluent communities with already successful schools, so that “the child that gets left behind is the child of a single mom or a single dad,” he said.

But Tyll said he supports the limited use of charter schools, especially to provide gifted and talented students more options to “achieve greatness faster.”

Woodbury, a former substitute French teacher at Greely, said he, too, opposes a voucher system.

“Certain schools will lose the funding they have, and they’ll be the schools that are already struggling today,” he said.

He noted that a voucher system would be an “extreme step” to create school choice, and that Maine law already permits smaller, administrative steps. These include the use of superintendents’ agreements, which are informal arrangements that allow schools to transfer students without directly transferring funds.

But he cautioned against the over-use of the agreements, which he called a “back-door approach” to choice. He also was cautiously supportive of the establishment of charter schools.

“I view (charter schools) as a very limited, but generally positive step for Maine,” Woodbury said. “There are certain students who do not thrive in traditional school settings. … The aim is to provide a range of alternatives, and I like that those opportunities are there. For me, it’s about expanding the breadth of options for students.”

Senior Evan Morrison asked the candidates how they would vote on Question 1, the statewide referendum that would legalize marriage for same-sex couples.

Woodbury said he planned to vote yes, in support of marriage equality.

“I believe that two, loving people should have an opportunity to marry each other and have all the benefits and legal rights associated with marriage,” he said. “I hope we will be a state where same-sex couples can marry.” 

He noted that as a state representative, he supported the Legislature’s 2009 bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

“But I said at the time, why don’t we go out and do a referendum about it? Why don’t we go out to the people?” he said. Ultimately, the 2009 bill was overturned by such a referendum. But Woodbury said he is glad the issue is now before the people of Maine again.

“I think it’s particularly exciting that if the referendum passes, as it looks like it will,” he said, “Maine will be the first state to do it this way.”

In contrast, Tyll said he will be voting against Question 1, although he said he is committed to supporting the outcome of the referendum.

“It isn’t a matter of equality,” Tyll said. “The reason I’m voting no is because of the religion I grew up with. … I’m committed to my religion, and that’s the teaching of my church.

“If anything, the conversation (about same-sex marriage) should more of a libertarian issue, about whether we need to remove government from marriage,” he said. “But that’s not what’s before the people.”

Woodbury pointed out that Maine’s same-sex marriage initiative has language exempting religious groups from performing same-sex marriages if the concept violates an institution’s religious beliefs.

“It’s not at all about religion … it’s a question of whether couples have a right to a civil marriage and civil rights,” he said. “I would have thought a libertarian view would have thought that this was OK.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Tyll retorted, “I’ll listen to the pope, my bishop and my pastor.”

Later in the debate, sophomore Sam Hill asked the candidates to explain their views on another referendum issue – this one from last year’s ballot on Maine’s same-day voter registration law.

In June 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill that repealed the 38-year-old law permitting same-day registration. After the repeal was challenged, Tyll led Secure Maine’s Ballot, a group that claimed the repeal was necessary to protect the integrity of the voting process.

The same-day voting ban was ultimately overturned by a 60 percent majority of voters in last fall’s referendum.

Tyll, a privately funded candidate, said he had been “painted as an adversary” of voter rights, after “outside money” poured into a political action committee with his name attached.

“I didn’t even know about this,” he said. “… It was a lesson in politics.”

Tyll said the risk of voter fraud became important to him after seeing fellow soldiers die in Iraq. Voting in a fair election is “a civic duty and a sacred right that has been paid for by service,” he said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about it.”

But Woodbury, a Maine Clean Elections Act candidate, said the risk of voter fraud was overblown and that the attempt to repeal same-day registration was a partisan issue.

“I didn’t see a problem that needed fixing,” he said of the repeal. He also noted that nearly 60,000 voters registered on Election Day in 2008, giving Maine one of the highest levels of voter participation in the nation.

“The level of voter registration is the best indicator of the health of a democracy,” Woodbury said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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