SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Reduction in the federal deficit, less government regulation of small business, and the sentiment that unenrolled candidate and former Gov. Angus King is a liberal posing as an independent were threads of a forum of Republican U.S. Senate candidates Wednesday morning.
The forum, held by the Portland Regional Chamber at the Sable Oaks Marriott, drew a crowd of roughly 150 people. Candidates vying to fill Sen. Olympia Snowe’s seat this fall who attended were businessman and former Senate President Rick Bennett; businesswoman and state Sen. Debra Plowman, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Attorney General Bill Schneider and Secretary of State Charlie Summers. Businessman Scott D’Amboise was out of town due to family matters, according to forum moderator Chris Hall.
Hall, senior vice president for government relations at the Chamber, asked each of the candidates to address how specific parts of their background would come to play in the U.S. Senate. He asked Bennett about his time running a rating company that does corporate research on large companies for investors.
Bennett said there’s a sense in the country that big government and big business too often collude to create a “crony capitalist system.”
“It creates an unlevel playing field for small business,” said Bennett. “An unlevel playing field, where government is picking winners and losers, needs to be combated.”
Bennett used that opening to take a swing at King, as well, saying the former governor has been a benefit of that “crony capitalism.”
Hall asked Plowman about her long tenure as a state legislator, most of which has been spent in the minority. Plowman said she has fought as a small business owner against legislation that unfairly targeted such entrepreneurs.
“There is a very pervasive feeling in Augusta that biz people are wealthy — all you need to do is go somewhere out back and pull out a secret stash and make up what government has taken from you,” said Plowman.
Plowman noted that she and her husband started their business, PDQ Door Co., 17 years ago with four employees, and today they have 50, with multiple locations around the state.
“I fight for fair issues. I fight to make sure government does not run my business,” Plowman said.
Asked about how his long experience on Wall Street would be helpful in the Senate, Poliquin answered: “I understand how an economy works. I understand how to build a climate that helps you succeed.”
Poliquin throughout the debate sought to connect himself with conservative Gov. Paul LePage, and said the work the administration is doing would be the same sort of efforts he would undertake in Washington.
“We are spending less, we are taxing less, we are regulating less, we are borrowing less and we are trying to drive down the price of health insurance and energy costs,” said Poliquin.
Schneider noted his own leadership qualities, which began as a West Point cadet. He served on the border of North Korea, was on a special operations team and served as a federal prosecutor, as well.
“I’m the kind of leader who wants to bring people together, who is willing to work with people of disparate opinions, disparate points of view,” said Schneider. “I think that’s the kind of leadership we need in Washington right now.”
And Summers talked about his work as regional administration of the Small Business Administration, and as a small business owner, as well. He worked in hotels in Bangor and South Portland, and went into business for himself with a convenience store, Summers noted.
“You haven’t really lived until you’ve borrowed a lot of money from the bank and you wake up in the middle of the night with a knot in your stomach, because you’re worried about how you’re going to pay them back,” said Summers.
That experience of running a business taught him the importance of a balanced budget, Summers said.
“What is needed in Washington is a clear and simple understanding that you cannot spend what you do not have — it is that simple,” said Summers.
Asked a question by Hall on how they would defeat King, the answers were all similar:
Plowman: “I’m going to make Angus King run on his record. He’s never had to run on his record; he’s only had to run on his personality.” She added that King oversaw passage of the first majority-only budget.
Poliquin: “Mr. King is a likable fellow. He is a big government, big-spending liberal.” Poliquin noted that there would be a lot of money coming into the general election, and “Mr. King’s record will be exposed.”
Schneider: “I know Angus King, and Angus King is no independent. He’s a big-spending liberal.” King, he added, served during the best eight economic years in Maine and left the state with a big deficit.
Summers: “I think Angus King will beat himself; his record speaks for itself.” He added that King’s comments that he may not take a committee assignment displayed “a level of arrogance and detachment from everyday working people.”
Bennett: “I’ll force him to be specific.” He also noted that as state Senate president, he fought King on expansions of Medicaid and borrowing.
On decreasing health insurance costs for business, Poliquin said he would encourage competition in the market, and allow purchase of policies across state lines. Schneider, who is part of an attorneys general lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, said he advocates making more cost information available to consumers, so they can choose to travel to hospitals where procedures cost less, thus driving down overall costs.
Summers said he would introduce a bill to allow association health plans, so small businesses could group together, and that it was critically important companies have the ability to deduct the cost of insurance from their federal taxes. Bennett said there is common ground in the Affordable Care Act around consumer choice, association plans and tax treatments, and the ideology should be taken out of the debate. And Plowman said consumers should have more information about what they’re paying for, which she said would happen if the entire system were simplified and easier to understand.
The overall forum was genial, though there was a quick back-and-forth between Summers and Bennett. Summers had noted his creation of an advocate for small businesses in the secretary of state’s office, and suggested a similar tactic would be smart in Washington. Bennett jumped on that comment, saying “only in government would you create a new position to protect people from government.”
Summers noted that Bennett had voted to create the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability while he was in the Senate, though Bennett shot back that it was an oversight office, which was important to the Legislature.
The six candidates will be before voters in the June 12 Republican primary election.