Democratic Senate candidates talk business, strategy at Portland Regional Chamber forum

Posted May 16, 2012, at 12:39 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2012, at 1:21 p.m.
Cynthia Dill
Cynthia Dill Buy Photo
Jon Hinck
Jon Hinck Buy Photo
Matt Dunlap
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Ben Pollard
Ben Pollard Buy Photo

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The four Democrats hoping to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe on Capitol Hill shared their views on health care, global trade, their chances in a general election and more during a forum hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber Wednesday morning.

State Sen. Cynthia Dill, State Rep. Jon Hinck, former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and Portland construction business owner Ben Pollard spoke to a crowd of about 60 at the Sable Oaks Marriott. Primary voters will make their choice on June 12, and the winner will face a Republican candidate and former Gov. Angus King, who is running as an unenrolled candidate. Also running are Andrew Ian Dodge and Steve Woods, both unenrolled.

The Democratic candidates were asked a series of questions by Chris Hall, senior vice president for government relations at the chamber. After a lightning round, Hall posed a different question to each candidate, allowing each three minutes to answer. He started with Dill, asking her to talk about a group she had formed last August, Friends of the Maine Woods, which supports working toward the establishment of a North Woods park.

Dill said she conceived of the group after the Legislature voted to “never study” a northern Maine national park.

“It just made sense to me that we would look into it,” said Dill, who acknowledged the proposal was “controversial in pockets of the state.”

Businesswoman and landowner Roxanne Quimby, through Elliotsville Plantation Inc., has offered to give about 70,000 acres of wilderness and a $40 million endowment to create a national park in the North Woods. As a U.S. senator, Dill said, she would support at least studying the feasibility of such a park.

Dill said she saw it as a boost to eco-tourism in the state, in an area with few jobs or opportunities for young people and women.

“This is about really doing something bold, something that would move Maine,” Dill said. “Going forward, we need to make decisions based on information, not ideology.”

Hall asked Dunlap about his perspective as the only Democratic candidate from northern Maine. Dunlap was raised in Bar Harbor and lives in Old Town; Hinck and Pollard are from Portland and Dill is from Cape Elizabeth.

Dunlap talked about Old Town’s industrial past, when the town was prosperous with canoe factories, shoe factories, saw mills, tanneries, paper mills and more. And, he added, Maine had lost more than 90 percent of its farms in the period between 1900 and 1965. Traditional industries and ways of making a living disappeared, with trade policies mainly to blame, he suggested. And while the factories may not come back, there is an opportunity for farms to grow once again in Maine, he said.

“I see the opportunity for young people to really look forward to a century where they can do better for themselves tomorrow than they’re doing today,” he said. “In a global perspective, we could have tremendous opportunities with the right kind of programs put in place.”

Hall asked Hinck about energy policies, and what he would do at the federal level. When the Democrats controlled the Legislature, Hinck co-chaired the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, working on issues including offshore wind power.

Hinck said he would push hyperefficiency as a first step in energy policy.

“The state of Maine should be weatherizing homes and businesses to a great degree,” Hinck said.

He also said that no power generation source should be taken off the table and the country should eliminate subsidies and internalize costs.

And to Pollard, Hall asked what he would bring to the role of senator.

“I would bring my youthful idealism,” Pollard said. “I am an unabashed, starry-eyed idealist.”

Pollard said the party needs someone who “sets themselves apart from the Democratic Party as it’s represented today.” He said he believes business owners are overregulated and that he believes in a strong national defense.

On the topic of health care insurance for small businesses, Dunlap said he believed the system needed to be looked at in an integrated way, from primary and emergency care to long-term and chronic care. He said he believed people are leaving their small businesses to join larger companies to get health insurance, creating an “entrepreneurial crisis.”

Hinck said he thought a bigger overhaul of the health care system was needed, and said he supported a universal, single-payer system.

Pollard said he doesn’t think people should be required to buy insurance, but said the country should have a larger safety net — possibly through an expansion of Medicare.

And Dill suggested that the system was broken because the burden of providing insurance falls to employers. The relationship between business and providing health care should be severed, she said.

On international trade, Dunlap suggested the country needs to move closer to the middle in terms of protecting products made in America — trade policies put U.S. companies at a disadvantage, he said. Hinck and Pollard said favored trading status shouldn’t be given to countries with poor human rights, labor and environmental records. And Dill said small-business interests have not been adequately represented when trade deals are negotiated.

On a question that’s on everyone’s mind, Hall asked the candidates how they would beat King in the general election.

Dill said she has been running in elections almost yearly for the last six years, and has won every one on her record of creating jobs and supporting civil rights.

“I think I can win based on my record standing up for core Democratic values,” Dill said.

Dunlap said a candidate can’t win by running against someone else; you have to get out a strong message and have people rally behind it.

Hinck said, simply, that the way to win is to be the best candidate in the race. He suggested he would find ways to back away from the current political situation, where “private, wealthy interests dominate the debate.”

And Pollard said he’d use his “passion and vision” to engage people who aren’t involved in the political process currently.

The Portland Regional Chamber is hosting a similar forum for Republican candidates on May 23.

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