LEWISTON — One candidate’s congressional campaign has hit their Democratic primary opponent for talking like a Republican, but on Thursday night at their first debate forum of 2014, the two certainly spoke like Democrats.
They charted different paths, however.
Democrats Emily Cain and Troy Jackson, the state senators vying for their party’s nomination to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat in a June 10 election, clashed at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College and fielded questions mostly from activists, academics and other politicians.
It made for a dense forum on issues including health care, education, the environment and the economy, with the candidates taking different tacks in their answers, but largely coming to similar stances.
Jackson, the Senate majority leader, who has perhaps been Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s most vocal foe in Augusta, often repeated that he wouldn’t compromise on issues with the Washington Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I won’t back down from the tea party, because believe me, if Paul LePage doesn’t scare me — and trust me, he doesn’t, (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz and (House Speaker) John Boehner won’t either,” he said.
Jackson and Cain have clashed on the trail already with an email from Jackson’s campaign to supporters hitting Cain for talking “like a Republican,” while Cain has criticized many of his votes on social issues and the environment.
Cain, known for compromise in the Maine Legislature, highlighted that, alongside her endorsements from environmental groups and consistent record of voting pro-choice on abortion — differing from Jackson on that issue.
“Believe me, I don’t agree with Gov. LePage on every issue — actually, I really can’t think of many that I do agree with him on at all — but that’s no excuse … not to get things done,” she said.
On the issues, both voiced support for universal health care, preserving Social Security and providing assistance to immigrants and college students. Both were concerned about trade agreements’ effect on the manufacturing economy in the largely rural 2nd District, dotted with struggling mill towns.
But they talked much differently from one another.
Cain, a University of Maine employee from Orono, often referred to current events and policy points in her answers, sitting behind a neat three-ring binder.
For example, she noted a recent study from U.S. News and World Report that ranked Maine schools in the top 15 in the nation as a reason she’s wary of Common Core, a state-by-state initiative to standardize language arts and math requirements in K-12 schools.
“I don’t want there to be a lowest-common-denominator standard across the country where Maine can’t continue its very high bar,” she said.
Jackson, a logger from Allagash, brought up large issues such as health care and referred to his life in the struggling town on the St. John River, marking Aroostook County’s border with Canada.
He said he didn’t have health coverage until he was elected to the Legislature, which motivated him to fight for expansion of MaineCare, the state and federal health care program for the poor, to an estimated 60,000 Mainers under the federal Affordable Care Act. LePage vetoed that effort this year and last year.
“I’m pretty embarassed and ashamed, going back and seeing my constituents that don’t have access to health care … and having to tell them I wasn’t able to get that done for them,” he said.
The forum’s location, Lewiston, was significant, as it’s the southern hub of the 2nd District and a Democratic stronghold that consistently has backed Michaud but doesn’t have a local candidate in the race.
The Androscoggin County Democratic Committee organized the event, which took place just after the state party opened a downtown office, and a big, Democrat-friendly crowd came out.
Many hadn’t made up their mind beforehand: Tonya Bailey-Curry, a mother from Lewiston, said she didn’t know much about the two candidates coming in.
However, she was struck by their differing approaches. At night’s end, she approved more of Jackson’s, saying she has seen many politicians with Cain’s compromising style before. She said that works among like-minded people, but it won’t in Washington.
Bailey-Curry said there, Democrats “have compromised enough” and thought Jackson better grasped core Maine issues.
“I think he gets the struggle that the parents trying to get their kids through school understand,” she said.