Ongoing problems with the U.S. Postal Service have emerged as a major campaign talking point for Sen. Susan Collins and her main opponent, Sara Gideon, even though the two largely agree on the core issue of funding.

Gideon, the Democratic House speaker from Freeport, held a roundtable event Friday afternoon in Augusta with small-business owners and others who have either been affected by postal service delays or are worried about that happening.

Gretchen Jaeger, who owns Halcyon Yarn in Bath, said her business was roughly two-thirds online before the pandemic and has gone to 100 percent online since.

“We’re lucky to be in a position to do that, but all that luck is sort of hanging in the balance,” she said, explaining that 82 percent of her orders are made through the USPS and customers already have been calling to say packages haven’t arrived. “This has had an immediate and dramatic impact.”

Halcyon Yarn owner Gretchen Jaeger talks about how postal service slowdowns are affecting her Bath business during a Sara Gideon campaign event Friday in Augusta.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

After the event, Gideon said that the problems with USPS are both long-standing and, more recently, politically motivated, and she sought to differentiate her position from Collins on that.

“What is happening right now is definitely about the delivery of a service, but we also have to recognize that Postmaster General (Louis) DeJoy was appointed by President Trump, that he does have a strong political affiliation with him and a history of political contributions and that we have seen through the president’s own words that a lot of this is about mail-in voting,” she said. “We know, without question, especially during a pandemic, we have to preserve people’s rights to be healthy and safe but also to exercise their fundamental right to vote and I think all of us should be very clear and very loud about that.”

Actually, Trump did not appoint DeJoy. He was selected as postmaster general by the postal service’s board of governors – four Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom Trump appointed.

Collins has shared similar concerns about how the postal service changes have affected businesses and rural Mainers who might see delays in getting prescription drugs through the mail. The Republican has not, however, made any strong comments about the politics involved or whether the changes will impact mail-in voting, even as requests for absentee ballots in Maine are on track to shatter records.

Instead, Collins has focused on a bill she co-sponsored with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, that would provide $25 billion in emergency funding for the postal service. On Friday, Collins’ office released a letter sent to her by the president of the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, expressing strong support for that bill.

Robert Simpson of Gardiner talks about how postal service slowdowns are affecting getting prescription drugs by mail during a Sara Gideon campaign event Friday in Augusta.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The House is prepared to vote on a similar standalone bill Saturday that would provide $25 billion in funding and also would require the USPS to treat election mail as first class mail and explicitly reverse any changes already made that delay mail delivery. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, has been among the most forceful House members in condemning what’s going on at the postal service.

“It’s hard to see how this isn’t just a big scam to dismantle the Post Office under the guise of saying, ‘We’re reorganizing it,’” she told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Trump on Friday threatened to veto any standalone funding bill for the USPS, saying in a statement that the postal service “does not need a $25 billion bailout. It needs reform.”

DeJoy testified before a Senate committee on Friday and said that he has no intention of reversing actions that already have been taken, such as the removal of mail sorting machines at facilities across the country, including two in Scarborough. He did, however, pledge to make ballots a priority.

Union officials in Maine and elsewhere have called for DeJoy’s resignation. They also have called for an end to a postal retiree health care pre-funding requirement, which was part of a 2006 bill co-sponsored by Collins, that requires the USPS to fund retiree health insurance 50 years into the future. While the House voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law in February, the Senate hasn’t taken action.

Collins had defended the 2006 pre-funding mandate, saying that it was pitched by the postal service and part of a bill that was passed unanimously by Congress, had broad employee support and relieved the agency of billions of dollars in crushing financial liabilities.

Gideon, however, said everyone now agrees that the pre-funding mandate, which doesn’t exist for any other government agency, has been the biggest contributor to the postal service’s financial woes.

“It has really inhibited their operation and that’s something that needs to be fixed,” she said. “Republicans and Democratic senators across the country agree that the pre-funding mandate should be repealed, including our own Sen. (Angus) King. I have not heard Sen. Collins say anything to that effect.”

John Upham, who appeared at the Gideon roundtable on Friday, said he can’t believe the postal service would be so cavalier with something that matters to a lot of Mainers. He’s a retired Bath Iron Works employee and veteran who gets prescriptions through the mail. Although he hasn’t missed any shipments yet, he’s heard from other veterans who have and worries he might be next.

“When the service is being hindered for political reasons, that’s wrong,” he said, putting the blame on the Trump administration.

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