Amjambo Africa sent questions about racial equity, immigration, health care, and policing to the candidates running for Maine’s federal offices. By press time, we received responses from Sen. Susan Collins, Democratic Senate primary candidates Sara Gideon and Betsy Sweet, and a statement from Rep. Chellie Pingree (CD-01). Responses from the candidates are printed below a brief introduction to the U.S. primary system.
by Stephanie Harp
How does the primary system work?
On July 14, Maine will hold a primary election. The primary determines which candidates will represent their political parties in November. On Tuesday, November 3, Maine will elect one U.S. Senator, two U.S. House members, the entire Maine House and Senate, and a number of town, city, and county offices. U.S. Senators are elected for six-year terms. Maine’s Senators are Angus King and Susan Collins. The term of Sen. Collins is expiring and she is running for re-election. U.S. House members, who are called Representatives, Congressmen, or Congresswomen, serve two-year terms. Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s First Congressional District and Jared Golden represents the Second District; both are running for re-election this year. None of these incumbents have primary challengers, which means they are virtually certain to be their parties’ nominees. But a field of candidates is competing to run against them in November. This primary election will determine the Demoncratic and Republican challengers who will be on the November ballot against Sen. Collins and Rep. Golden; so far, only one Republican has declared an intent to run against Rep. Pingree.
All 35 Maine Senators and all 151 Maine House members are elected for two-year terms, and are limited to four consecutive terms per office (in other words, after four terms in the House, a representative is allowed to run for up to four consecutive terms in the Senate). The House also includes three non-voting members representing the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The November elections will include all seats in the Maine Legislature. Some incumbents have primary challengers on the July 14 ballot and others do not.
Depending on the county, the July 14 primary election may also include candidates for Judge of Probate, Register of Probate, County Treasurer, Register of Deeds, Sheriff, District Attorney, and County Commissioner.
In addition to these elected offices, votes also will decide two statewide ballot questions on July 14. These are Yes/No questions and both are bond issues, which means the state is asking to borrow money to make some sort of investment, usually with a significant amount of money provided by a federal or other funding match. Question 1 is “An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue for Infrastructure To Improve Transportation and Internet Connections. This one will invest in high-speed internet infrastructure for unserved and underserved areas. Question 2 is “An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue for Infrastructure To Improve Transportation and Internet Connections.” This invests funds to improve highways, bridges, and equipment related to transit, freight and passenger railroads, aviation, ports, harbors, marine transportation, and active transportation projects.
Every Maine resident has the right to vote in every election if you are a U.S. citizen, are at least 18 years old (at age 17, you may vote in the primary if you will be 18 before the November election), and live in the municipality where you want to vote. But first, you must register to vote. This is a simple and safe process that you can do through your municipality or online, at least 21 days before an election, at the Maine Secretary of State website (www.maine.gov/sos). Registering to vote establishes your residency in that location, which means that you are declaring yourself a Maine resident for tax and other purposes. Unlike many other states, Maine has “same-day registration,” which means you can register on the same day that you vote, but in this case, you must do so in person.
In Maine, you also have the right to vote “absentee,” which means you may ask to receive a ballot by mail, fill it out at home, and return it by mail. Absentee voting is especially attractive as a way to avoid crowds this year because of the COVID-19 emergency. Instructions vary by municipality, but in all cases, your local municipal clerk must receive your completed and signed ballot by 8 p.m. on Election Day, in order for your vote to be counted. Be aware that returning some ballots in their oversized envelopes may require additional postage. Some cities have “ballot boxes” placed outside near City Hall, where you may deposit your completed ballot instead of sending it through the mail. For the July 14 election, the deadline to request an absentee ballot by telephone or through the Absentee Ballot Request page of the Secretary of State’s office website is July 9 at 5 p.m.
You also may vote early in person by going to your municipal clerk’s office. In this case, you do not need to apply for an absentee ballot. In-person, early voting is available beginning 30 days before the election until the Thursday before the election.
The Maine Secretary of State’s office says this about voting: “By voting, you are keeping Maine’s democracy strong and continuing a long history of citizen participation in the governing of our state and nation…. By casting a ballot, each citizen has a voice in deciding who will serve in office and what positions will be taken on major issues. Voting is of critical importance to the strength and vitality of our system of government…. For our democracy to work, we must all participate in the process. Please register and vote and encourage your family, friends and neighbors to do the same.”
Amjambo Africa: How can the federal government address the health outcomes disparities in communities that have suffered most from the virus?
Collins: As a member of the Senate Health Committee, I have urged top officials from federal health agencies to take action to address the racial disparity in the effects of COVID-19. As the Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I will be holding a hearing this month to examine these racial disparities among older Americans and the health care that they receive. The virus’ impact on long-term care settings directly intersects with the stark racial disparities that we’re seeing, and unfortunately – and remarkably – Maine has the nation’s worst COVID-19 racial disparity.
Many of the worst outbreaks that have occurred in Maine are in nursing homes, and the CDC reports that some 40% of those health care workers that have tested positive were identified as Black. We must focus our resources on protective equipment for these workers and we must test often and test everyone who enters these centers.
Gideon: The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic and the reckoning with racial injustice in our country have highlighted for all of us exactly how systemic racism impacts people of color throughout our society. We need to be willing to have the difficult conversations that for too long public officials have ignored, about the institutions that perpetuate racial disparities, and that includes making changes to our health care policy.
While the Trump administration has failed to collect adequate data on racial disparities during the pandemic, the data we do have shows a clear pattern. Nationwide, Black Americans make up 25% of coronavirus related deaths, even though they make up 13% of the population.
In Maine, that discrepancy is the most severe in the nation. Black Mainers make up more than 22% of all positive coronavirus test results while making up only 1.6% of Maine’s population. As of June 22nd, Black Mainers were 24 times more likely to test positive for COVID than white Mainers. That is unacceptable, and it requires action by the federal government to address long-standing disparities in health outcomes.
It’s unacceptable that people of color in Maine and across the country, on average, have less access to quality, affordable health care.
In order to increase access and bring down costs, I support the creation of a public option, which would make Medicare available to those who want to participate, while not eliminating private insurance for millions of Americans who have it and like it.
In the Senate, I would also work to lower the cost of prescription drugs by allowing for the importation of drugs from Canada at the federal level, ending what’s called “pay-for-delay” schemes – when drug companies pay generic competitors to delay access to a cheaper generic drug – allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices to drive down costs, and capping out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs for seniors on Medicare to ensure that there’s a limit to the prices they pay to fill their prescriptions.
Furthermore, people of color are more likely to hold jobs as frontline workers which increases their risk of becoming infected. Addressing the systemic racism that has caused these disparities in health outcomes requires us to look at a wide range of policy areas, and I also believe Congress should establish hazard pay for frontline workers and extend them additional educational and health care benefits.
Sweet: Communities of color have disproportionately been affected by COVID-19 in part because these communities have not received the investment in resources and social services that white communities have received.The federal government must ensure communities impacted by health disparities receive the resources they need not only to survive but to thrive.
Tangibly, what that means is providing safe housing as well as access and true coverage to regular primary care. It means ensuring that there are medical facilities within reach of communities of color and that hospitals have the equipment they need. It means that access to clean, safe drinking water is a basic human right that we vigorously uphold.
We need public health, testing, and safety information published in all languages spoken in any given community and interpreters available at health care sites to ensure that the information is correctly given. Lastly, we must provide every person with monthly payments of $2,000 so that they don’t feel compelled to attend jobs with unsafe working conditions.
Amjambo Africa: How should the U.S. address immigration, individuals seeking asylum, and the detainees who remain at the border?
Collins: I have noted on many occasions that the situation on the southern border is broken, and the arrival of hundreds of asylum seekers in Portland – nearly 2,500 hundred miles from the Rio Grande – underscores this fact. It’s clear that we need comprehensive immigration reform, stronger border security, a better way of handling asylum claims, more immigration judges, a sensible system for guest workers, and a long-term solution for the young people we call the “DREAMERS.”
Gideon: As the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants, I believe strongly in America’s responsibility to welcome immigrants and refugees. My father immigrated to this country as a medical resident and my maternal grandparents fled the Armenian genocide and came to the United States seeking safety and a better life – and their stories and the lessons I learned from my family are with me every day.
In the State House, I’ve fought for immigrants and asylum seekers because I believe they enrich our state and strengthen our economy and workforce. I co-sponsored and voted for a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform – including developing an accessible path to citizenship – and pushed back against Gov. LePage’s efforts to deny assistance to asylum seekers while their cases were processed.
At the federal level, we need comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to focus on making sure that we create a fair path to citizenship – where the rules to become a citizen are understood – while also making sure that we keep our borders secure and our country safe. I believe we need to fully reinstate DACA and create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, and make sure that family separation at the border ends and that every family is reunited.
We also need to rethink what our immigration court system looks like so that no family is separated or feels unsafe while they’re waiting for their hearings.
Finally, I know that looking at challenges we face across the globe – whether it is climate change or the current public health crisis – we have to work together and be proactive. As Senator, I would support increasing the United States’ support for refugees at home and abroad to meet the unprecedented challenge of mass movement faced by the world today.
Sweet: The immigration system in this country is broken, and the way we currently treat immigrants in this nation is shameful. The current administration has shown that they do not respect the rights or the essential contributions of immigrants in the United States. They prioritize tearing families apart and deporting good, law-abiding people who fall victim to a broken system.
It is abhorrent that we are keeping our fellow human beings in cages, subjecting them to outright inhumane conditions. It is not reflective of our values as a country, especially as a country that was built by immigrants, when the government treats our immigrants with such open disdain.Moreover, the current administration’s policy of keeping any asylum seekers trying to access the US via the southern border in Mexico while their cases are pending is not only despicable but it is also illegal. Asylum seekers are legally allowed to live in the United States while their cases are pending in court. By forcing these individuals who have already greatly suffered to remain in camps in a nation foreign to them, we are denying them their rights. It is unconscionable.
We need to greatly reform our immigration system so that it is humane, respects the rights of immigrants, does not tear apart families, and allows for an attainable pathway towards citizenship. We must provide a quick path to citizenship, and we must allocate the resources necessary to have enough staff to process people’s claims. They should be free to settle anywhere while they are awaiting the disposition of their status.
Amjambo Africa: Throughout the country, the world, and here in Maine, people have made their voices heard about issues of racial inequality and current methods of policing. What should be done regarding inequality and policing?
Collins: The horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was a crime and laid bare the racial injustice that still taints our country. It is incumbent on all of us to make genuine progress toward the American ideal of ensuring that everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, is treated equally. The JUSTICE Act I co-sponsored with Senator Tim Scott would implement common sense reforms that would help restore trust in our law enforcement, particularly among communities of color, while continuing to support the vast majority of officers who serve with integrity and valor. I am hopeful that we can reach a bipartisan consensus on solutions to racial inequality in policing.
Gideon: Mainers and Americans across the country have raised their voices in support of a more just society, and I’ve been proud to stand with them.
The peaceful protests across the country are an important part of that process of speaking out and demanding action, and there’s no question this is going to require action on the part of the federal government. First and foremost, there needs to be zero tolerance for discrimination and profiling in law enforcement, and for the killing of unarmed Black people. That has to stop immediately.
Here in Maine, we’ve banned racial profiling by police, and I think that’s absolutely something that should happen at the national level.
In the Senate, I would support:
Implementing zero tolerance policies for racial and religious profiling in law enforcement and the killing of unarmed people by law enforcement;
Expanding racial bias training nationwide;
Increasing transparency and data collection around police misconduct, with measures like the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry, mandatory reporting of use of force by police officers and use of body and dashboard cameras, and;
Banning the use of chokeholds.
Beyond that, we need to be willing to have the difficult conversations that for too long public officials have ignored, about the issues that are causing institutional racism. We have to make changes to education policy, to health care policy, to our criminal justice system.
Sweet: Policing governance and accountability happen largely at the local level. However, as a US Senator, I would move to do several things right away on the federal level. First, I would end the qualified immunity doctrine that allows police officers to escape prosecution when they break the law on the job. We need to end the “1033” program to stop the flow of military equipment from the federal government to local police departments. We need to develop a national public database that would compile the names of officers who have had their licenses suspended due to misconduct; as well as terminations and complaints against the officers. Finally, we should make chokeholds illegal and harshly punish those officers who continue to use them regardless of their illegality.
The federal government must provide funding and incentives to create completely new systems of community care teams that would replace police units. This means redefining and restructuring law enforcement and creating a network of professionals and services that are available to address homelessness, addiction, mental health crises, and domestic violence while adequately funding schools and after-school programs, providing housing, and health care as a human right.
In order to adequately begin undoing systemic racism, we need to follow the lead of BIPOC elected officials and community leaders. We will not achieve equality if the ones “reforming” our current systems are the very ones who benefit from systemic inequality and racism. Additionally, we must end the disparities in the services and funding that communities of color receive compared to resources given to predominantly white communities.
Amjambo Africa: How can the federal government demonstrate that front-line workers are essential and valued, especially with regard to wages, insurance, and immigration/asylum status?
Collins: The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and must lead by example. I am among a bipartisan group of 19 Senators that has called upon the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to use existing authorities to provide hazard pay to Federal government employees working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. That proposed hazard pay would total a 25% increase in those workers’ current salaries. In addition, we urged OPM and OMB to make changes to telework, safety leave, personal protective equipment, pay continuity, and union collaboration policies to improve work conditions for Federal employees and contractors.
The CARES Act enacted in March included $45 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which can be used to reimburse local governments that paid hazard pay to certain first responders responding to the pandemic. It also provided $150 billion for the Coronavirus Relief Fund, of which Maine received $1.25 billion, which can be used by state and local governments to provide hazard pay for employees.
I also led a letter with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) encouraging additional support for first responders in the next COVID-19 relief package, including grant funding to pay for authorized hazard pay for first responders such as fire fighters, EMS personnel, and law enforcement. I will continue to work with my colleagues to advance protections and rightful compensation for our essential workers.
Gideon: Throughout the coronavirus crisis, frontline workers have continued to do their jobs, even when that has meant putting themselves at risk of becoming infected. The work of educators, grocery store clerks, pharmacists, health care support staff, postal workers, and so many others has been essential to keep us going through this crisis.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that people of color are more likely to hold jobs as frontline workers while simultaneously having less access to health care and worse living conditions.
Unfortunately, once again we’re seeing a process in Washington that does not address the needs of people here in Maine. Senate Republicans have delayed additional action in response to the coronavirus until after the July 4th recess while they continue to confirm Trump’s far-right judicial nominees. This isn’t the time for Democrats and Republicans to be fighting — this is about a real need for relief for people in Maine and across the country, and it’s time for leaders in Washington to get to work.
Frontline workers have put their own health and safety at risk to continue to serve Mainers across the state. Their work and sacrifice must be recognized and rewarded, and I believe Congress should establish hazard pay for frontline workers and extend them additional educational and health care benefits.
We must recognize frontline workers’ sacrifice and I support efforts to do just that.”
Sweet: Immediately, the best thing we can do to show our front-line workers that they are valued is by providing them with the equipment they need to do their jobs. The U.S. government has failed our frontline workers, especially our health care workers, at providing them with the equipment and tools they need to tackle this crisis while keeping them and their families safe. For all frontline workers, who routinely risk their lives every day, we need to show them that we are invested in their wellbeing as well. This means ensuring that all frontline workers receive hazard pay, as well as raising the minimum wage to $15/hour so that these workers are receiving at least a living wage for their essential work. We also must provide paid sick leave so that people who are ill can stay at home and paid family medical leave so they can care for loved ones if they are sick.
Frontline workers should also not have to worry about their own health during this time, especially as many must continue working for fear of losing the income they are dependent on. We need to enact Medicare for All so that workers and all people living in America do not have the threat of medical bankruptcy hanging over their heads if they were to possibly get sick and seek life-saving treatment. Furthermore, no frontline worker should fear for their future in this country because of their immigration status.
Statement from Rep. Chellie Pingree (Democrat, Maine’s 1st Congressional District) in response to our questions:
The COVID-19 pandemic has really underscored the harms of longstanding racial inequities in Maine and across the United States, including an unacceptable and ongoing lack of access to health care, affordable housing, and stable employment that offers a living wage. Now, people of color in the state – particularly Black Mainers – are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. It’s abundantly clear that we need to stem the immediate harm caused by these disparities, which is why I’m proud to support legislation in Congress that would expand free testing and treatment, mandate protections and hazard pay for essential workers, and ensure paid leave for those who are sick or caring for family members. At the same time, we need to invest in the long-term health and prosperity of vulnerable communities, including through universal health care, high-quality public education, a $15 minimum wage, an accessible and welcoming immigration system, and a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.
Statements from Senate candidate Bre Kidman, Second District Rep. Jared Golden, First District candidate Jay Allen, and Second District candidates Adrienne Bennett, Eric Brakey, and Dale Crafts were not available by press time.