ELLSWORTH–Voters will get to choose from three new candidates this year to fill the District 135 seat in the Maine House of Representatives. The seat has been held by Brian Hubbell for the last eight years. Due to term limits, Hubbell is barred from running again.
On Monday, the League of Women Voters hosted a virtual forum with the three candidates who wish to represent the residents of Mount Desert, Bar Harbor and Lamoine.
Benjamin Meiklejohn is running as a Green Independent, Timothy Oh as a Republican and Lynne Williams as a Democrat. Each candidate answered questions sent to them in advance regarding the pandemic, the state’s projected revenue shortfall and climate change. An additional question regarding access to high-speed internet also went before the candidates, as well as a question asking if they were in support of a publicly-owned electric utility.
Benjamin Meiklejohn is a market researcher who lives in Mount Desert. He has previously worked in the Maine Legislature and served on the Portland school board, along with an assortment of other employment experiences.
“I love this district and how well my own values align with the people living here,” he said in his opening statement. Meiklejohn said he is running for the Green Independent party in order to have new voices in the legislature that will help broaden the perspective of others serving.
Meiklejohn feels the state has struck a good balance in dealing with the pandemic and pointed out that the state is experiencing a stronger fall tourism economy than in years past.
“It’s unfortunate that distancing and masks have become a political issue,” he said, explaining that high mask use in Maine has had positive results. “In any other time in history, it probably would not have become a political issue.”
As for the projected economic shortfall, Meiklejohn said we should take a wait-and-see approach, but continued to say that financial aid from the federal government is likely. He also pointed out that Maine could create avenues to increase revenue and gave an example of having Katahdin Woods designated as a National Park.
“We could leverage $20 million a year in revenue if we maximized our capture of off-shore wind energy,” said Meiklejohn. “Clean energy to power almost all of New England.”
In the discussion of climate change having a greater impact on Mainers than COVID, Meiklejohn said quick action should be taken.
“We don’t know that these pandemics are necessarily going to be a once every 100 years occurrence,” he said, explaining that there is evidence showing the rise in global temperatures accelerates the rate of adaptation by viruses. “As temperatures rise, these could be a much more common occurrence.”
He explained the need for cleaner energy sources, specifically harnessing offshore wind energy and greater use of electric cars to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“We need to incentivize the purchase and sales of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles to make it affordable for people to buy them and own them,” said Meiklejohn.
When candidates were asked about high-speed internet, Meiklejohn’s connection began to struggle, cutting off a portion of his comments. “This proves my point,” said moderator Faith DeAmbrose.
“We’ve known about the issue with the lack of high-speed internet for decades and we’ve not dealt with it,” he said and kept his comments brief once he was back online.
A local dentist and resident of Mount Desert, Oh established the nonprofit Caring Hands of Maine Dental Center in 2010 and is the father of two children.
“I believe that sticking to principles rather than political agendas or political platforms of certain parties is the way an area is adequately represented,” said Oh in his opening statement. “I think that integrity towards representation of the needs of the community is more important than the needs of the party.”
Candidates were asked if they thought the state had struck the right balance during the pandemic between public health and economic impact.
“I think the state has done really well,” said Oh. “The challenge I have with the response is the prolonged continuation of the state of emergency. We have such a wide variety of situations in our state, and never before do I feel that the representatives and the legislature should have been more involved.
“This is the time where local input, local control, local decision making need to be funneled back up to the top,” he added. “The fact that our state legislature has not met and has been adjourned during the entire pandemic, during the biggest crisis our state has ever faced, is unconscionable.”
Candidates were then asked about the projected economic shortfall of more than a billion dollars from the pandemic and how the legislature should address it.
“My hope is to make sure that whatever action the legislature would take that it would limit any increase in cost or tax burden on Maine families,” said Oh. “Any actions we take to recover out of this shortfall need to take into account that we need to be investing in the long-term success of our state economy and not looking to raise the tax burden at all for people who live here.”
Since climate change may be more of a risk to Maine’s resources than COVID, candidates were asked what should be done to combat this issue.
Oh highlighted Maine’s natural resources and pointed out that use of fossil fuels to heat homes and businesses is “environmentally unsound and economically unsound.” He suggested improving infrastructure in coastal communities to prepare for sea level rise and investing in more underground utilities.
High-speed internet has become more important during the pandemic for people schooling and working from home, and candidates were asked what the legislature should do to help more Mainers have access to it.
“Internet access has become a necessary utility,” said Oh. “I believe the state legislature does have a role in advocating for the people of Maine and negotiating for the best infrastructure that is necessary for the new digital economy.”
Lynne Williams, a resident of Bar Harbor and an attorney, has served on several of the town’s boards and committees and is the current chairman of the Harbor Committee. During the forum, she noted, “the upcoming session will be one of the most challenging sessions in modern legislative history.”
Williams agreed the state had struck a successful balance between keeping Mainers safe during the pandemic and minimizing economic impact. She cited several local businesses that were seeing positive results despite the slow start to the season, and explained that the number of visitors to Acadia National Park was only down 10 percent this August over last year’s numbers. She also commended the use and availability of masks to continue to protect public health.
To address the projected economic shortfall, Williams suggested that the state doesn’t know yet what decisions will be made regarding sales of adult-use marijuana, and that there has been a boon on alcohol tax because of the increase in sales during the pandemic.
“I do support a modest increase in taxes on high-income households,” said Williams. “High-income households save more of their income than low- and moderate-income households, thereby keeping more money from circulating throughout their communities. I also support increasing the real estate transfer tax rate, which is significantly lower than our neighbors Vermont and New Hampshire.”
As for addressing climate change, Williams said Maine is one of the top producers of greenhouse emissions from vehicles because of how much we drive.
“I would propose decreasing transportation needs, first by expanding tele-work opportunities in the state,” she said. “I would also seek to expand public transportation, particularly in our rural communities. Maine currently spends 86 cents per capita, which is substantially lower than the national median of $5 per capita. Funding for public transportation needs to be expanded.”
Williams also proposed setting up a fund to assist families in paying for high-speed internet as one option to improve access for all Maine residents.
“Optimally, I would love to see affordable high-speed internet owned by the state,” she added, noting it wouldn’t be the only option, but it would give Maine residents more options and create a competitive market with internet providers.
To see the entire forum, visit the Facebook page of League of Women Voters of Maine.