LEWISTON – The war of words escalated Wednesday in the race for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat.
During a forum at the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce in Lewiston, Republican candidate Charlie Summers continued to hammer independent Angus King, for his business interests and his fiscal management in two terms as Maine’s governor.
King responded to each attack, including Summers’ claim that he vetoed a bill 13 years ago that would have increased funding for a program that delivers meals to the needy.
Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill, meanwhile, hit both of her rivals, pegging Summers as a climate change denier who has engaged in voter suppression as Maine’s secretary of state.
King, she said, is an “honorable man” but the beneficiary of a political system that fails 99 percent of Americans.
The exchanges, particularly between Summers and King, were more pointed than in recent debates.
At one point the moderator had to intervene when Summers tried to talk over King as the former governor explained his support for natural gas development.
Summers, appearing increasingly comfortable as the aggressor, had claimed that King’s championing of natural gas is another “chance to make money off the backs of taxpayers,” a reference to King’s involvement in the wind power industry.
Summers also implied that King supports natural gas development because of his position on the board of directors at Woodard & Curran, an environmental engineering firm that assists natural gas providers.
King’s initial response to Summers’ jab: “Wow.”
He went on to explain that the firm has myriad interests.
“It never occurred to me that my position would be perceived as some sort of conflict,” said King sarcastically, as some members of the crowd laughed.
Summers tried to press the issue and the two candidates spent nearly 10 seconds talking over each other before the moderator intervened.
Dill, meanwhile, quipped, “There they go again.”
“My two opponents should put aside their bickering about money,” she said. “It’s the one thing they both have in common.”
Earlier, Summers criticized King for vetoing a bill that would have increased Meals on Wheels funding by $200,000. Summers said King instead spent millions on laptop computers for Maine’s middle school students.
Summers then added his familiar – and disputed – claim that King increased spending by 45 percent and left the state with a $1 billion deficit.
King said he knew that the Meals on Wheels veto would come back to “haunt” him, but it was one of 23 vetoes on spending bills. He said it had nothing to do with the merits of the program, but the “principles of fiscal prudence.”
Summers’ supporters immediately took to Twitter and email to argue that King cut the program but spent $37.2 million on the laptop initiative. The Meals on Wheels veto came in 1999. The laptop initiative was passed by the Legislature in 2001.
King said he wouldn’t apologize for the laptop initiative, which was about “equality of opportunity for every child in every town” in Maine.
He also called untrue Summers’ repeated jabs on the budget scenario after his second term in the Blaine House.
King said the $1 billion wasn’t a deficit, but the result of spending outpacing revenue projections – what’s called a “structural gap.” King noted that 10 of the last 11 state budgets, including the current one under Gov. Paul LePage, have had the structural gap.
King also went on the offensive, criticizing Summers for joining a host of Republicans in Congress who have signed the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge. The group is led by Republican activist Grover Norquist.
King said Summers has “given away his decision making” ability to Norquist so he can’t be a part of the conversation to help solve the national deficit.
“Some guy in D.C. is more important to (Summers) than the people of Maine,” King said.
Dill also targeted Summers, saying he tried to take away “voting rights” as secretary of state.
Dill was referring to Summers’ endorsement of a law that ended Maine’s 38-year history of same-day voter registration, before voters overturned the law last year, and his role in an investigation into whether college students had committed voter fraud.
The investigation yielded no charges or formal report by the attorney general, and it was criticized as a stunt to provoke fears of voter fraud.
Dill joined King in labeling Summers as a climate change denier.
The criticism stems from a forum held by the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine. During the forum, the moderator asked the candidates, “Do you accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is being primarily caused by human activities?”
“No, I don’t,” Summers said, adding that while humans are having an effect on the environment, factors such as volcanic eruptions also play a role.
Summers gave a similar response to an online questionnaire. His campaign has since sought to clarify his position.
His spokesman, Drew Brandewie, told the Portland Press Herald recently that the questionnaire response was “a mistake,” and Summers believes climate change “is happening, humans are contributing to it, but there are other factors.”
Wednesday’s forum was the second in as many days for the Senate candidates. As in several other debates, only the three major candidates were invited. Independents Danny Dalton, Andrew Ian Dodge and Steve Woods have been invited to only one debate so far.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: