AUGUSTA, Maine — When Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud announced he’d run for governor, a lot of Democrats toyed with making a run to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
Now the dust has settled, and there are two candidates: Emily Cain of Orono and Troy Jackson of Allagash, vying for the seat Democrats have held since 1994.
They have a lot in common: Both are current members of the Maine Senate, both have been in state politics for more than a decade, and both have ascended the ranks into legislative leadership.
But it’s not the similarities that Democrats will take into the voting booths when they cast their ballots in the primary on June 10. It’s the differences. Will they choose a self-described consensus-builder who’s championed the party’s social causes, or a working-class everyman, looking for a fight?
Cain has emphasized her unwavering support for progressive principles: She’s been a consistent ally for gay rights and policies that protect women’s choice regarding abortions, and is fond of pointing out that Jackson once voted against same-sex marriage, back in 2009 — a vote which Jackson recently called “the worst I’ve ever taken.”
Jackson is also, broadly speaking, a pro-life candidate and has supported several bills opposed by advocates of reproductive rights, although he has said that he would not cast a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Jackson, on the other hand, emphasizes his blue-collar Democratic bona fides. He says Cain “talks like a Republican” and chastises her for voting for bipartisan budget and tax packages that contained reform efforts opposed by many Democrats. Those include a budget with big tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy, a plan championed by Republicans when they held control of the Legislature and the Blaine House in 2011, as well as a failed tax reform effort that would have eliminated the estate tax and increased the sales tax — neither of which benefit poorer families.
Cain portrays both efforts as reasonable deals with Republicans that advanced many Democratic goals, while conceding some ground in the name of compromise.
A dealmaker in D.C.
Ask any supporter of Cain’s candidacy for the reasons they like the Orono Democrat, and they’ll likely talk up Cain’s even keel and willingness to reach across the aisle.
“It seems like she’s really a professional in the Legislature,” said Cain supporter Ben Algeo, who’s originally from Raymond but now lives in Orono. He recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maine, the looming giant in Cain’s district, and her life.
Cain moved to Maine as an 18-year-old and enrolled at UMaine. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2002, and her political career began there, when she ran for the House district centered around Orono in 2004. Today, she works for the university as coordinator of advancement at the honors college, and her husband, Danny, is the executive director of the on-campus Collins Center for the Arts.
Cain’s governing style embodies the higher aspirations of the university: She prides herself on her willingness to listen, respect for those who disagree, openness to new ideas and drive toward consensus.
Supporters say those attributes are what make her such an attractive candidate.
“She’s worked with the governor on a couple different issues [such as domestic violence prevention], and she’s not into the mud-slinging that some other Democrats are prone to doing,” Algeo said.
He noted Jackson’s high-profile beef with Gov. Paul LePage; The senator has often called LePage a “dictator,” and the acrimonious relationship between the two is marked with insults and name-calling.
Cain says that out on the campaign trail, voters are telling her they want a congresswoman who can help end the constant gridlock in Washington. She regularly touts a budget she helped craft during the throes of the recession, when rapidly shrinking revenue projections created a difficult fiscal environment. Still, she says, she was able to help Democrats and Republicans come to an agreement.
“At some point, the fighting has to stop,” she said. “We don’t need more fighters. We need leaders, we need people who can stand up and reach across the aisle without demonizing their opponents.”
Jackson offers a different take.
“I love compromise, but I think there are issues where working class people shouldn’t compromise anymore,” he said.
He cites Cain’s touted budget compromise as a perfect example of a time Democrats should have held their ground. “When we were in the minority, we did not have to go for tax cuts to the rich,” Jackson said recently. “The Republicans needed Democrats. We were in the driver’s seat on those issues, and Democrats who had never been in the minority failed because they wanted to come out of the room shaking hands.”
A fighter for working people
Jackson’s first foray into the state political action came in 1998, when the third-generation logger joined other loggers in a blockade along the Canadian border to protest the use of Canadian labor in Maine’s lumber industry. He says that fighting spirit on behalf of working people continues to this day.
Roughly 17 percent of the district has been under the federal poverty level at some point in the past year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 68 percent of all households have annual incomes lower than $50,000.
Alice Bolstridge is a retired English teacher in Presque Isle. She said that when she looks at the two candidates, Jackson seems more like herself. She said that while she likes Cain, she doesn’t think the candidate “knows what she’s talking about when she’s asked about Aroostook County, and rural Maine.”
Out of the gate, Cain has become the preferred candidate of many state and national groups, including women’s and the environment groups, pro-choice and gay rights organizations. So far, Cain has also out-fundraised Jackson more than two-to-one.
Bolstridge said that makes her worry that Cain will be more beholden to her donors than to Maine people.
Jackson says his own fundraising shows that his base of support is found nowhere but in the 2nd District. “I’m speaking to the people in the 2nd CD, not people in Portland, New York or Washington,” Jackson said from his home in Allagash. “That’s why working-class people are identifying with me. No offense, but the wealthy, well-educated elites in Maine are identifying with her. That’s just the circles we roll in.”
Jackson received fewer than 10 contributions from outside Maine through the end of 2013. Cain has received roughly 200 contributions from out-of-state sources, the largest being EMILY’s List, a D.C. nonprofit that helps fund women candidates for office.
“What infuriates me the most about this race is the people who have the money are trying very hard to make sure people like me don’t have a seat at the table,” he said.
Cain said that while she and Jackson have “different personal stories,” she’ll work to ensure Maine is a place of opportunity for all.
“What Maine offered my family was an opportunity,” she said. “There was a job here for my dad and for my mom. There was an education at UMaine that my family could afford. I want everyone to feel that way about the state.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.