PORTLAND, Maine — The four contenders for the Democratic nomination to run for Olympia Snowe’s U.S. Senate seat squared off in a rapid-fire forum Sunday evening that was designed to inform young voters about their choices at the ballot box.
Organized by the Maine League of Young Voters and held at the Lucid Stage in Portland, the forum covered a range of hot-button issues faced now and in the future by Congress and allowed the candidates to challenge each other in the form of questions they posed directly. Participating in the forum, which was attended by about 50 people, were attorney and Maine Senator Cynthia Dill; former legislator and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, attorney and Maine House member Jon Hinck and Portland-area green building contractor Benjamin Pollard.
Nicola Wells, state director of the League of Young Voters, said all of the GOP candidates vying for the party’s nomination declined invitations to attend. She said independent candidates were not invited because the forum was designed for primary candidates.
With only about 90 seconds per response, the candidates were forced to offer their views on complex issues in quick sound bites. Most of the questions were posed to single candidates as opposed to the group, which means it was difficult to differentiate between their stances.
The forum began with introductions and each candidate identifying his or her top goal in their first five years in the Senate.
Pollard chose huge, worldwide goals such as abolishing hunger, ending the use of nuclear power, ridding the environment of harmful chemicals and bringing peace to the Middle East. Asked how he’d create jobs, Pollard said he’d advocate for another stimulus package aimed at transportation.
“I do believe we need to invest in our roads and bridges,” he said. “With the higher cost of petroleum, we need to invest in standard and high-speed rail.”
Dunlap had equally ambitious goals for his first five years as senator, including improving the economy, restructuring the amount of education debt taken on by students, creating tax fairness and a better health care system. Asked whether he would vote to eliminate the filibuster process, Dunlap said he has major concerns about it but would not abolish it.
“It is a valuable tool to give the minority some say in how legislation is crafted,” he said.
Dill, addressing many of the young people in the audience, said she would take steps to make higher education more affordable by reforming the role of government in student loans and increasing funding for the Federal Pell Grant Program. Asked where she would support civil unions between gay people, Dill said she would not, but with a twist.
“I’m opposed to a civil union because in large part it would stop the movement toward gay couples getting married,” she said.
Hinck said his major goal involves the federal budget in light of the Bush-era tax cuts that will expire later this year and Congress’ inability to compromise on a spending plan. In the energy sector, Hinck said he believes the solution lies in finding energy efficiencies and that he would like to move away from government subsidies for various energy sources and stop the political bickering over whether climate change exists.
“I’ve gotten very used to pushing progress in the energy area without pushing that issue in people’s faces,” he said. “If some people can’t tolerate that discussion, let’s move forward on the energy agenda without forcing that issue on people.”
Pollard was asked about comments he made previously in the media about this spring being the right time for the United States to attack Iran in an effort to stop nuclear proliferation there. Pollard said he has changed his thinking on that position, which he landed at in the first place because of a report he read about the imminent nuclear threat from Iran.
“I am now much more dovish,” he said.
On tactics for dealing with terrorists, Dunlap said he is against any kind of torture or detention in places like Guantanamo Bay.
“I can never support such activity on any kind of elongated basis,” said Dunlap, who supports a deliberative legal process for all, regardless of what they are accused of. “Such practices yield no favorable results for those who practice them.”
Dunlap, asked a question about requiring IDs for people to vote, said he does not and never did as Secretary of State.
“My opinion of voter ID laws I have to say is one of profound disappointment mixed with moments of abject horror,” he said. “The movement around the country to require photo IDs to obtain a ballot … are cynical attempts to control the ballot and discourage vast portions of the public from voting.”
Dill said if she had been a senator in 2008, she probably would have supported the government’s bail-out of the financial industry, but today she would be demanding answers as to how the financial collapse happened.
“Not a single person has been held accountable for the terrible greed that happened on Wall Street,” she said.
In a light moment during the forum, Hinck brought up former Gov. Angus King, who is gathering signatures to become an independent candidate for the Senate and who some early polling says is in the lead.
“Angus King, in my view, is like electoral comfort food,” said Hinck. “We know him as a little bit bland, a smart man and a thinker. Sending mac ’n cheese down to Washington is not good enough.”
Correction: An early version of this story misspelled U.S. Senate Jon Hinck’s first name.