State Reps. Justin Chenette and Barry Hobbins had a lot in common even before they both decided to run for the state Senate seat representing the Saco area.

Although separated by 40 years, both Democrats graduated from Thornton Academy in Saco and were elected to represent their hometown in the House of Representatives at age 21, earning each the distinction of being the youngest legislator in the state at the time. They agree on many things: raising the minimum wage, having the state fully fund education at 55 percent and advocating for social justice issues.

But as opponents in the Democratic primary in Senate District 31, they offer different approaches to how they’d work with Gov. Paul LePage and his administration.

Hobbins, 65, says his relationship with LePage and his decades of experience in Augusta make him the best candidate to represent the district, which includes Hollis, Limington, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and part of Buxton.

Chenette, 25, believes his two terms in Augusta coupled with his willingness to stand up to LePage give him the experience and outlook needed to bring change to state politics.

The winner of the primary will face Republican William Gombar of Old Orchard Beach in the November election, and will have a decided advantage in a district with far more registered Democrats than registered Republicans. The seat is being vacated by Sen. Linda Valentino, a Democrat from Saco, who is retiring from politics to care for her mother.

Chenette, a digital advertising executive for the Journal Tribune, has represented Saco in the House for two terms and considers Valentino a longtime friend and mentor. He is running as a clean elections candidate, which provided about $10,000 for his campaign on top of $2,000 in seed money contributions.

Chenette’s election to office at 21 made him not only the youngest legislator in Maine, but also the youngest openly gay state legislator in the country at the time. He says some may try to cast the primary race as one of an experienced legislator versus an inexperienced candidate, but he bristles at that idea.

“Fundamentally, experience is not just about the number of years you’ve served,” Chenette said. “It’s about what you did.”

During his time in Augusta, Chenette co-chaired the bipartisan youth caucus and served on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, where he helped reach a county jail funding compromise that brings more resources to York County. He also championed the expansion of the Opportunity Maine tax credit to reduce student loan debt and sponsored successful legislation that added community service to the list of high school graduation standards. He was co-sponsor of bills to raise the minimum wage, create a cold case unit, put out a bond for affordable senior housing and make it easier for children of veterans to obtain college tuition waivers.

Chenette believes his top achievement in Augusta has been working on campaign finance and political action committee reform. He said lobbyists and special interest groups have too much influence over public policy decision making.

“We should expect more from our elected officials than being beholden to corporate lobbyists. I stand up to them; I don’t give in to them,” he said. “I consider this an entire network of completely legal bribery that continues to harbor our distrust in government and it casts doubt on whether our elected officials really have our back.”

Chenette acknowledges he and Hobbins share many of the same views on state issues, but differ sharply on their approach to dealing with LePage. Chenette voted to impeach and investigate the governor.

“I’m hearing the people are frustrated. They’re frustrated with a governor who is embarrassing the state, doing illegal activity and abusing his position as chief executive,” he said. “People want to rein in the governor.”

Hobbins, an attorney with a practice in Saco, says he is one of the few Democrats in Augusta who can work with LePage.

He says their cordial relationship began when he declined to criticize LePage for hiring his daughter for a job in the governor’s office. Later, Hobbins requested a meeting with the governor to talk about the heroin epidemic and Narcan, the opioid overdose antidote. During the meeting, Hobbins said, he shared a private story about his first-hand experience about the effects of addiction.

“He sat there and listened to me for 45 minutes,” he said. “I know I have the ability to at least break bread with him. I treat the office of governor with respect, but I don’t roll over for Gov. LePage.”

When he was elected to the House at 21, Hobbins was the youngest legislator in state history. He spent 12 years in the House, serving as chairman of the judiciary committee and on various other committees. He moved to the state Senate for five terms, serving as the chairman of both the ethics and judiciary committees.

Hobbins left politics for 14 years before being elected to the Senate in 2004 and serving four two-year terms. He was the Democratic floor leader from 2010-12. For the past four years, he has represented Saco in the House.

“I believe I can be more effective because of my past experience as a state senator. That is extremely important,” he said. “I believe I possess a unique blend of business, legislative, public policy and legal experiences to tackle the challenges facing our state.”

Hobbins is financing his campaign with traditional contributions and had raised $23,000 through the end of May, including $16,500 in loans from Hobbins to his own campaign.

Hobbins said his greatest accomplishments in Augusta include his work on the opiate-abuse issue as chairman of the judiciary committee. Early in his legislative career, he sponsored a bill that raised the minimum wage for the first time in a decade.

“That was an early victory,” he said. “Throughout the years, I sponsored juvenile code revisions that changed from a punitive to rehabilitative approach. Three years ago, I helped craft an omnibus energy bill that has significantly changed energy policy.”

Hobbins said his experience crafting policy and working with politicians from across the state is especially valuable in Augusta at a time when the state is at a crossroads and divisive battles threaten Maine’s future.

“I’m able to reach across the aisle and build consensus,” Hobbins said. “It takes lifelong experience to do that.”

 


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