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Maine U.S. Senate candidates share (virtual) stage for the first time since November

Sara Gideon, Betsy Sweet, and Bre Kidman talked racial justice, health care, Supreme Court, and unseating Susan Collins in the Democratic candidate forum Monday.
Credit: Left: Bre Kidman; Center and Right: AP
The Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, from left: Bre Kidman, Sara Gideon, and Betsy Sweet.

MAINE, USA — The three Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate—Sara Gideon, Betsy Sweet, and Bre Kidman—share similar platforms, including the desire to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins. But the Maine Democratic Party’s primary forum on Monday night was more than an opportunity for the candidates to share their already-largely-known stances on political issues. It was an opportunity to see the candidates on the same (virtual) stage talking about the most current political issues ahead of the July 14 state primary. Before Monday’s forum, the candidates had only appeared on stage together once before, which was back in November.

And a lot has changed since November: a global pandemic has affected millions of people and hurt the U.S. economy; America is facing major social change in the wake the George Floyd’s death; and the election, both state and general, are just over the horizon. In between these monumental events, landmark Supreme Court rulings have been made and President Donald Trump has made trade and policy decisions that directly affect Mainers’ businesses and way of life. So, there was plenty to talk about.

The forum was moderated by Adam Cote of the Maine Democratic Party. There were ten questions, which were all written by the Party, and each candidate was asked the same question.

Activist and attorney Betsy Sweet set the tone of the forum with her opening statement, saying, “There’s a lot at stake in this election—It’s a time of testing for political leaders. Who is ready and big enough for this moment? Who is ready to lead? Who is not afraid to think of solutions that are big enough to meet the problems we face?”

Those are questions Sweet, Gideon, and Kidman would try to answer through their responses throughout the night.

Editor's note: These responses are summaries of the candidates' statements. Direct quotes will be in quotations. To see the complete responses, you can rewatch the forum here

Of course, the recent protests and calls for racial justice in America was an early question: What should Congress do to address racial justice in policing and other issues brought forth by protestors?

Gideon: "This moment is a reckoning for all of us, about the structural existence of racism in our country. It is a legacy of bigotry that we have never eradicated, and the result is systemic racism."

There are many steps we need to take that are both in our culture but also in law enforcement that we immediately need to do: there must be zero tolerance for racial profiling; expanded racial bias training; a national registry for members of law enforcement who have had an incident involving minorities; ban chokeholds; and mandate use of body and vehicle cameras.

Kidman: Anything I would do would come from movement leaders: defund the police. My father has been a police officer for 34 years. Police are asked to do things they aren’t equipped to do. 

“You can’t send a gun and a badge to every situation and assume it’s gonna make things better.” We’re talking about redirecting funds to things like mental health… “We need to look at those solutions and look at ways we can reduce our reliance on policing to handle every social problem.”

We need to deal with things like eliminating access to military equipment, we don’t things like tanks in our cities. “We need to think about using a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer to address social ills in our society.”

Sweet: It's time for justice and "to do that it’s time to start dismantling the racist institutions of power. We have no other choice."

We need action at every level of government. At the Senate level: end the Qualified Immunity Doctrine that allows police to not be prosecuted for crimes they commit; end the militarization of local police; prohibit racial profiling; and create a registry, as [Gideon] mentioned.

"It's time to partner with communities of color and follow their lead in terms of how we’re going to bring about justice... ‘Reforming the police’ has not done a good job. It’s about dismantling the systems that were racist to begin with."

RELATED: Here's the difference between Democrat and GOP police reform proposals

The COVID-19 pandemic raised issues about health care. As Senator, what would you do to increase Mainers’ access to affordable health care?

Kidman: "Three words: Medicare. For. All."

Sweet: The pandemic would be very different if everyone had access to affordable health care. We have to fundamentally change the system and medicare for all is the only sustainable thing that does that.

Gideon: We need to fight for health care for everyone by making improvements on the medicare system: put caps on costs and premiums and make options for everyone and for those who want to stay on their private insurance.

RELATED: Poll: Most Americans say US coronavirus response is 'fair' or 'poor'

What actions should Congress take to reduce the costs of prescription drugs?

Sweet: We have to take away the inability of Congress to negotiate prescription drug prices. A medicare for all system would be a giant negotiator with pharmaceutical companies that’ll get lower prices because it’ll be the only market.

Gideon: "Pharmaceutical companies have far too much say in Washington." In Maine that’s different, we took them on. In the Senate, we can do that across the country too to ensure lower prices: Negotiate directly with companies; cap out of pocket costs to seniors on medicare; and end pay-for-delay schemes (when big pharma actually pay to ensure generic drugs aren’t able to their medicine on the market).

Kidman: Medicare for all would be able to push negotiations. That system would inherently take on a lot of these problems we're currently facing because of pharmaceutical companies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the economy. The CARES Act sought to help that. What additional measures would you be advocating for to jumpstart the economy?

Gideon: "We need to invest in ourselves, we cannot go back to what was." We need to roll back the Trump tax cuts. For the short term, help small businesses with things like loans and grants. Long term—invest in things like public works projects that combat climate change. 

"We can do this together, but we have to make sure we’re prioritizing hard-working families here in Maine and across the country."

Kidman: "The money is always there but it’s not always there for us—and it’s our money." We need to make sure American people are at the center of relief efforts, not corporations. Make sure corporations pay their fair share of taxes. We need to extend the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and ensure contractors and gig workers are taken care of. We need to make sure American families are supported in making choices for their health-- people have had to choose to go back to work or to keep sheltering and staying safe.

Sweet: Money flowed to billionaires and corporations instead of average Americans…As Senator I would continue rent and mortgage freezes. We need $2000 a month for the duration of the pandemic. Long term—what is the pathway out? Green New Deal, which would create 23 million new, sustainable, good-paying jobs. I would also put a wealth tax on top .1 percent.

What would you do to address trade policies that have hurt Maine industries, particularly lobster and blueberry industries?

Kidman: "We don’t need free trade, we need fair trade." We need to make sure our trade policies apply our values into the world: that labor workers are protected and are paid fairly. It’s a values issue.

Sweet:  Fair trade. My grandpa was a lobsterman in North Haven. I know the climate crisis making the water warm and we have a president who makes trade policies that make it hard for them to sell their catch. We need to bring people involved to the table. That almost never happens, which is why there are unintended consequences. Look at labor conditions of other countries—we have to make sure that’s what we mean by fair trade: fair, stable, humanitarian working conditions.

Gideon: "Prioritize not just the American economy but the American workers...Workers are the ones who have been left behind."

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What would you do to combat the climate crisis?

Sweet: I would fight to pass the Green New Deal. We also have to have a head of the EPA who actually believes in climate change. The Green New Deal presents a win-win situation in terms of jobs and long term stability that must happen.

Gideon: "Science matters and climate change is real." We're already experiencing it in Maine with warmer water and rising sea level. We need to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, modernize infrastructure for transportation and the entire transportation sector, and also modernize renewable energy and housing.

Kidman: "It's not what we do it’s how we’re going to do it." We can’t let corporations drive the policy behind climate change. We need to do this as a globe. We need economic justice: "prioritize people who have been left behind in previous economic movements to stabilize economic inequality."

RELATED: Maine Climate Council experts to present draft strategies for addressing climate change in Maine

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What additional action would you take in the fight for full equality for LGTBQ+ people?

Gideon: There's so much more work we need to do. In the Senate, the work has been laid out for us. I would support and vote to pass the Equality Act but beyond that, I would drill down issues to protect students and encourage families to grow by ensuring those a part of the LGBTQ+ community can adopt in the same way everyone else does.

Kidman: "Electing me is an enormous step in LGBTQ equality—I am the first non-binary person in U.S. history to run for U.S. Senate, let alone be a candidate. Simply having an LGTBQ person in the room makes it less likely for people to pass discriminatory legislature." It would "ensure that they have to look us in the face before they take our rights away." I would also obviously fight for the Equality Act. 

"We need to have someone in the room who is able to speak for us. Nothing about us happens without us. All of federal legislation has been happening without us, and it’s time that we change that."

Sweet: Fight for and support the Equality Act of course. The most important thing: judges. I would not vote for a judge who has ruled or had opinions against LGBTQ people.

RELATED: Supreme Court decision spotlights GOP divide over LGBT rights

Abortion rights—is this an issue that should be left to the courts or should Congress play a role in protecting reproductive rights. What actions should congress take?

Kidman: We need to classify abortion as essential, basic health care that is covered by insurance.

Sweet: Courts and the Constitution must protect reproductive choice. Uphold Roe v. Wade. The right to abortion isn’t enough—we must have funding and access.

Gideon: "In the Senate, I will fight tirelessly on this. It does include that making sure that no anti-choice judicial nominees are confirmed. But it is also about getting rid of the gag rule, which right now is preventing people in Maine or is about to prevent people in Maine from accessing healthcare not just abortion but reproductive healthcare and in some cases the only healthcare people have."

The reason all of you entered the race was because of Collins’ vote confirming Brett Kavanaugh. As Senator, would you continue the policy of never voting against a supreme court nominee?

Sweet: "Politicization of the Supreme Court is one of the things crumbling the foundation of our democracy." We must come up with a system that is non-partisan, like the BAR.

Gideon: We need to ask: "Are they actually qualified? Do they have the temperament? Do they have a respect for precedent? Do they have empathy in what Americans go through? We need diversity in gender, race, and sexuality."

Kidman: I never dreamed of running for public office until the Kavanaugh confirmation. The Supreme Court is supposed to be the one institution that is above partisan spectacle. Collins saying she had a lot to think about before the vote made me so angry that I decided to take her job. We need to respect law over politics.

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Closing remarks: Why do you think you’re the best candidate to defeat Collins?

Gideon: It's the same old thing in Washington: inaction and bickering. I promise to be someone who stands up for Mainers.

Kidman: How do actions line up with words? I’m the only one who is fighting simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Sweet: I'm not afraid to stand up to the powers that be. Will not fact into the crowd of Washington. I will be there for you. "Aim for big change, not just to unseat Collins."

On Tuesday, Kidman said they thought the forum went well. 

"It’s still sort of awkward to broadcast from home, but I’m glad we were finally able to have a forum with all three candidates," Kidman said in a email to NEWS CENTER Maine. "We have five scheduled forums remaining before the primary, and I’ll be curious to see how many Sara Gideon is willing to join us for, after trying her hand at it last night."

In a phone call, Sweet said she was really happy that all the candidates finally came together in forum. 

"There is so much at stake so it's really important for voters," Sweet said. Sweet also said she thought the forum showed voters some of the distinctions between the candidates, like their stances on the Green New Deal and medicare for all. 

Sweet said her campaign has a lot of momentum, so she's feeling hopeful after the forum. 

"It's buzzing, you can feel it," she said.

The ranked-choice voting state primary is July 14. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the State, as well as the Maine Democratic Party, has been urging people to vote via absentee ballot or vote early. Sweet said she thought while this forum was important, it seemed to be a deliberate campaign strategy since many people have already cast their votes. 

The general election will be on Nov. 3. One of these three candidates will be on that ballot to take on Susan Collins. 

To request an absentee ballot, click here.

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