Clockwise from top left: Eric Brakey, Adrienne Bennett, Jared Golden and Dale Crafts. Credit: Composite image

LEWISTON, Maine — Maine may vote on Central Maine Power’s controversial hydropower corridor project in 2020, but it is already a main talking point in the 2nd Congressional District race, with the incumbent pushing for more transparency and two opponents opposing it.

It’s not surprising, as the transmission line, which would take Hydro-Quebec power to the regional grid through a 145-mile transmission line in western Maine, has become perhaps the most contentious local issue in Maine’s 2020 election season so far.

That was on display at a public hearing held in Lewiston by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is among the state and federal agencies that must permit the project before it moves forward, though opponents are collecting signatures in hopes of getting a question on the November 2020 ballot that would kill the corridor.

A March poll from the Natural Resources Council of Maine showed 65 percent of residents opposed the project and more than two dozen towns along the proposed corridor route have either opposed the line or withdrawn support for it. Politicians look to be catching on.

While Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who lives in Farmington, backs the project, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, has not said yet whether he supports or opposes the project. In a statement Thursday, he said he’s “not sold on the CMP corridor,” but “it would be irresponsible to rush to judgment before we have all the information.”

At the same time, three of the four Republicans running against Golden — former state Sen. Eric Brakey, former Rep. Dale Crafts and Adrienne Bennett, who was a spokesperson for former Gov. Paul LePage — say they have signed the petition to get the referendum on the ballot.

On Thursday — the morning of the meeting — Golden lobbied CMP to commit to using Maine union workers if the corridor succeeds. He urged the utility in a letter to “put Maine first” by entering into a project labor agreement with local unions for the $1 billion project.

The letter drew condemnation from Bennett, who said she does not support the project. She said in a statement Golden’s letter showed “implicit support” for it “if it lines the pockets of union bosses,” and accused Golden of not being straightforward about his feelings.

Other candidates have been critical of the project. Brakey spoke out against the corridor during a Republican forum in Pittsfield last month, saying Maine should not be treated like “Massachusetts’ backyard.”

“CMP may have made a good case to the politicians, but a lot of Maine people feel like they weren’t part of the conversation,” he said in a Thursday statement.

Crafts said in a Thursday statement that he signed the petition because the referendum is an “important issue facing Maine” that voters decide, now that “the politicians have negotiated” and the “special interests have spent millions.” He said in Pittsfield that the corridor is “not a good deal for Maine” and that a “better deal” needs to be negotiated.

The issue resonates across Maine, as residents from both districts packed a conference room on Thursday. The majority of speakers spoke against the project, and 2nd Congressional District residents said it was important to them that candidates oppose it, too.

New Sharon resident Kate Weatherby helps rehabilitate wildlife and has gathered signatures for Say No to NECEC, the main group behind the referendum. An unregistered voter, she said environmental issues are the “top” issue for her, and she’s particularly concerned about the impact the power lines could have on blue herons.

Wayne Deri of Farmington said he is against the corridor because of the flooding Hydro-Quebec’s dams have caused and impact on Canada’s indigenous people. A “reluctant Democrat,” he said he supports Golden, but said the incumbent “isn’t strong enough” on his stance on the corridor and would like to see him outright oppose it.