Two well-known Democratic women are looking to fill an open in seat in the Maine Senate – one of two representing Maine’s largest city.

Longtime Portland City Councilor Jill Duson and state Rep. Heather Sanborn will square off in the Democratic primary to fill a seat being vacated by Mark Dion, who is running for governor.

The winner of the June 12 state Senate primary will be the favorite to win the general election for the District 28 seat, which represents part of Portland and part of Westbrook and has long been held by Democrats.

Patrick Martin of Westbrook is running unopposed in the Republican primary and will face the winner in November.

Both Duson and Sanborn live in Portland. They both have law backgrounds and have similar positions on issues such as Medicaid expansion, school funding and gun control.

Both support funding the Medicaid expansion approved by voters last fall for an estimated 70,000 Mainers by dipping into the $141 million budget surplus.

Both support a so-called “red flag” law that would allow police or family members to ask a court to temporarily seize guns from individuals believed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others, as well as additional gun restrictions, such as outlawing high-capacity magazines that cannot be used for hunting.

And both said they would work to ensure the state finally meets its obligation to fund 55 percent of public education costs.

But they differ greatly in their experience and how they would approach their new role as state senator.

If elected to the Senate, Duson said, she will continue to serve as an at-large city councilor, a position to which she was re-elected to a sixth term last November. She said holding two offices is not unprecedented and would benefit the district, because she is familiar with the challenges of urban communities, whether it’s homelessness, school funding or affordable housing.

“What happens in Augusta doesn’t stay in Augusta – it affects us in so many ways,” said Duson, who has served for a decade on the council’s legislative committee in addition to regional and statewide municipal groups. “My vision is to be a pretty loud and energetic voice in my own party caucus when discussions and decisions are being made about what is the ‘Democratic position.’ ”

However, Sanborn, who is co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing Co., which has a brewery and tasting room in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood and a warehouse in Westbrook, said she will be able to devote more time to being a full-time state senator. Having a steady presence is Augusta is needed in order to build relationships – whether by “breaking bread” at lunch or chatting in hallways – with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, she said.

“One clear difference is I plan on serving as state senator and doing that full time and devoting my political energies in that direction,” Sanborn said. “I think that would be very difficult to do that and serve on the council and I wouldn’t have made that choice.”

Jill Duson


Duson, a retiree, says her personal, professional and political experience makes her “uniquely prepared” to serve in both roles. As a young child growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania, she experienced the turbulent desegregation of public schools. She was one of the so-called “smart kids” who were chosen to attend white schools, where she walked the gantlet of angry faces who wanted to keep the schools segregated.

This happened against a backdrop of police brutality against black people nationally and later the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy. And she also learned the value of grassroots organizing to address substandard housing.

“I grew up in that soup and I came out of it,” she said. “It’s clear to me that public service is what you do. You have to be accountable for what’s in front of you.”

As an attorney, she chose to focus on rights of the elderly and the disabled, mainly because of her mother’s experience as a polio survivor.

And she has held roles in state government, most recently serving as a compliance manager for the Maine Human Rights Commission. She led the Bureau of Rehabilitative Services under Gov. John Baldacci. She said the agency had a budget of $24 million and more than 100 employees. And she said she helped turn around the agency’s budget deficit while reducing wait times.

That, coupled with her decades in local elected office, gives her the ability to approach issues – whether it’s waterfront infrastructure spending, school funding or tackling homelessness and substance use – from multiple viewpoints, she said.

And she hopes to be able to use that experience to break through the partisanship of Augusta, to push back against Gov. Paul LePage’s narrative that Portland is the enemy of the rest of the state.

“Let’s talk about what’s good for Maine because what helps in southern Maine also helps in northern Maine and western Maine,” she said. “We have to be conscious that we may be the landing area for people, but we want them to get out and experience the rest of Maine.”

Heather Sanborn


Sanborn is completing her first term as a state representative in District 43, which covers part of Portland and part of Falmouth. But she said she’s ready to make the move to the Senate, which she described as a “smaller, more deliberative body” where she can lead on health care and clean energy issues.

Sanborn said one of her top priorities will be health care reform, since it is something she has struggled with personally.

Sanborn said she was eight months pregnant when her husband was laid off from his job. She had already informed her boss that she was taking a yearlong leave of absence.

“It’s a very scary thing to go through that process of being pregnant and not having health insurance and not knowing if I would be able to afford it,” she said.

After her son was born, he was eligible for MaineCare and she got insurance through the now-defunct Dirigo Health program. But she’s also had experience with quality and affordable health care, when she worked for a Boston law firm, and later as a small-business owner.

“I’ve seen it from a lot of different vantage points and that’s been formative for me,” she said.

Sanborn, who serves on the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Service Committee, said she is currently co-chairing a task force looking to reform health care in Maine. One area the group expects to make a recommendation about is the high cost of prescription drugs, she said.

“The costs are too high and there are too many Mainers who are struggling – whether they have insurance or not – with health care costs,” she said. “We have some real allies in the Republican Party in the Legislature” in this area.

A self-described “technophile,” Sanborn said she is eager to explore how the state can put new technology to work, especially with regard to renewable energy. As a member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, she’s interested in things like micro-grids, battery storage, offshore wind and solar technology.

“My experience on health care issues and clean energy issues in this first term in the Legislature gives me a strong foundation for continuing to be a leader on those issues as a senator,” she said. “Those are state-level policy issues that are absolutely critical.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

Correction: This story was updated at 9:10 a.m. on May 21, 2018 to correct the district that Heather Sanborn represents.

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