BANGOR — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and her Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows, sparred over numerous issues facing the Maine and the nation during an hourlong debate Wednesday night at Husson University.
Wednesday’s debate was broadcast live on Maine Public Television, which partnered with the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce to stage the event. MPBN’s Jennifer Rooks served as moderator.
During the debate, the second of several set for the Senate candidates in the days leading up to Election Day, Collins and Bellows answered questions on broad issues, including the economy, energy, and immigration reform. They also answered question from the public, had a chance to ask each other questions and took part in a lightning round.
One marked difference between their platforms has been the minimum wage.
While both favor raising the minimum wage — set federally at $7.25 per hour and $7.50 in Maine — Bellows agrees with President Barack Obama’s suggested $10.10 per hour, while Collins favors a smaller and slower increase.
During the debate, Bellows said Collins proposed an increase to $9 “because $21,000 is too much. How would you feed a family on $18,000 a year?”
Collins agreed that $10.10 an hour is “not a livable wage. I’m curious what you think a livable wage is, because clearly a minimum wage wouldn’t produce a livable wage. It would have to be higher than $10.10.”
Collins further said she proposed $9 “because the independent Congressional Budget Office says that if we [go to $10.10] that it would cost our economy some 500,000 jobs — and those are largely going to be jobs held by low-income people, so I don’t think that’s the answer.
Bellows fired back.
“Thirteen states did raise minimum wage this year and saw job growth more than states that did not raise the minimum wage,” she said. “So that scare tactic suggesting the jobs are going to be lost if the minimum wage were increased are simply not borne out by the evidence. There is something deeply wrong when members of congress who make more than $174,000 a year think that $10.10 an hour is too much.”
Bellows said she supported the Affordable Care Act, but proposed changes to it as well.
“And I support universal healthcare for all. We should strengthen and expand the Affordable Care Act to cover more people and we can do that by gradually lowering the Medicare eligibility age,” she said. She also said she supports Medicaid expansion, something Gov. Paul LePage has opposed on several occasions.
Collins also supported changing the Affordable Care Act but noted it needed some big changes, including changing the definition of full time from 30 to 40 hours a week and the mandate that its provisions apply to companies with 50 or more workers.
“I can tell you that if there’s at 48 or 49 employees, they’re never going to hire that 50th employee because they don’t want to have to deal with the all of the mandates and paperwork that comes with Obamacare,” she said.
With regard to ISIS and other terrorist threats, Collins said she spoke with Obama about this.
“I think his putting together a coalition that includes the Arab nations in the region to fight ISIS and other groups was a good approach, but I have some concerns about the policy,” she said.
A concern she raised with him is whether he could conduct a successful vetting of the moderate Syrian opposition. “Three years ago, we could identify who were the moderates in the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime … Now the opposition is infiltrated and I’m worried what will become of the training, equipment an arms will end up in the hands of ISIS,” she said.
“I think the president was too slow to come up with a policy to confront ISIS and ISIS is not the only threat that we face,” she said, adding, “We’ve seen a proliferation of terrorist groups so that they’re now operating in 20 countries and I think the president’s reassurances to us that he had decimated the core of al-Qaida have turned out unfortunately not to be the case.”
Bellows disagreed: “Let’s take a step back. ISIS did not exist in its current form prior to the invasion of Iraq under president Bush and Susan voted for him. What we are seeing now is a product of a misguided policy, a war that cost us a trillion dollars and sent our troops in harm’s way,” she said. “Arguably we are less safe today than we were at that period of time and susan voted with the republicans.”
“Indeed, it was a bipartisan effort but it was wrong to send troops overseas to this war in Iraq and today, unfortunately, we do see the very dangerous and barbaric rise in ISIS. But i don’t think that the right approach is finding the Syrian rebels whose goals we do not share who may be our opponents in five years or 10,” she said, “I think we need a more targeted and strategic approach to our foreign policy.
Collins, however, had this to say: “First of all, ISIS is just al-Qaida in Iraq by another name. It has grown in size and sophistication and capability.” She said that this violent Islamic extremist ideology was reflected in the attack of the World Trade Center, the bombing of two African embassies and in the terrorist attacks of 2001.
“To say this extremist ideology developed in the wake of the Iraq war is simply wrong,” she said.
Bellows said the chaos in Middle East “is a product of the wrong foreign policy. Susan has been in office for 18 year and she has backed overseas military interventions over and over again and it has cost taxpayers over a trillion dollars that we could have invested here in our local economy.”
The candidates will meet again in three more televised debates: 7 p.m. Oct. 23 on WMTW in Auburn; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 27 on WGME in Portland, co-sponsored by the BDN; and 7 p.m. Oct. 29 on WCSH in Portland.