In the state Senate District 20 race, the challenger has served at the State House longer than the incumbent, who won’t have served a year if he loses.

Republican state Rep. Les Fossel and Democratic state Sen. Chris Johnson face off in one of the more unique races of the season in District 20, which includes all of Lincoln County and some outlying towns.

Fossel, a two-term legislator and restoration contractor from Alna, is chairman of the Legislature’s informal Moderate Caucus and says his legislative career has been centered around getting the two parties to compromise.

“It’s easy, at election time, to be a moderate because that’s how you win,” he said. “It’s much harder to be a moderate when the Legislature is in session.”

Johnson, a Somerville information technology director who won a special election for his seat in February in a district usually dominated by Republicans, says when he hit the senate floor he had to be a quick learner. He said he’s been seeing his name recognition rise ever since.

“More and more, I’ll meet with someone who says, ‘You helped my sister in Whitefield,’ or, ‘You helped someone I know with a problem,’” he said. “That’s coming back around to me.”

Fossel and Johnson agreed on one main issue facing district residents: the cost of health care. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Maine was fifth in the nation in per-capita health care spending in 2009. The Lincoln County News has reported the county’s population is the oldest in the state, citing Census data.

The candidates’ solutions to the problem, though, vastly differ.

Johnson opposes Republican-backed health care reform, which relaxed certain regulations on health insurance providers and allowed Mainers to purchase insurance across state lines. He said he’d prefer “focusing not on ensuring extra profits for insurance companies, but on preventive care and managing the cost-drivers.”

Fossel, a supporter of the law, says more needs to be done to rein in costs.

He said if elected, he’ll be submitting a bill that would assemble a Joint Select Committee on Health Care Costs. It would mirror a bill he submitted this past session that passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, but wasn’t funded by the Legislature’s administrative arm.

“Well, last time I checked, we’re $480 million in the hole. We owe that to the hospitals,” he said, citing an approximate total figure for debt owed to hospitals by the state and federal government, of which the state owes between $150 million and $190 million, according to the Portland Press Herald.

“We need to cut health care costs,” Fossel said.

Johnson said in the upcoming session, he’ll have a keen focus on issues affecting the seafood industry, particularly important to coastal Lincoln County.

He suggested tax exemptions for seafood processing plants so the industry “would become less of a niche opportunity and more of a large-scale one.” Maine’s lobster processing industry is dwarfed by Canadian plants, which process the majority of Maine lobster, according to published reports.

Clam diggers in Lincoln County also need further protection from river pollution, particularly in the Medomak River, Johnson said. Over the past years, the Lincoln County News has reported, clam flats in that river, through Waldoboro, Bremen and Friendship have had to be closed because of pollution, often from leaky septic systems.

“When problems like that are seen, we need to make sure government is there to lend the kind of hand that are the responsibilities of their departments and actually helping the smallest end of small business,” Johnson said.

Fossel said regardless of the outcome of the same-sex marriage question on November’s ballot, he’ll be introducing a bill to give people in domestic partnerships the same benefits that those who are married receive from the state. He sponsored a similar bill in 2009, but it didn’t gain traction.

“I thought it was a way to stop the war between the traditional marriage and gay marriage people,” he said. “There are people who are being excluded.”

There isn’t much love lost between Fossel and Johnson. Fossel took issue with what he sees as Johnson supporters saying the Democrat is a moderate.

He said Johnson had “the most partisan voting record of any senator,” citing an endorsement from the liberal Maine People’s Alliance and Johnson’s spot on a recent list from the conservative, pro-business Maine Economic Research Institute. The list gave Johnson the worst rating of any legislator on issues the group said were important to business interests.

“In my mind, it’s a little bit like the Soviet dictionary — changing pages to suit changing times. I don’t do that,” Fossel said. “If you want to elect a moderate, that’s what I am. If you don’t, don’t vote for me.”

Johnson scoffed at Fossel’s characterization of his record.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and ask, ‘What kind of liberal agenda can I foist?” he said, “Contrary to what Les thinks about me, my philosophy is really centered on the people.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com