Independent U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Savage, 64, campaigns at the Lewiston Farmers Market last month. The Solon resident describes herself as “the only non-millionaire in the race.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Third in a series on the candidates in Maine’s U.S. Senate election

Lisa Savage had never thought seriously about seeking political office until the summer of 2019, when members of the Green party nationally and around Maine reached out to her and asked if she would consider running for the U.S. Senate.

“Of course I was hesitant about it,” said Savage, who was hoping then to retire after one more year at her job as a reading interventionist at an Anson elementary school. Several family members who were visiting that summer encouraged her, though, and Savage ended up declaring her candidacy last fall.

Now the teacher, activist and grandmother from Solon is among three challengers vying to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins in what has become one of the most closely watched and expensive Senate races in the country.

Savage, 64, is running on a progressive platform, including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, and has tried to separate herself from the other candidates as “the only non-millionaire in the race.” She and her supporters are hoping Maine’s ranked-choice system will be seen by voters as an opportunity to support a third-party candidate who might otherwise be considered a spoiler.

But Savage also faces an uphill battle trying to win over more liberal voters who see Democrat Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, as their best chance of unseating Collins. Several polls have shown Gideon with a slight lead over Collins, while support for Savage, in polls that have accounted for ranked choice, has hovered around 3 to 5 percent. Fellow independent Max Linn has also polled around 5 percent or less.

“It’s extremely difficult to run as an independent, especially in a race with national implications like this one where you have national resources of all kinds pouring in for both the Republican and the Democrat,” said Alan Caron, who ran for governor as an independent in 2018 and is supporting Gideon in the Senate race. “You don’t have that national apparatus as an independent so you start with a really big deficit.”

Savage was born in Bangor but grew up in California before returning to Maine to attend Bowdoin College. She moved back permanently in the late 1980s and took over her father’s cafe and bar, Bloomfield’s, in Skowhegan.

Later she enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, where she earned her master’s degree, and for the last 25 years has worked as a teacher in central Maine schools. Her husband, Mark Roman, is a self-employed woodworker and they have five children and five grandchildren.

Richard Roberts, a Solon resident who first met Savage when he was a customer at Bloomfield’s, described her as tough and strong in her convictions.

Lisa Savage says she got a name-recognition boost from the first candidates’ debate on Sept. 11, but acknowledges she lacks the financial resources of the front-runners in the four-way race, Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon. Another independent, Max Linn, is running in a race that could hinge on ranked-choice voting. Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald

“I think the thing to really say about her is she’s not anybody who’s just in it because she thinks it’s a fun thing to do,” said Roberts, who later taught alongside Savage at Carrabec High School. “She’s very serious about her beliefs and she wants people to know there are alternatives to just the two regular political parties.”

Though she has no political experience, Savage held elected office as vice president and chief negotiator of the teachers union in Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 for six years. She said the job gave her experience representing constituents, listening to a large group and being their spokesperson.

“I don’t have any experience taking money from corporate lobbyists,” Savage said. “I don’t have any experience sponsoring legislation that was written by corporate lobbyists. I think much of what is wrong with our society is the result of that kind of influence in our government, so in some ways my lack of experience could be seen as a positive.”

A longtime activist, Savage started protesting the Iraq War on the Margaret Chase Smith Bridge in Skowhegan around 2003 and was involved more recently in the campaign to eliminate the Indians nickname at Skowhegan Area High School.

She has been a frequent protester at Bath Iron Works, where she has been arrested three times after protesting christening events for new warships. Most of her activism has focused on climate and militarization.

A supporter of both Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, Savage said major change is possible if the United States rearranges its priorities away from military spending.

“We have plenty of money, we just have bad budget priorities in this country,” she said. “If we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, how can we be told we can’t afford universal health care? That’s absurd.”

Among her ideas is a push to get BIW, one of Maine’s largest manufacturers, to move away from building Navy warships and convert to building things that would address climate change, such as a light-rail train system or clean energy infrastructure in fields like solar, wind and thermal energy.

The Green New Deal, a congressional resolution that seeks to address climate change while also creating jobs, could do that through the issuance of federal contracts for climate change-fighting initiatives, Savage said.

“People are putting forth plans like, ‘Let’s be carbon-neutral by 2050,'” she said. “I don’t think we have 30 years to become carbon-neutral. So a Green New Deal is an emergency type response using the model of the old New Deal, which created jobs to address infrastructure needs and used federal funding to do that.”

David Hench, a spokesman for Bath Iron Works, and Tim Suitter, a communicator for the shipyard’s largest union, Local S6, declined to comment on Savage’s proposal for BIW.

Caron, who is also president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit promoting sustainable economic growth, said it’s likely that in the next 50 to 100 years BIW will need to evolve in order to stay relevant. The idea about doing something better for the environment is one that has been expressed by political candidates for years, but could be difficult, he said.

Campaigning here in Lewiston recently, U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Savage, an independent, is running on a progressive platform that includes support for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. She says major change is possible if the country shifted its funding priorities away from military spending. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s not like, ‘Let’s just have those people make toasters,'” Caron said. “It’s a very hard transition for any company to do when you leave your core skill and go to something you haven’t done before.”

Caron, who dropped out of the 2018 governor’s race amid concerns that his candidacy as an independent would create a spoiler effect, said while he doesn’t think Savage will win, ranked-choice voting is making it easier for independents like her to be seriously considered.

“They can run and not worry about the spoiler problem, which was a huge issue in my race,” he said. “All you hear as an independent is, ‘You’re going to be a spoiler.’ They don’t have to hear that. They don’t have to hear people say, ‘I’m afraid to vote for you because I don’t want the other party to win.’ They just get to present their ideas and be heard.”

Savage unenrolled from the Maine Green Independent Party in order to gain ballot access, choosing to gather 4,000 signatures from a wider spectrum of voters rather than the necessary 2,000 signatures from Green party members, who make up less than 4 percent of Maine’s electorate.

As an unenrolled candidate, she has chosen to identify as an Independent Green who still aligns with the party platform and intends to re-enroll as a Green Independent if elected.

While Savage said she received a boost in name recognition from the first candidates’ debate Sept. 11, she lacks the funding that is fueling advertising and staff for Gideon and Collins. The two front-runners have collectively raised more than $40 million, and more than $60 million has been raised by outside groups for and against them. Savage has raised just under $100,000.

Instead of knocking on doors during the coronavirus pandemic, farmers markets have become the best and safest way of meeting potential voters and sharing her platform. She also relocated to Bath, where she is living with friends and running her campaign, because of the poor broadband at her home in rural Maine.

On a recent Saturday at the Portland Farmers’ Market, Savage wore a Black Lives Matter mask and was careful to keep a few feet of distance from shoppers. She talked with anyone who stopped to ask her a question and posed for a photo with a father and his young daughter.

Kevin Butterfield, a registered Democrat from Portland, said he plans to vote for Savage because he agrees with her on issues, but also out of frustration over the campaign spending and advertising candidates of the major parties have engaged in.

“It’s not just the spending, but the type of attack ads,” said Butterfield, 50. “I think sending a message that doesn’t always work would be a great thing. … I’m sure her coffers aren’t very deep but if they were, I think she’s committed to trying to do it this way.”

Candace Reeve, a 34-year-old architect, said she supports Gideon because she’s a Democrat, but she aligns more with Savage’s values like her support of the Green New Deal, which she called a “no-brainer.”

“I’m not really sure about all the candidates, but she seems like the most sensible,” said Reeve, a Democrat. “What she stands for is what I would stand for.”

Using the ranked-choice system, voters in the Senate race can rank each of the four candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the system will eliminate the candidates with the fewest votes and distribute their support based on voters’ second choices.

Savage and her supporters see it as an opportunity for voters to vote their conscience without fear of a spoiler effect. If it weren’t for ranked-choice voting, she wouldn’t be running.

“I think a lot of people are in the mode of, ‘We need to get Trump or maybe we need to get Susan Collins out,’ so you have to vote for whoever you think is going to beat them, but with ranked-choice voting that kind of changes everything and I think that’s really exciting,” said Tamara Hunt, a 24-year-old volunteer who wore a “Lisa for Maine” mask as she handed out campaign literature at the farmers market.

A student at the University of Southern Maine, Hunt first met Savage at a candidates’ forum hosted by USM students last spring. She said she was struck by her authenticity and ended up getting a paid internship with Savage’s campaign over the summer. Her partner works at a car dealership “with a lot of Trumpers and Libertarians,” and many of them are also voting for Savage, Hunt said.

“Even though they might not agree with her on some policy, she’s a real person and they want to vote for a real person,” she said.

Next in the series: Max Linn

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