LEWISTON — The absence of incumbent Republican lawmakers from a community forum on education Wednesday night drew criticism Thursday from Democratic opponents.
Missing from a forum at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College on Wednesday were state Sens. Garrett Mason and Lois Snowe-Mello, and state Reps. Bruce Bickford, Mike Beaulieu, Stephen Wood and Melvin Newendyke.
Their Democratic challengers were in attendance. Of the 14 candidates at the forum, only two were Republicans: Larry Poulin and Robert Reed.
Reed is challenging Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven for the Senate District 16 seat; Poulin is running against Democrat Nate Libby for the open House District 73 seat.
House District 72 Democrat Rep. Mike Carey of Lewiston said there's been a trend of Republican candidates skipping out on public forums.
"It's a little bit more than coincidental when it happens at every forum," Carey said.
He said the higher education forum was a priority for local Democratic candidates. "Almost every single Democratic candidate was there, and people deserve to hear more than one half of the story," Carey said.
As a Democrat critical of Republican incumbents, Carey said he wasn't surprised that incumbents in the majority were limiting their exposure to voters.
"I can see how they don't want to defend their record because this last Republican majority passed some legislation that really hurt Maine families," Carey said.
He said another forum that was sparsely attended by Republicans was one sponsored by the Children's Alliance of Maine, which focused on early childhood issues and Head Start.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Democratic Party in Maine, was even more strident in his criticism of incumbents who did not participate in public forums.
"Republican legislators know they passed an unpopular agenda, and now they’re afraid of facing the music," Grant said. "It’s easy to sit in Augusta and have leadership tell you what to do. It’s harder to face the voters of your district when you’ve failed to create jobs for them, while at the same time raised their health care costs and began to dismantle their local public schools."
Grant said that after only two years in the majority, Republican lawmakers seem to be shying from the limelight.
"It’s really amazing that after two years of total control in Augusta, that Maine Republicans can’t even look the people of this state in the eye and defend their record," he said.
One of the Republican challengers who missed the forum Wednesday said his absence was not part of any grand strategy to avoid voters.
"It just fell through the cracks," said Tim Lajoie, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo in the race for Lewiston's House District 74 seat.
Rotundo attended the forum Wednesday and answered several questions about higher education and shared her ideas on what lawmakers could do to improve it in Maine.
Lajoie said his wife told him about Wednesday's forum, but by the time he realized it was going on, he had already scheduled something else. "It's just one of those things," he said.
He said he wasn't invited to the other forum that Democrats have accused him and other Republicans of skipping.
"I try to go to every one that I know of," Lajoie said. "But as to the Children's Alliance forum, I never got an invitation. I can't speak for any of the other guys, but this Republican candidate didn't even know about it."
He said missing the forum Wednesday was "not meant as a slight and is not because I don't think education is an important issue."
David Sorenson, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, also said there was no concerted effort or strategy to skip the forums. He checked with several of the candidates who couldn't make it and said one had to work a night shift. Another, Sen. Garrett Mason, decided the event was not in his district and was out canvassing voters.
"He was out knocking on doors with his regular schedule of talking to voters," Sorenson said.
Beaulieu and Snowe-Mello decided to attend a meeting on the Route 4 corridor that was happening at the same time as the forum, Sorenson said. He said that meeting seemed to be a higher priority because the highway's safety was important to many of the constituents in the two lawmakers' districts.
Sorenson had a sharp rebuke for Democrats critical of GOP candidates missing public forums.
"It's really surprising to me that after 40 years of one-party rule — 40 years of failed policy — that Democrats really believe they deserve another term this soon," Sorenson said.
He said Republicans were not ashamed of their agenda or afraid to defend it.
During their two years in the majority, Republicans reduced taxes, cut the state's long-term pension deficit by 50 percent and implemented laws that are reducing regulatory burdens on business while lowering health insurance costs for businesses and individuals, Sorenson said. He said much of that legislation was passed with Democratic support.
"So it's unfortunate to see that now that it's election season, the Democrats are disavowing so many of the things they did on a bipartisan basis," Sorenson said.