BRUNSWICK — Candidates in a three-way race for state Senate District 24 on Wednesday spoke about a wide range of issues including welfare, taxes, the minimum wage and partisan politics during an election forum held in the Brunswick Town Office.

Democrat Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, who is running for his fourth term in the Senate, is being challenged by Republican Jennifer Johnson and Green Independent Fred Horch for his seat. All three candidates are from Brunswick.

District 24 covers Brunswick, Freeport, Pownal, Harpswell and North Yarmouth.

In remarks at the beginning of the forum, Gerzofsky said that his many years of service in Augusta, first as a state representative and then senator, showed he is the candidate who can get things done.

“I don’t go to Augusta just to sit around and hear other people speak,” Gerzofsky said. “I go to Augusta to get the job done.”

In contrast, Horch said voters needed to pick someone who represented new ideas and who was not a member of either of the traditional political parties. Horch, an former lawyer and entrepreneur, has twice run unsuccessfully as a Green for a House seat in Brunswick.

“Democrats and Republicans, by themselves, are not able to share power responsibly,” Horch said. “The solution is to elect more Greens and Independents, people who can break the partisan gridlock and get things done.”

Johnson, a single mother who owns Johnson’s Sporting Goods, a local retailer, said that she was the candidate who could best relate to the struggles faced by ordinary people.

“See who has skin in the game, who has been living what you’ve been living for the last 10 years,” she told the small crowd.

All three candidates were asked a question prepared by the League of Women Voters, the forum organizer, and a number of questions submitted by voters.

Speaking on how he would work to improve relations between the two political parties in Augusta, Horch said the two-party system was itself the problem, which can only be addressed with more independent and third-party representatives.

“If our Senate only contains Democrats and Republicans, we’re never going to be able to solve this problem,” Horch said. “Democracy depends on diversity.”

But Gerzofsky said that there was a “misconception” among voters that there was a polarized political atmosphere in Augusta. In reality, representatives on both sides of the aisle regularly socialised and built personal relationships, which led to bipartisan collaboration on many issues, he said.

In about 90 percent of votes, legislators acted independently based on the needs of their constituents, not in line with their party, Gerzofsky claimed.

“When we do have those party-line votes, it’s because of what separates not only the parties in the state of Maine, but the people of the state of Maine,” he said.

Johnson said that she would be able to work with a diverse group of people and find consensus, regardless of political party, noting that being a Republican “does not define me.”

“You can’t always be right and you can’t always be wrong, you have to find a middle ground,”Johnson said.

On taxes, one of her key campaign issues, Johnson was unable to identify where, specifically, she would aim reforms. But she said the tax structure needed to be changed to help small businesses.

“We’re taxed to death,” she said.

Gerzofsky, however, said that tax cuts implemented under the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage  benefited the wealthy by shifting the burden to local property owners.

“When I see the some of the tax cuts that we’ve made in the last two or three years, I find them appalling,” Gerzofsky said. “I didn’t vote for them.”

Horch, on the other hand, said he was in favor of working to find how to make government more efficiently to reduce the need for taxes, but said he supported a progressive income tax so people would pay their fair share.

“You should tax people who can afford to pay taxes, and you should not tax people who really cannot afford to pay taxes,” Horch said.

While the differences between the candidates were clear throughout the hour-long forum, they were particularly demonstrated during discussions about welfare and the minimum wage.

Johnson contended that the state’s welfare system is “broken” and filled with fraud and abuse. Those who have have learned how to undermine state programs are abusing them at the expense of those who actually need public assistance, she said.

“It is a system that is so totally broken it is ridiculous now,” Johnson said.

She was also against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, suggesting that it would prevent businesses from hiring new employees.

In reaction, Gerzofsky launched a passionate defense of Maine’s public assistance system, declaring that instead of worrying about unproven accounts of fraud and abuse, voters should be proud that they can provide a social safety net for the neediest citizens.

“During the political season it is easy to pick on the people who have the least, it’s an easy target,” he thundered, to a flutter of applause from the audience.

Gerzofsky said he was in favor of raising the minimum wage, depending on the surrounding living standards in different parts of the state. He noted that $10.10 an hour in Aroostook County is different from the same wage in Cumberland County.

Speaking in similar terms, Horch said he was “absolutely” in favor of raising the minimum wage, but it should be indexed to the poverty rate in different areas.

But he agreed with Johnson that Maine’s welfare system is broken. From working first-hand with welfare recipients, he knows how hard it can be to get off assistance, Horch said.

“Once you are trapped in that system, it is like quicksand,” he declared. Instead, Maine should implement a “permanent fund” that would provide every citizen with a guaranteed revenue and provide much-needed capital funds to invest in local businesses.

Election day is next Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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