NEWPORT, Maine — Two Newport men are vying for a House of Representatives seat that until now has been occupied by one of the more powerful and outspoken politicians in Maine.
With House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy term-limited out of office, his seat is up for grabs between a Republican he heartily endorses and a Democrat who says he’s just as fiscally conservative as most members of the GOP.
Whether the seat is won by Democrat Frederick Austin, a retired educator who earned 1,300 votes against Tardy in 2008, or Republican Kenneth Fredette, a local attorney, there will be a legislative newcomer occupying the District 25 seat. In a district that has put Republicans in the State House for years, the campaigns of Fredette and Austin are a study in contrasts.
On Tuesday, Fredette held a $25-a-head fundraiser at the Newport Cultural Center that attracted most of the area Republican legislators, GOP party officials and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Republicans opened a campaign office in downtown Newport, where volunteers are running a phone bank in support of Fredette and the other Republicans on the Nov. 2 ballot. Towns in the district — including Corinna, part of Corinth, Exeter, Newport and Plymouth — are plastered with Fredette signs, though Austin has begun to make some in-roads in that department in recent weeks.
“I’ve known Ken for a long time and think he’d be a terrific legislator,” Collins said during Tuesday night’s fundraiser. “We need to keep this seat in Republican hands.”
Austin, whose campaign is supported by the Maine Clean Election Fund, said his campaign is very much a “one-man show.” When he goes door to door carrying campaign signs in the trunk of his Honda Accord, he does it alone. As far as he knows, there are no phone trees working on his behalf and he said he’s had little tangible support from the Democratic Party. None of that stifles Austin’s conviction that he is the better candidate or caps his overflowing well of policy ideas.
“My basic theme is that I’d like to see a citizen legislator go to Augusta,” Austin said recently during an interview. “We need to have someone who is going there to be an employee of the people of this district.”
Austin has lived in several states and worked in various jobs — from being an employee at a General Motors warehouse in Texas to a public school superintendent in Colorado to a social worker in Winterport. Those experiences, combined with a long history of volunteering for various local and national Democratic candidates, have nurtured an array of ideas that Austin says would be valuable to the Legislature.
Austin said he supports major welfare reform, including a two-year residency requirement to receive benefits in Maine as well as a requirement that able-bodied people must work two years for every 18 months they receive benefits. He also wants to institute a two- or three-year state tax exemption for any small business starting up in Maine. And he pledged to ensure that central Maine receives a fair share of state resources.
“I’m getting tired of taking crumbs from Augusta and Portland,” he said. “We tend to be ignored a lot.”
When it comes to social issues such as gay marriage, Austin said his personal views are irrelevant because he has pledged to vote the way the majority of people in his district would want him to — not according to his own opinions.
“This is a representative democracy,” he said. “If I couldn’t handle voting the way my constituents would want me to, I wouldn’t be running for this office.”
As a legislator Austin, 63, said he would seek to build a voting bloc of some 40 moderate Republicans and Democrats to pursue various initiatives outside the extremes of the parties.
Fredette, a lawyer and member of the Maine National Guard, holds a master’s degree in public administration in addition to his law degree. Like Austin, he has volunteered for various local, state and national politicians. He sits on the Maine Human Rights Commission and the Newport Board of Appeals.
Fredette says his intention as a legislator is to help advance well-established Republican ideals, such as creating new jobs, reducing spending in state government and easing the regulatory burden on Maine businesses. Coming from a district where agriculture is a dominant industry, Fredette said his main focus is supporting farmers.
“There are so many people in this district who are connected with agriculture in one way or another,” he said. “A lot of my candidacy is just being a voice for farmers.”
Fredette, 46, proposes re-evaluating some of the state’s regulations on small businesses to ensure they make sense for farmers. The state’s workers’ compensation system, for example, works against farmers who need to hire workers for only four or five weeks during harvest season, he said. If a few days of rain delays the harvest and forces farmers to keep employees longer, they are forced to pay unemployment insurance because they surpassed the five-week threshold.
“We’re forcing people into the workers’ comp system,” Fredette said. “I think it’s reasonable to say five weeks really isn’t long enough when there’s a couple weeks of rain during the potato harvest or some equipment breaks down.”
For other small businesses that depend on earning their income for the year during the warmer months, Fredette proposes a state-guaranteed and easy-to-navigate loan program to help businesses survive hard times. Like many Republicans running for office, Fredette also said he will advocate for a “truly balanced state budget,” meaning one that doesn’t have debts to institutions such as hospitals and the state employee retirement system.
“Republicans in this state want to face the reality of the situation,” he said. “The question isn’t how big is the pie. The question is do we have the obligation to pay our bills.”