Bipartisanship took center stage during the Maine Politics discussion last Monday.
Marisa O’Toole ’17, co-leader of the Bowdoin Democrats, and Jack Lucy ’17, co-leader of the Bowdoin Republicans, moderated the discussion between Speaker of the Maine House Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) and State Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta). O’Toole and Lucy are both from Maine (Scarborough and Orono respectively) and they posed questions to address a range of issues affecting Mainers today. From the opioid epidemic to the referendum process, Gideon and Katz disagreed on little.
The discussion was organized by the Bowdoin Republicans, the Bowdoin Democrats and the thInk Collective, a group of Student Affairs staff members that promotes student programs that support inclusivity on campus.
The event aimed to give students, both those from Maine and those from elsewhere, an opportunity to learn more about politically relevant issues in Maine.
“I think it’s really important that, whatever community you find yourself in, you do your best to understand the dynamics of that community and the issues that the people face,” said O’Toole. “It’s easy to get caught up in the Bowdoin bubble and only focus on your immediate surroundings but there are so many big issues that are facing people ten minutes off campus, twenty minutes off campus, and then all the way up and down Maine that I think people could really benefit from understanding more deeply.”
The first topic of discussion was how the government is addressing the rising rate of overdose deaths from opioids in Maine.
Gideon acknowledged that the state does not have enough resources in place to properly confront the issue right now.
“We’re not doing enough,” said Gideon. “I think that state by state we are struggling with what the answers are and how to really tackle this.”
She stressed that one of the most important aspects of effective political action is understanding what the underlying issues are surrounding opioid addiction in Maine.
Katz agreed with Gideon.
“This really isn’t one of those partisan issues,” he said.
He argued that part of the difficulty in addressing this issue is that it is not entirely clear how to most effectively deal with addiction.
“I think all of us want to put more resources into it, but we don’t want to throw our money at it in ways that aren’t going to be effective,” Katz explained.
Gideon and Katz also addressed the notion of “two Maines”—the idea that there is a widening economic and social divide that roughly falls along the line between their two congressional districts.
Katz acknowledged that recent trends do indicate that people are gravitating more towards the more cosmopolitan and relatively diverse urban regions of southern Maine and that people are leaving the more northern counties behind.
“It is a real problem,” Katz said. “We could talk about potential solutions, but if we knew what those solutions were we would have [implemented] them by now.”
Gideon acknowledged the problem as well. She spoke of how the challenges that face rural Mainers are different than those confronted by people living in mid-coast or southern Maine and that the focus should be to empower citizens across the entire state.
The moderators then brought up the issue of Maine’s shrinking work force. Once again, Katz and Gideon found themselves in agreement about the seriousness of the situation.
Katz spoke about how Maine can try to cope with the issue in three main ways: encourage more Mainers to have children, keep more young people in the state or make Maine a more appealing place to move to. To this third point in particular, Katz said that encouraging more people to move to Maine, regardless of where they come from, is perhaps the option with the most potential.
“There are ways we can do that I think, but until we embrace that we’re going to continue this downward spiral,” said Katz.
Gideon stressed the fact that this is not a partisan issue for Maine politicians.
Another important issue that the speakers discussed is the role of citizen referendums in Maine politics today. In last year’s election, Mainers could vote on a number of serious referendum initiatives, including the legalization of recreational marijuana, the tax incomes that exceed $200,000 to support public schools, enhancing the process of background checks for gun buyers and increasing the minimum wage in Maine.
Both Gideon and Katz feel that citizen referendums, while important, are not the best way to govern. Katz spoke about how referendums should reflect the interests of real Maine citizens and grassroots organizations, but instead have sometimes been co-opted by out-of-state special interest groups. He cited the referendum on the legalization of marijuana and the referendum on background checks as examples of the influence of out-of-state money.
Katz and Gideon acknowledged that people may be more inclined to try to settle issues through referendums because of a perception that the state legislature will not enact new policies quickly enough or at all.
But Gideon spoke about the fact that legislators put a lot of thought and time into policy ideas that are brought up and that this generally leads to more effective results in the long-run.
“We’re willing to do that because we believe in the idea of considering every angle and making sure that we’re crafting good policies,” she said.
“I don’t want to take the referendum process away, but I think that, as with everything we do, we can look at things and consider how to make them better, how to make sure they’re working as they were intended to for the benefit of all,” she added.
While there were instances when Katz and Gideon disagreed over the details of certain laws or policies, by and large they stood in agreement about the issues facing Maine today. Both spoke about the importance of bipartisanship and collaboration in Maine politics today.
“I would choose to work with Roger on any project, any day and think that if we put our heads together we would actually probably come out with a better public policy than either he or I would usually come to the table with,” Gideon said.
Students picked up on this tone of collaboration as well.
“I’m one of the leaders of the Bowdoin Political Union. We weren’t one of the sponsors of the event, but we highly encouraged people to go, mainly because the whole point is bipartisanship and taking on either nonpartisan and bipartisan issues,” said Riley O’Connell ’18 after the event. “I super enjoyed it because there was very little disagreement between these two very high profile Maine congresspeople so I think that was really encouraging.”
Samuel Lewis ’19, originally from New York, felt the event was good exposure to Maine politics.
“The ideal of the connection to Maine is one of the reasons that I chose to attend Bowdoin. I know that it is for a lot of people. It may not be for everyone. But I do think that for those of us that were intentional about coming to Maine, talks like this and chances to meet Maine politicians and learn how the state is run are essential to developing our relationship with the state and, especially if we are going to live here afterwards, it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet high level public servants that we wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Lewis said.