News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, October 15, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, October 15, 2020
Luchini, Langley debate COVID economic relief, legislative priorities

by Jeffrey B. Roth

Maine Senate District 7 candidates—Democrat incumbent Louie Luchini and Republican challenger Brian Langley—engaged in a debate Tuesday covering issues ranging from COVID-19 pandemic policies to rural broadband services.

The League of Women Voters Downeast hosted the Candidate Forum Zoom webinar held October 13 at 6 p.m. Senate District 7 includes Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Deer Isle, Sedgwick, Stonington, Surry and 22 other towns in Hancock County.

Ann Luther, treasurer of the League of Women Voters of Maine, who opened the forum, said that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, and it is the centennial of the League of Women Voters, which was founded by members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Former Maine State Senator, Jill Goldwaith, served as moderator for the forum, sponsored by the LWV Downeast, Penobscot Bay Press, Mount Desert Islander and the Ellsworth American. Each candidate had the opportunity to make opening and closing remarks, in addition to responding to questions prepared by the LWV and to written questions submitted by the public.

Langley, who spoke first, said Hancock County “has been well represented over the years. What’s interesting is that all three of us, [Goldwaith, Luchini and Langley], have held this position of representing Hancock County in the Maine Senate.”

Owner of the Union River Lobster Pot Restaurant in Ellsworth, Langley served in the Maine Senate from 2010-2018, but was prohibited from running for reelection due to term limits. He also served one term representing Ellsworth, Otis and Trenton in the Maine House of Representatives, from 2008-2010.

“Now, the question I get asked all the time is, why do I want to run again for this seat,” Langley said. “I thought I’ll never do this again. Well, that’s then and this is now—the world’s in a much different place than it was two years ago.”

The Lobster Pot, he said, was preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary when the pandemic arrived. To survive, “we had to embrace change or be left behind. We had to do what we call ‘the pandemic pivot’ in order to keep our staff safe and our customers safe. True leadership is understanding what your community needs and to find a way, any way, to bring it to them. The experience I gained this year from being on the front lines is what we’re going to need in Augusta for the next two years and beyond.”

Senator Luchini, a professional runner, said he knows everyone is looking forward to a time when a candidates forum can be held in person again. Running for office, he said, is his way to serve the public by giving back to the community in which he was raised.

“I think it’s important for people in each generation to step up and do public service and to help shape Maine’s future,” said Luchini, who served in the Maine House from 2010-2018, when he was elected senator. “I can assure you that I have the energy to tackle the issues, including this pandemic. I’ve served in the legislature for 10 years now. I’m proud of the bipartisan reputation that I’ve developed, which has led to passing significant legislation for this district and for the state of Maine. Prior to the pandemic hitting, we in the legislature made enormous advances in several areas—most importantly health care reform, and that’s an area I want to continue to focus on if reelected.”

Both candidates agreed that the pandemic has exacted an enormous toll at the national and state levels. Luchini and Langley said that any economic recovery plan must include public health strategies.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that economic recovery and the public’s health are completely intertwined,” Luchini said. “They must go hand in hand. And although there are certainly areas of the reopening plan that we’ve gone through where I’ve disagreed with the administration, I’m supportive of the general approach taken by the governor, which is a reliance on science to guide our pandemic response.”

Luchini said that shortly after the governor announced a reopening plan, he heard from dozens of local businesses that believed that rural areas with low rates of the coronavirus, could safely reopen far sooner than urban areas like Portland. Legislators representing rural districts, “on both sides of the aisle,” took those concerns to Gov. Janet Mills, who listened and revised the state’s reopening plan to allow rural areas to reopen retail stores and other businesses earlier than in more densely populated areas.

It could take years for the health impact of the pandemic to be fully understood,Langley said. The economic impact was felt immediately.

“I would say that my largest criticism has been the one size fits all approach to rural counties with little or no cases were treated,” Langley said. “It’s really going to take a look back to see how we fared as a state. But what I can tell you from my vantage point here in the community, is that the problem arises when people feel as though their voices haven’t been heard. The economic impact in Hancock County, certainly in the tourism industry, has been devastating.”

Langley said a number of local business owners, who had ideas about ways to lessen the economic impact and to keep businesses open, felt that their concerns and suggestions fell “on deaf ears.” If elected, Langley plans to request a legislative review of the state’s pandemic plans, and to revise the regulations by using input from “a wide variety of stakeholders.”

Both candidates agreed that providing broadband to rural communities should be a legislative priority. During the pandemic, the internet has become a lifeline for students, businesses, local municipalities and it allows individuals to telecommute, rather than risk being infected by the virus by being forced to work in crowded workplaces.

Climate change, Langley and Luchini agreed, needs to be addressed to preserve the lobster and fishing industries, as well as preserving the state’s natural areas that bring millions of visitors annually. While they both agreed that affordable healthcare was vital to controlling the pandemic and to growing a healthy economy, Luchini favors Medicaid expansion while Langley favors a mix of private and public healthcare insurance options.

The forum is available for viewing on the LWV’s Facebook page.