BRUNSWICK, Maine — Walking down Maine Street on a recent sunny day, shaking hands and talking about government policy with anyone who would listen, Dean Scontras seemed like he was at ease and enjoying the give-and-take of the campaign trail.
He did not look like a worried man.
But that’s what the Republican candidate for Maine’s 1st Congressional District told the small-business owners, bankers and others he met on an afternoon stop in Brunswick, a Cumberland County town where voters elected Democrat Chellie Pingree by a comfortable margin two years ago. Earlier this month, Pingree held a 9 percentage point lead over Scontras in a poll from Public Policy Polling in North Carolina.
“We’ve gotten ourselves into a good little bind, Republicans as well as Democrats,” Scontras, 40, told one downtown merchant. “Our kids are leaving and not coming back. Our towns are dying on the vine.”
Scontras, a Maine native and entrepreneur who himself left the state for 18 years, is running for office on the platform of fiscal conservancy: the nation’s need to stop spending, borrowing and further inflating the national deficit. He is also a social conservative, though he hasn’t made those issues a prominent part of this campaign and said that he is aligned with many of the goals of the tea party.
And although Brunswick is a college town that elected Pingree over then-Republican opponent Charlie Summers by 7,025 to 4,285, his message of debt reduction and his dream of eliminating income tax and the entire Internal Revenue Service nonetheless seemed to gain favor there.
“We just need to stop spending money we don’t have, plain and simple,” said Kim Elwell, owner of the Looking Glass beauty salon. “I run a business and try to stick to a budget. [The government] makes it to the point when, at the end of the year, you think, ‘Why do I even bother?’”
Two years ago, running on a similar platform, Scontras lost the primary election for the same seat while running against Summers, a former state senator and U.S. Navy reservist who campaigned while serving on active duty in Iraq. Summers went on to lose the general election to Pingree by 10 percentage points.
But times have changed, Scontras said.
“I’m afraid if we continue on this path of the policy [current officials] are pursuing, we’ll be in this situation where there won’t be jobs. Unemployment will go up. The debts are going to get much, much worse,” Scontras said. “It’s a candidacy about the economy and jobs. It’s also about a new kind of politician and people who need to serve — who haven’t been part of politics their entire career.”
That’s Scontras, who has yet to be elected to any public position and proudly labels himself a political outsider. The youngest of seven children in a Greek-American family from Kittery, he comes from a long line of Democrats.
“I want people to get beyond ‘Oh, he’s a Republican,’” said Scontras, an intent listener and a thoughtful if affable speaker. “I think I’m a new kind of Republican.”
He’s banking on the hope that Mainers are ready for that.
But L. Sandy Maisel, a Democrat and director of the Goldfarb Center at Colby College in Waterville, said it’s not likely.
“Neither opponent is running a very visible or forceful campaign against them, and they are both popular incumbents,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of hysteria about what might happen in this election, but you don’t sweep out a Chellie Pingree or a Michael Michaud.”
Scontras has some experience being the underdog. At the University of Maine, the Traip Academy graduate majored in public management and political science while he played for the football team. He was a wide out and a kick returner for the Black Bears — even though he was shorter and slighter than most of his teammates.
Coach Jack Cosgrove said he recalls Scontras as a disciplined player who was willing to work hard for the team and who embraced the role of a student-athlete.
“I always remember him as a kid with a smile on his face,” Cosgrove said. “He was undersized, so that the things he had to be very good at were speed, quickness and elusiveness. In football, if you’re not big and strong, you’d better be fast and elusive, and Dean was.”
Indeed, compared to incumbent Pingree — at least financially — Scontras isn’t big and strong. As of June 30, his campaign had raised $148,215, compared to $658,229 for Pingree, according to OpenSecrets.org.
To combat that imbalance, Scontras is doing something unusual — perhaps the political equivalent of being fast and elusive on the football field.
“My campaign motto is, ‘I’m Dean Scontras, and I’m running against Chellie Pingree.’ You’re not supposed to say your opponent’s name. But they associate her with the establishment, and all bets are off,” he said.
After graduation in 1991, Scontras, like many young Mainers, headed south. He worked for technology startups in Washington, D.C. and studied public policy at Georgetown University before meeting his wife, Dawn, at a horse race in Virginia. The couple moved even farther south to her home state of Georgia, where Dean Scontras worked for the Israeli-based wireless security firm Check Point.
But Dean Scontras said he never gave up on the dream of returning home to Maine.
“Average Mainer — I’ve lived it,” Scontras said. “There’s a reason why 95 South needs to be repaved, because all our kids leave, and I did leave. I wanted to come back, but there are no jobs.”
In 2005, the couple headed north with kids Jackson, 9, and Zoe, 6, and settled in Eliot, where Scontras co-owns Ra Power. The alternative energy firm specializes in the development of wind farm and smart grid technology.
A lot of the drive that has propelled him into politics started when he began thinking about the country and its debt that his children would inherit one day.
“When you have children, you certainly become a stakeholder in the American enterprise,” Scontras said. “Things are so bad right now — so incredibly bad — you decide to do something about it.”
Scontras’ solutions seem somewhat drastic, but they have helped garner support from his conservative base and beyond, said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party.
“I think that what he brings is common sense,” Webster said. “We can’t spend money we don’t have. … If you don’t like the fact there’s runaway spending, you can’t support Chellie Pingree.”
According to Scontras, if he’s elected, one of his top two priorities would be to repeal as much of the health care reforms as possible.
The other would be to reduce the complexity of the tax code. He would like to move to a system such as the one proposed in the Fair Tax Act of 2009, a bill that would repeal the income tax and other taxes, abolish the IRS and enact a national sales tax to be administered primarily by each state.
But the Catholic, anti-abortion candidate said he would not spend his political capital battling Roe v. Wade.
“It’s the law of the land,” Scontras said. “Why bang the drum about it? I’m not going to be able to change it.”
Scontras said he does see that there is value in the government investing in some types of infrastructure projects — such as a national smart grid, a modernized electricity network that is being touted as a means of reducing energy costs.
“There are some things the country can do that are so big and so comprehensive that it might add a multiplier effect to the economy and jobs,” Scontras said.
But he never sounds too optimistic about what government projects can do for Maine or America.
“The Federalist Papers say that those in the House — it’s the people’s House — should have sympathy for the people they represent,” Scontras said. “I do have that. I absolutely have that love and passion for the state. And I’ve got a real sense of sorrow right now.”