Editor’s note: This is the second of two profiles of the Republican candidates competing in the June 12 primary for the 1st Congressional District seat. The winner will face Democrat incumbent Chellie Pingree in the November election.
If Republican Jon Courtney is elected to Congress, he promises, he will show the same respect for Democratic colleagues in Washington that he has demonstrated for the last decade as a representative and senator in the Maine Legislature.
The Senate majority leader from Springvale said that’s what’s needed to move a mired Congress beyond ideological differences and find solutions to problems that plague Maine and the nation, from the need for more jobs to the high federal debt.
His attitude as a lawmaker is grounded in his upbringing as the son of a Pentecostal minister in Wells.
“One of the things I learned as a pastor’s kid is, no one’s perfect,” said Courtney, 45. “The only way to get work done is by continuing to care about people regardless of their beliefs.”
Courtney faces Patrick Calder, a political newcomer who lives in Portland, in Tuesday’s Republican primary to choose a candidate to challenge 1st Congressional District Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, in November.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
While many Democrats see Courtney as respectful but partisan, he touts having worked with former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, on historic preservation, alternative energy and veterans initiatives — accomplishments that are featured prominently on Courtney’s campaign website.
After Republican Gov. Paul LePage took office last year and the party gained majorities in the House and Senate, Courtney moved from assistant minority leader to majority leader.
In that role, Courtney has worked to reduce spending and taxes and to promote respectful bipartisan debate in the Legislature, said state Rep. Andre Cushing III, R-Hampden, assistant majority leader of the House.
“Jon is respectful of differing opinions, and that’s a characteristic that’s desperately needed in Washington right now,” Cushing said. “He has a thoughtful, balanced approach to issues, and he’s someone who understands what Maine people need.”
Cushing noted Courtney’s leadership of the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform, which produced legislation to streamline Maine’s regulatory processes, promote business and create jobs. The bill won nearly full support in the House and unanimous support in the Senate.
“He worked with Democrats to develop a proposal that would get bipartisan support,” Cushing said. “He understands that we have to respect different viewpoints in order to make good policy.”
As a small-business owner, Courtney “understands that Maine is predominantly a small-business state, and the regulatory environment in Washington isn’t always helpful to the Main Street businesses back in Maine,” Cushing said. Courtney operates three dry-cleaning shops.
Cushing described Courtney as a team builder who would focus on what’s best for Maine and wouldn’t toe the Republican Party line in Washington without carefully weighing each issue.
Democrats view Courtney differently.
State Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, agreed that Courtney has a respectful manner, but she questions whether he could negotiate solutions in Washington and whether he knows what’s best for Maine.
Courtney mentioned Schneider as one legislator with whom he wrangled respectfully about a bond package a few years ago. Schneider wanted to borrow a lot more money than Courtney did. The Senate wound up approving a bond package somewhere in the middle.
“We’ve had a very respectful working relationship. He’s right about that,” Schneider said, “but I’m worried about extreme politics on both sides. If he goes to Washington, would he cross over and compromise? I haven’t seen that lately. He’s part of the Republican leadership, and he has followed the party line on a lot of issues.”
Schneider noted that Courtney voted to repeal same-day voter registration and workers’ right to unionize at the former Decoster egg farm in Turner. He also submitted a nonbinding joint resolution supporting the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline from the Canadian province of Alberta, which prompted a day of partisan bickering in the Senate and resulted in a 17-15 vote along party lines.
More recently, Courtney supported an $83 million reduction in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services budget, which eliminates MaineCare coverage for more than 20,000 people, cuts prescription drug coverage for senior citizens and reduces funding for Head Start. Again, the Senate vote was divided along party lines.
“I don’t mind making government smaller, but you have to do it in a methodical way through attrition or you end up hurting a lot of people and throwing the economy into turmoil,” Schneider said.
After the budget vote, Courtney released a statement saying that Republicans were elected to make tough decisions.
“Difficult choices need to be made, and failure to act is not an option,” he said. “For years the Democrats have not proposed long-term solutions to this problem that threatens all state government functions.”
On various issues, Courtney’s positions are dependably Republican. He opposes President Barack Obama’s health care law, saying it should be replaced with market-based reforms. He opposes tax increases on the wealthy, saying, “We should encourage the wealthy to invest and create jobs. We should also take a fresh look at deductions.”
He would support extending the federal debt limit, he said, “but only if we have some true reforms to deal with our nation’s debt.” He opposes gay marriage and abortion, except in cases involving rape or incest, or when a mother’s life is at risk.
Despite his strong positions, Courtney believes he can negotiate the murky waters of Washington and provide well-informed representation for the people of Maine.
“You don’t have to give up your principles to work across the aisle,” Courtney said. “We need people in Washington who can talk to each other.”
Even when politicians disagree, “we shouldn’t disrespect another person’s passion,” he said. “That’s what people want from their leaders. They want them to find solutions.”