Three of Maine's four candidates for governor debate the issues at a forum on economic issues facing Maine women Sunday in Portland. Credit: Caitlin Troutman | Maine Public

Three of Maine’s four gubernatorial candidates squared off at a forum on women’s economic issues Sunday night in Portland. Republican candidate Shawn Moody declined an invitation to attend.

The questions during the forum — hosted by the Maine Women’s Lobby, the Maine Women’s Policy Center and other Maine women’s interest groups — touched on topics from health care, to income taxes, to whether the candidates support mandating paid sick leave.

Eliza Townsend, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center, said that the forum focused on economic security because “money is the overarching issue that shapes every aspect of a woman’s life. It determines her health, her autonomy, her ability to get out of a relationship that’s not working. It determines whether she can thrive and whether her children can thrive.”

In keeping with the general tone of this race so far, the three candidates were polite and focused mainly on talking points.

They did, though, express differing views on mandated paid sick leave for Maine workers.

Democrat Janet Mills said that she was “open to looking at all varieties of potential paid sick leave bills. Obviously I’d want to look at the language.”

Independent Alan Caron said that, while he thought the state “should strive to get to a place where we have sick pay,” problems with the health care system need to be solved first before an issue like paid sick leave can be addressed.

“Here’s the practical problem: A lot of these things we need, desperately, federal leadership on these issues. It is very hard for a small state with limited resources,” Caron said. “We must find a way to grow an economy that supports our needs and if we don’t do that first piece we won’t have the revenues to do anything about it.”

Independent Terry Hayes, though, said that she is “not in favor of mandating paid sick leave in Maine at this time.”

“I think there’s too much of a headwind to implement it in a way that would generate the outcomes that we want,” Hayes said. “We have a labor shortage in Maine, so this is prime time for us to explore this issue from a voluntary basis, and what might the state do with tax policy to encourage this on the part of the businesses in Maine.”

Hayes was also outspoken about a question regarding citizen initiatives. When the candidates were asked if they would implement and enforce any laws passed through that process, Hayes responded “no,” saying the initiatives are written by advocates and aren’t subject to critical or thorough amendment processes.

“There’s no opportunity to amend them, from the time they’re presented to the secretary of state for the petitions to go out, all the way to when they become a law,” Hayes said. “The legislatures can’t amend them, the people can’t amend them. So, when I was asked would I uphold them, I can’t guarantee the advocates will get it right.”

She then noted that Question 1, a ballot question on home health care that originated through a citizen initiative, might confuse voters or have an outcome different than what was intended.

“I’ll bet most of you haven’t read the law behind Question No. 1 yet, and most of you will go to the ballot box, and you will vote on Question No. 1 without reading it,” Hayes said. “So as your governor, I’m not going to apologize if I think we’ve passed a citizen initiative that needs to be amended to be best for Maine.”

An early question focused on family planning, including defending the states’ reproductive privacy act and championing the use of state funds to keep family planning clinics open if federal funding is denied. All three candidates said they would work to protect these rules.

Later, all three of the candidates at the forum said that they support Medicaid expansion in Maine, another effort that arose from the citizen initiative process, and which Gov. Paul LePage has opposed and tried to block.

While the gubernatorial candidates have been relatively polite to each other during individual forums and debates, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center, Townsend, said that she has noticed a high level of energy among voters during the campaign process.

“We are seeing an increase in women’s activism, engagement, but I’m certainly seeing more people on my Facebook feed who are canvassing for their chosen candidates, who are working on getting out the vote, there’s very much an increase in activity,” Townsend said. “Nobody has a firm grip on that, but I expect we’re going to see a higher level of voter engagement.”

One voter who attended the forum, Kim Simmons, also noted increased activism on the part of women.

“I think the MeToo movement is, in part, a sexual harassment and sexual assault, violence against women movement, but, in part, it’s really about workplace safety and building places where women can be promoted and can thrive,” she said. “I really hope we take the MeToo movement to a women’s economic security movement and address those issues through policy.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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