By TIMOTHY GILLIS
PORTLAND, MAINE – For the second day in a row, candidates for the US Senate discussed hot-topic issues and tried to distinguish themselves from their opposition. Thursday’s debate, which was held at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, was hosted by E2Tech and moderated by its board of director’s co-chair Jeffrey Thaler. The two-hour discussion seemed livelier than Wednesday’s opening round that featured only two of the three candidates in a less interactive format.
Cynthia Dill taught a government class Wednesday at Southern Maine Community College, and was unable to join Angus King and Charlie Summers for the first debate, which was all about business. At that debate, it was reported that King, an Independent, and Summers, a Republican, didn’t seem to disagree on much. The addition of Dill, a Democrat, and the format selected by Thaler, which allowed candidates a chance to question each other, combined to make a substantive debate between three politicians becoming increasingly distinct. If anything, at yesterday’s debate, disagreements were the norm.
Summers advocated for revisiting an exploration of nuclear energy, while King and Dill were shocked at such a suggestion. In the interactive session, King said he hadn’t prepared any questions but that he’d have to ask Summers, regarding nuclear energy, “Are you serious?” King said the expense involved ruled it out, while Dill said that, until there was a safe way to deal with nuclear waste, it was off the table as an option.
King sided with Dill again when discussing climate change. Summers would not “accept the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is being primarily caused by human activities.” He said that “humans certainly have an effect on our environment” but there are also “a lot of other natural factors” and that the “climate change debate is one that needs to be broadened.”
Dill said she believed the “exact opposite of what he (Summers) said. I believe definitely climate change is happening, and definitely human activity is playing a role… causing not only (global) warming but this crazy weather we’ve been having.”
King explained that he wasn’t texting someone but was calling up a graph on his smartphone to show Summers the rate of CO2 emissions over the last million years, highlighting the drastic increase around 1860 or so, with the Industrial Revolution.
“I don’t think anybody can look at this scientific data and come to any other conclusion that something very serious is going on in the atmosphere and that it relates to what we, as human beings, are doing,” King said. “Now what the effect of the increase is – that’s a matter for scientific discussion. But I don’t see how you can possibly avoid the science… Something’s going on there, and we ignore it at our peril.”
Such widely divergent opinions ruled the day, and these results were planned, according to Thaler and others at E2Tech. Jeff Marks, executive director of E2TECH, said the intent was to have a debate that was “interactive and fast-paced and focusing on questions based on economic development issues, energy and environmental policy, as well as innovation and technology.”
Thaler said he had moderated debates before, and wanted to use a format that actually elicited differences of opinion and not just an airing of previously prepared soundbites. The first debate had questions and answers, but no follow-up questions and no interactivity between the candidates, which Thaler believed would help give the audience a more clear-cut view of these people and their proposals.
The program for the debate had each candidate’s views on energy and the environment, technology, and economic development. Dill and King had page-long responses submitted to E2Tech. Summers provided a paragraph.
Before the debate, Dill was asked if the topics for the day’s discussion were mutually inclusive. In other words, could a candidate be “for” economic development and “against” environmental protections that might inhibit economic growth? Could someone favor preservation over marketing and the commercial use of natural materials? Or were all of the categories political buzzwords with which one must always concur.
“You need a balance between all of these issues,” she said. “You need to have all options on the table.” Summers said he also favors an all-of-the above policy. King said energy and the environment were inextricably linked, and that his preference is to explore wind power and natural gas, which he called “America’s second chance” and an “unparalleled opportunity to get off oil, to get off coal.” He noted that the danger is we not become as dependent on natural gas as we are now on oil, but develop other resources like wind and solar power.
Dill said extraction methods for natural gas were dangerous, and that the energy source was non-renewable. “I’m the only candidate in this race with legislative experience and policy experience that’s leading Maine on energy and environment issues,” she said, adding she was also the only candidate wearing green shoes in honor of the debate’s topics.
Summers touted his military experience. He’s a member of the Naval Reserve, and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was assistant to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and won an award for combat service. This experience gives him a unique perspective, he said. “Every day we’re buying oil from the Middle East, essentially paying the people we’re fighting against,” Summers said.
Summers asked Dill if she supported the president’s timetable on withdrawing troops from the Middle East. “Because that has so much to do with energy and the environment,” she quipped before saying she did agree with the timetable.
Dill asked King if he supported a tar sands pipeline, to which King said “That’s Canada’s call,” adding that the best way to save on oil is to not buy it in the first place.
All three candidates agreed that the Clean Air Act, landmark legislation pushed by Maine’s own Ed Muskie, should not be weakened, with King and Dill in favor of strengthening it. Summers said he was against “feel-good legislation,” in general, and would consider reviewing provisions of the act but praised its forty-year-old initiative.
Very little was said about technology, but each candidate had some suggestions for economic development. Dill encouraged support for small businesses like Scratch bakery in South Portland. The bagel shop got a loan for solar windows to heat water for making bagels. King said he would push for federally-supported research and development. “We have to invent our way out of the problems we’re in,” he said.
In their closing statements, Dill said she was pleased to be talking about something other than ads and money. “I’m the strongest candidate on energy and the environment, the only candidate being straight on the Keystone (tar sands) project,” she said, also claiming she represents a new generation of politics in Washington, while her opponents were status quo.
Summers closed by saying it is important to have a United States senator with the depth and breadth of experience he has had, having worked on Olympia Snowe’s staff and owning a small business in Maine. “I managed hotels in Bangor and South Portland. I own a business in Maine. I understand what it means to have energy costs directly affect your business,” he said, also alluding to his military background. “It’s one thing to say you support the troops. Everyone supports the troops. It’s another thing to have that experience.”
King finished the debate by noting that, forty years ago, the Clean Air Act passed the US Senate unanimously. Today’s national government gridlock is a grim contrast to those earlier days of bipartisanship. “The system itself doesn’t work. I’m running for the mirror image of the reason Snowe left. She said ‘I can’t get anything done.’ I think we have to try it a different way. It’s why I’m running as an Independent,” King said, adding a micro-anecdote about a guy he met in northern Maine who told him. “All my life I’ve wanted to vote for none of the above, and you’re it.”
The second debate offered each Senatorial candidate a chance to carve out a unique persona that would offer voters a distinct choice in November. Sponsors for the debate were New England Clean Energy Council, Fairchild Semiconductor, Stantec, Mainebiz, Pretiflaherty, TRC, ReVision Energy, and Sevee and Maher Engineers. The debate was recorded by USM’s AV staff and will be made available on the E2tech website at http://www.e2tech.org.