BRUNSWICK, Maine — Chellie Pingree, a Democrat seeking her third term as Maine’s 1st District U.S. House representative, and her Republican challenger Jon Courtney both made their case Thursday that members of the next Congress will have to set aside partisan differences, foster better personal relationships and find common ground.
During their first debate Thursday night at Studzinski Recital Hall on the Bowdoin College campus, the two set that tone of cordiality. At one point in the hourlong debate, after the incumbent and her challenger agreed on energy policy, Pingree quipped that the pair had gotten off to a good start on a bipartisan agreement.
The debate drew about 40 people, an audience made up of a smattering of Bowdoin College students, local elected officials and the candidates’ family members, including Pingree’s husband, S. Donald Sussman.
Other than Courtney asking Pingree to name her favorite newspaper — Sussman is majority owner of Maine Today Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald — the debate lacked surprises.
In response to the first question from moderator Jennifer Rooks of MPBN, Pingree expressed support for increasing the minimum wage. Courtney, a four-term state senator from Springvale who serves as Senate majority leader, countered that raising the minimum wage would stifle job growth.
“I don’t believe now is the time to put any additional burdens on small business in Maine,” he said.
Courtney stuck to his campaign themes of leveling the playing field for Main Street, limiting government to allow small-business owners and workers to take advantage of opportunities and the need to fix a broken Congress.
He challenged Pingree on her membership in the progressive caucus and for her failure to vote for defense authorization bills.
Pingree pointed to intransigence by the Republican leaders in the U.S. House as the chief cause of gridlock. When Courtney chided her for touting her work on a farm bill that has yet to pass, she struck back by saying that Republican House leaders refuse to put the bill to a vote after it cleared the Senate and easily passed through the House agriculture committee with bipartisan support.
The candidates laid out their differences on Medicare and Social Security. Pingree criticized vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a “voucher program” and past Republican consideration of privatizing Social Security, noting them as key differences between herself and Courtney.
While the two seemed pleasantly surprised by how much they agree on energy policy, Pingree and Courtney sparred politely on military spending and veterans services.
“If you’re going to support the troops, you have to support the defense appropriation,” Courtney said.
Pingree responded that she had made a promise to voters when first elected that she would not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Voting against defense authorization bills for those wars fulfills that promise without doing harm to Maine defense contractors such as Bath Iron Works or to veterans.
“I always vote for veterans care, which is a different budget,” she said.
An exchange over the Citizens United Supreme Court decision demonstrated the candidates’ core difference on governance. Pingree spoke out strongly against the court’s decision that “corporations should have the same rights as individuals.” She said she’s working with colleagues in Congress to either advance a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision or otherwise change its impact on elections.
Drawing attention to Pingree’s use of the ActBlue political action committee to collect campaign contributions, Courtney replied that, “Every time we try to fix election laws, people on Main Street get hurt.”
During a “lightning round” in which the two offered short responses to Rooks’ questions on abortion, the use of drones for domestic surveillance and aspects of the Affordable Care Act, which Courtney would vote to repeal, a rare moment arose when Courtney said, “I support the president” on his Race to the Top education initiative after Pingree expressed “huge concerns” about it.
Otherwise, Courtney stayed true to his conservative principles and small-business advocacy, while Pingree adhered to a largely progressive agenda.
At the end of the debate, Pingree, who holds a large lead in fundraising and in all recent polls, thanked Courtney for maintaining a “positive spirit” during the campaign.
Courtney and Pingree are scheduled to debate Oct. 23 and Oct. 30 on Portland television stations.