A voter’s guide to Presque Isle’s Maine House race
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Many important decisions will be on the ballot for Presque Isle’s residents this November, from the presidential election to the senate race between U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and House Speaker Sara Gideon.
Yet, none may be as locally important as representative for Maine House District 147, the only state or federal elected position to exclusively represent the Star City. In March, incumbent Rep. Harold “Trey” Stewart III, R-Presque Isle, opted to run for state Senate against Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, leaving District 147 open for the first time since 2014.
The candidates are Democrat Lillie Lavado, founder of HardScrabble Solutions, educator and CRM & Communication Manager at University of Maine campuses in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, and Republican Joseph Underwood, who formerly worked as an accounting technician for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service office in Limestone.
The city of Presque Isle is a historically Republican area: GOP candidates have won eight out of the last 10 elections in the district since 2000. Yet, in a race occurring during a presidential election year with two political newcomers, no outcome is inevitable.
Both candidates were asked identical sets of questions in interviews with The Star-Herald. Their answers have been presented here in an abridged version.
What is your background?
Lavado grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, where she majored in international studies and minored in Arabic. Lavado said she had visited family in the St. John Valley several times since her childhood before moving to Presque Isle around eight years ago.
Underwood grew up in Presque Isle and graduated from Husson College — now Husson University — with a business degree. Before working at DFAS, he worked as an accountant with his father at Underwood Oil Co. He said that experience helped familiarize him with the tax burden on small businesses.
Origin has become an issue in the race — in an exchange the two candidates had over Facebook in June and July, Underwood brought up Lavado’s Connecticut roots, saying that Lavado had values that she “brought” from that state. Lavado said many people in Aroostook County had long-standing ties to Connecticut, and that statements like Underwood’s had contributed to out-migration from Presque Isle.
Have you held a previous political office?
Underwood said he has been a Republican his entire life but had never held elected office. He said he has been an “amateur prognosticator” of politics since college, where he was the treasurer of Husson’s campus Republican Party.
Lavado has also never held elected office but has performed activist work since her teens, including participating in Occupy Wall Street and protests opposing the Iraq War. She is a recent member of the Democratic Party, having joined last year to support then-Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. Lavado is now the vice-chairperson of the Presque Isle Democratic Party chapter.
Lavado said that many of the unequal social trends she witnessed growing up in urban Hartford had parallels in rural areas like Presque Isle, including high rates of substance use disorder, poverty and imprisonment.
Why do you want to run for this seat?
Lavado said she was running to give a voice to outsiders — especially the poor and working-class — as well as to set a moral example in the Legislature during a time when trust in public officials is low.
“I’m working class myself. I have to scrape for everything that I have,” Lavado said. “We have a lot of resources. The people in power monopolize those resources.”
The economy is the biggest issue for Underwood. He wants to go to Augusta to help reduce the tax burden on Presque Isle’s small businesses. He said he would use his experience in the city to be an “ambassador” from Presque Isle to the Maine Legislature.
What are the most significant issues facing Presque Isle and Maine that you would address if elected?
Underwood said the most significant issue facing both Maine and Presque Isle was the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting regulations on the economy from the Maine state government. If elected to the Legislature, he said he would vote to remove those regulations from the economy.
He also supports a reduction in the state income taxes and a sales tax holiday for one year after the next Legislature begins in 2021. He said these initiatives would help private businesses through the state, the only sector in which jobs are created.
“Government doesn’t generate any jobs because it needs its funding from private enterprise,” Underwood said. “[Private enterprise] affects everything from real estate to the local treasuries.”
Lavado is running to replace “apathetic leadership” she said was exemplified by Underwood and Stewart. She accused Stewart and Underwood of supporting the area’s “well-connected families” to the detriment of everybody else and said she would push for a more equitable economic structure if elected.
Do America’s law enforcement institutions work as intended, or do they need to be reformed?
Lavado, who has been a mainstay at Saturday morning protests in Presque Isle against police brutality and institutional racism since the death of George Floyd in May, said her views on the subject were “insignificant” because calls for police reform were being made throughout the state and country.
Her primary focus is ensuring that any police reform legislation that goes through Augusta helps Presque Isle. Lavado said that many officers are forced to handle stressful workloads with inadequate compensation, a factor in why the Presque Isle Police had such a high turnover rate in recent years.
Lavado said there was “no reason” why police should be responding to every truancy and overdose call that they receive, and that meaningful police reform would require open and honest discussion with everyone affected within Maine’s communities.
Underwood praised the performance of the Presque Isle Police, but said his main interest when it comes to law enforcement is Maine creating a gun training course for students at the eighth and ninth grade level. The program would be mandatory — though students could apply for an exemption — and it would be run by the sheriffs in Maine’s 16 counties.
“With the weapon comes some degree of security,” Underwood said. “Knowing that if problems develop and the police are unable or can’t respond, that you’d be able to have that security to be able to assist yourself.”
What should be done to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine?
Underwood said that parts of Maine that have been shielded from the worst of the pandemic, including Aroostook County, Piscataquis County and Washington County, should not have any regulations related to the virus.
He said it was an individual responsibility for each citizen to ensure that they practice good hygiene and decide whether they want to wear a mask.
“Everyone in Aroostook County should be able to determine for themselves what degree of severity they are facing at any given time,” Underwood said.
Lavado said the state and its residents must follow medical experts’ advice on fighting the pandemic, including wearing a mask in public and keeping six feet apart. She said the government should assist small businesses and families bearing the brunt of the virus’s economic repercussions.
“When it comes to this, it is sort of top-down,” Lavado said. “To actually admit that we have a crisis on our hands, and it requires us to go through a little bit of discomfort.”
Substance use disorders, including alcoholism and addiction to methamphetamine, are more common in The County than in other parts of Maine. What would you do to combat that?
Lavado said her “heart aches” for the children of family members suffering from addiction. Having lost her father to addiction herself, she said much of the underlying stigma about the condition remains.
She said a systems-based approach in which those with substance use disorder are provided all of the health and economic resources they need to recover is necessary to fight substance use disorder. Lavado said she had contacted various agencies around town to craft a plan to combat substance use disorder that she could bring to the Maine Legislature.
“A lot of times, we have leaders in the community who have ideas, who know what might work,” Lavado said. “And we need to listen to them.”
Underwood said that issues with substance use were important and best addressed at the local level. He said an interfaith council of people from Presque Isle’s various denominations would be the best way to address the issue, utilizing a model similar to the 12-step program.
Addressing substance use might be the issue the two candidates are closest on. Lavado said she was against the criminalization of drug use, while Underwood said it would be best “not to use jails for treatment,” but utilize a treatment program instead.
Underwood still believes police have a role in fighting substance use problems, criticizing Lavado in a Facebook exchange for allegedly wanting to defund the police “in the middle of an opioid epidemic” in Presque Isle.
How do you prevent people from moving out of Presque Isle and Aroostook County?
Underwood blamed the population decrease Presque Isle has experienced [a loss of more than 2,000 people since 1980] on high taxes. He said lowering taxes and scaling back regulation on the economy would create more jobs, encouraging more people to move into the city.
Lavado said the exodus occurred due to a failure to invest smartly in Aroostook County.
“We don’t offer the infrastructural, commercial or cultural services that middle-class professionals expect,” Lavado said. “Those are the main reasons why people aren’t staying in Aroostook County.”
What is the best way to help Presque Isle’s economy?
Lavado said she was looking forward to using her experience at HardScrabble Solutions to help create an “employment ecosystem” in Presque Isle. In such a system, people are provided all of their support services in one place: job training, career counseling, mental health support and addiction services, among others.
She also said that Aroostook County should capitalize on the connectivity provided by the internet to help create new jobs.
“We can perform the same work that they are performing in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco right here in Aroostook County because we have an internet connection,” Lavado said.
Besides lowering taxes and decreasing regulations, Underwood said there were other ways Presque Isle could encourage economic development. For example, companies that already invested in other parts of The County, including Smith & Wesson and McCain Foods, should be encouraged to move their locations in other states or countries to Presque Isle.
Underwood would also like to see Presque Isle International Airport be more heavily advertised to Canadian residents.
What relationship do you have to national politics? If elected, how would you interact with national political issues and figures?
Underwood said he supported President Donald Trump and believed the president has set an “example” for improving the economy. But he said his main strengths and understanding were on local issues, and his main focus was the local economy.
“I’ll leave the national scene for the national people,” Underwood said.
Lavado said national politics help set the tone for local politics across the country, and that was showcased by supporters of President Trump like Underwood, who she said had followed the president’s lead “to disdain science” during the pandemic.
She said her mother, who had long worked as a state and municipal employee, had always instilled in her the value of acting locally, and she would follow that rule as a state legislator if elected.