Moira O’Neill, a Democrat from Surry, is running against three-term Republican Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth. She may be from away, but she wholeheartedly has adopted Maine and its ethic.
Her father came here to fight fires in 1947, fell in love with the place and moved to Maine. Her brother drove a truck delivering mice for The Jackson Laboratory. Never mind politics, she said. “If I had a flat tire, anyone driving by would stop to help me.”
A nurse, O’Neill applies the skills of her vocation to her hopes for a seat in the legislature. Campaigning is “a community assessment process” that involves “listening, problem solving, synthesizing data and looking for root causes.”
She has spent the last few months listening. “How can you legislate if you don’t know what’s going on at the community level? And how can you know if you don’t go?” By “go,” she means being out on the street, knocking on doors and listening.
She is determined to run a positive campaign and is disappointed that she already has been the target of a push poll, a phone survey that attempts to create a negative impression about a candidate under the guise of a survey. She does not fault her opponent for this; it is the parties and their political action committees (PACs) that use these techniques.
The thread running through O’Neill’s life is her drive to help others. With broad exposure to different cultures, she calls her race for the Senate the “natural progression of a life.” Said O’Neill, “I have lived a life to be available to others. I’m most comfortable in a position to serve.”
She starts at the most basic levels. “We need to feed our kids,” she said. “If they don’t have enough to eat, they don’t grow. They don’t think. Not feeding kids saves nobody money.” She sees childhood hunger as one of the root causes of substance abuse and domestic violence.
Health care providers often work in teams, and it is the nurse on those teams whose job is to communicate and interpret the needs of the patient. For a legislator, the role is the same, communicating and interpreting the needs of constituents in Augusta. A doctorate in nursing helped her develop the research skills she sees as vital to legislative service. As health care decisions are debated, O’Neill asks herself two questions. What is the standard? What does the science tell us?
Every legislator brings his or her own perspective to Augusta, said O’Neill, some bring an area of expertise and some bring “process skills.” She has all of those. “State politics is the one level where we can really know a candidate,” she said. Passing bills into law is the least important work the legislature does. Most important is talking to everybody, involving as many people as possible.
The subject of Medicaid expansion is what really brought her in to the race. Because of Maine’s failure to implement the Affordable Care Act, people have developed a better understanding of what Maine needs to do to provide health care access to all Mainers. There are too many people without health insurance, including self-employed and seasonal workers.
Despite the efforts of Gov. Paul LePage to pay back the state’s hospitals for “charity care,” hospitals are still falling behind. “We are spending a half to a million dollars each year in care for those who have insurance but can’t pay their deductibles.” People are open to a new plan.
As O’Neill covers the territory of the district she seeks to serve, she has become aware of issues well outside of health care that are important to district constituents. “Housing stock is falling apart,” she said. There are kids with disabilities who have no services. A clean environment is essential to Maine’s future.
She related the moment when a Mainer she visited pulled a bucket of worms out of his refrigerator and explained the challenges of his occupation, including the current debate about use of the intertidal zone by wormers and clammers in Acadia National Park. “I wouldn’t have known anything about that,” she said, “until I started getting out and listening.”
O’Neill thinks all legislators should have some direct involvement with schools. Schools are the foundation on which the success of our state rests. There is nothing she enjoys more than seeing her nursing students bloom.
Bottom line? O’Neill said, “I just want to be one of the people who puts the chairs away.”
She elaborated. “You know how after a local event, the chairs have to be put away. It’s hard! You have to fold them up and then shove them into those racks, and they don’t go in easily. But in the meantime, everyone is talking and laughing – it’s a microcosm of community. Every legislator should be one of the people who puts the chairs away.”
It is no small thing to consider putting aside the three terms of experience now accumulated by the incumbent, Langley. Hancock County voters will have to think long and hard about this one. Whatever your decision, turnout will be crucial in this election. Vote.