The race for Maine's first district house seat came to Bowdoin last night as the two candidates squared off in a wide-ranging, fast-paced debate.
In front of an audience of some 55 students, staff, and community members, the two candidates?Charlie Summers, a Republican from Scarborough, and Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the island community of North Haven?fielded questions on nearly every major issue, from the economy and energy to health care and the Iraq war.
The debate was broadcast live on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, which sponsored the event along with the College. Summers and Pingree are contesting the seat currently held by Rep. Tom Allen, who left his post to challenge Sen. Susan Collins for her seat in the U.S. Senate.
While the race does not appear to be close?a poll released last Thursday by the firm Critical Insights showed Pingree with a 21 percent lead?both candidates still seemed to engage in the debate, drawing sharp distinctions between each others' positions, especially on economic issues.
If elected, Pingree said that she would try to erase the nation's budget deficit by voting for a rollback of the Bush tax cuts, as well as beginning withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
"I want to bring that money back here," Pingree said, referring to money spent on the war. "I want to bring that money back to America now."
During their discussion of the economy, Pingree frequently tried to tie Summers to the policies of current president George W. Bush, while linking her ideas with those of Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.
When Pingree pressured Summers about his support for the Bush tax cuts, Summers defended his position by saying that many of the recipients of the largest tax breaks were small business owners.
"In today's world, it's not difficult for a small business to have $250,000 in income," he said. "I think it's important to keep the taxpayer burden low."
Summers also said that he supported a two-year moratorium on the capital gains tax, of which Pingree argued that 90 percent of the benefit would go to people making more than $250,000.
"It would put money back in the hands of the individual and the people who earned that money," Summers said.
Other major differences between the candidates included their positions on health care.
Summers said that given the problems with current federal health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, a "single-payer system is not the way to go."
Instead, Summers said, he would support allowing small-business owners to decrease health care costs by allowing interstate competition between private health insurers.
Pingree said that she would vote for a single-payer bill if one were presented before Congress, but also added that she would support the hybrid plan proposed by Obama. This plan would give citizens the option of enrolling in an expanded government program or remaining in their private plan.
The candidates also tackled the issue of the Iraq war, in response to a video question posed by Sean McElroy '12.
Pingree said she would have opposed the war from the start.
"I do not see us as an aggressor nation that continually goes into other countries with a minimal amount of provocation," she said.
Summers, a veteran of the war, gave a more circumspect response.
"My feeling has never been stronger that war is always the last resort," he said. Summers added that if a similar issue were to come up again, he would be sure to ask about the "endgame" before becoming involved in a war.
The candidates also discussed issues surrounding higher education.
Summers said if elected, in addition to promoting conventional ideas like increasing Pell Grants, he would propose a national service corps. As part of this program, young people would serve in organizations like the Peace Corps, Americorps, and the military?in exchange, the government could help pay for tuition.
In an interview with the Orient after the debate, Summers said that he would try to retain Maine's college graduates by encouraging new industries to move to the state.
The state, he said, has to "foster an environment where the tax code is not confiscatory."
"We should offer tax incentives to companies that would come in and create new jobs," he added.
Pingree said that she would approve more funding for Pell grants, as well as more support to colleges and universities "so that they're not constantly increasing tuition rates."
Also, Pingree said that the student loan system is currently plagued by many of the same issues that resulted in the current financial crisis, and that it needs reform.
"We cannot make a better investment in this country...and particularly here in the state of Maine," she said.
In an interview with the Orient following the debate, Pingree said that she supports the idea of Maine's college students voting in state elections, even if their homes are elsewhere.
"I think it's fine while you're a resident of the state," she said. "It's part of getting people engaged in a state like ours."