A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
If you’re a Maine political aficionado who logged onto the website formerly known as Twitter over the weekend, you could not avoid the loud reactions to a fiery statement from U.S. Rep. Jared Golden on one of the hottest topics in national politics right now.
That is student debt relief. Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, has broken with his party to oppose President Joe Biden’s cancellation plans. Last year, he called the president’s initial plan “out of touch.” It was struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in July, leading Biden to release another plan that could face a similar fate.
The context: Golden was brought back into the controversy when the Maine Beacon, the news arm of the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, wrote a Friday story on a $5,000 contribution from student loan giant Sallie Mae to the political group for the Blue Dog Coalition, the group of centrist Democrats that Golden leads. It came two weeks after Golden took a vote in May against a debt cancellation plan, which was the focus of the story.
The Beacon left out some key context, including that Sallie Mae has given that same maximum amount to the Blue Dogs annually since 2016, when Golden was merely a state lawmaker. The company also has not taken a position on the student debt relief plans. When it discusses Biden’s actions, it typically mentions its desire for sweeping reforms in the system that direct more money to lower-income students and less to higher-income ones.
Golden’s response was remarkable. He issued a statement saying “radical leftist elites” are trying to destroy those who disagree with them. He stood by his vote and opposition, saying many of those who got loans went on to “six-figure salaries” and were privileged to do so.
“The Twitterati can keep bemoaning their privileged status and demanding handouts all they want, but as far as I’m concerned if they want free money for college, they can join the Marines and serve the country like I, and so many others, have in the past and many more will in the future,” Golden, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said in the statement to the Beacon.
The backlash: The reaction was swift. Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist who writes an opinion column for the Bangor Daily News, was among the liberal voices condemning Golden. She called his statement “divisive and nasty” and alluded to his likely status as a candidate for higher office later on. A national progressive group called Golden “an elitist,” and the news arm of the conservative Maine Policy Institute cataloged liberal reactions.
“Don’t think of running statewide, ever,” Fried posted.
The facts: The median student debt holder in Maine makes $58,000 annually with an average debt load of $33,000, according to the Education Data Initiative. Relief under Biden’s first plan would have been capped at those making $125,000 as well. This puts Golden’s pronouncement on “six-figure salaries” at the high end of the spectrum.
On the other hand, you have to look at Golden’s district to fully understand his position. While 43 percent of those in Maine’s reliably liberal 1st District have a bachelor’s degree or higher education, that figure is only 29 percent in the more conservative 2nd District, where the median income is also $20,000 lower. The pool of people benefiting from cancellation is slightly smaller.
What it means: Golden has been an interesting political character with a canny understanding of a difficult district that he has won three times. He is the most conservative House Democrat on economic issues in both this Congress and the last one while being slightly more liberal on social issues, according to VoteView.
At the same time, he is apt to take risks that others do not. Even though progressives are hammering him on this issue and his votes on a recent defense budget, they have also found favor with his liberal stances on issues from tribal rights to campaign finance reform.
On the former, he is at odds with Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Sen. Angus King, two highly popular politicians with Maine voters at large and within the Democratic base. His words may make it harder for him to win a primary if he ever wants to succeed them, but he is clearly calculated that he isn’t going to compromise in situations like this to do so.
Correction: An earlier version of this story made an incorrect reference to data from the Education Data Initiative. It measured the average student debt load by state.