PORTLAND, Maine — Democratic candidates for Maine governor and the U.S. Senate joined former Ohio governor and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan on Tuesday to call for an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of health care benefits and other steps they said would boost a shrinking middle class.
The “Put the Middle Class First” bus tour visited Portland on Tuesday morning, with a second Maine stop scheduled for Bangor in the afternoon. The campaign season bus tour is slated to visit 18 states in the month leading up to the Nov. 4 election, and on Tuesday, it aimed to rally support for Maine gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud and U.S. Senate hopeful Shenna Bellows.
Michaud, a six-term congressman locked in a three-way race for the Blaine House, pledged that on his first day in office, he would submit legislation expanding federal Medicaid benefits in Maine.
Michaud’s top rival for the governorship, incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has vetoed five attempts by Democratic lawmakers to expand Medicaid in the state to cover an additional 70,000 Mainers, a step made possible through President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
Michaud and LePage also face independent Eliot Cutler, who has said he’d support expanding Medicaid in Maine, in the gubernatorial race.
LePage has argued the growth of Medicaid, distributed in the state under the MaineCare program, would force state government to pay millions more in administrative and health care costs that it can’t afford.
On Tuesday, David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said that while the Democratic candidates claim to be working in the best interests of the middle class, the measures they’re touting have unintended consequences that hurt the economy. An increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as Obama has advocated for, would drive up payroll costs for employers nationwide and result in the elimination of 500,000 jobs, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Sorensen pointed out.
“I would warn Mainers against climbing aboard the Michaud-Bellows bus, because it’s headed straight for a fiscal and economic cliff where jobs are destroyed, debt is ignored, and big government is the solution to everything,” Sorensen said in a statement.
Strickland — whose career arc of spending 12 years in the U.S. House before being elected Ohio’s governor in 2006 matches the path Michaud hopes to follow this year — said in contrast that Republican reluctance to raise the minimum wage, among other steps, is just building greater profits for wealthy corporate heads and “squeezing the middle class.”
Strickland said that between 2000 and 2012, average wages remained flat for U.S. workers, while costs of living — including child care, housing, health care and secondary education — rose by $10,000 per year.
The former Ohio governor added that 95 percent of all income gains during the economic recovery in the aftermath of the recent recession have been accrued in the top 1 percent of U.S. households.
“The middle class is working harder and is falling farther and farther behind,” Strickland told reporters on Tuesday in Portland.
“Right now, our state is being held hostage, being held back by a lack of leadership in the Blaine House,” Michaud said.
That message likely resonated in Portland, considered one of the most liberal places in Maine and, thanks to Brennan, a place considering its own minimum wage increase to $10.68 per hour by 2017.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, while Maine’s minimum wage is $7.50 per hour.
“Someone might ask why the mayor of a municipality is acting to increase the minimum wage,” Brennan said Tuesday. “That’s what the state government is supposed to do. That’s what the federal government is supposed to do. But neither the state government nor federal government is doing what they need to do.”
Bellows, who faces an uphill battle in an attempt to unseat popular incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, said on Tuesday that a cap on Social Security contributions above $117,000 in income should be lifted. Doing so would force those earning millions and billions of dollars annually to pay more into Social Security, and more resources would be available for seniors and to stabilize the fund moving forward, she said.
“One in three Maine seniors are dependant solely on Social Security, and their payments aren’t making it to the end of the month,” Bellows said.
“They are hiding that they are going without basic needs to protect their pride,” said Diane Grandmason, 71, of Lewiston, a leader of the Maine Alliance for Retired Americans and speaker at Tuesday morning’s bus tour stop.
Bellows, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, also called for a series of steps to make college more affordable, including lowering student loan interest rates, expanding student loan forgiveness opportunities and increasing federal investments in higher education to help drive down tuition costs.
Sorensen countered that those measures amount to “forcing taxpayers to bail out students while ignoring the underlying problem of the skyrocketing cost of higher [education].”
But Bellows suggested immediate steps are necessary: “We’re literally mortgaging our young people. The student loan payments that some people are paying are staggering.”