Portland progressive hopes to take on Angus King

LEWISTON — For many Mainers, U.S. Sen. Angus King, a first-term independent and former governor, looks like a solid bet to win re-election this fall.

At 73, King seems solid as the granite on Cadillac Mountain and dependable as the tide, ranked by Morning Consult as recently as October as one of the country’s most-popular senators, with 61 percent of Maine voters approving of his performance.

“I can’t imagine the Democrats supporting anyone else,” said a former Democratic speaker of the state House, Mike Saxl, who called King an “incredibly effective” leader who has come through for Maine “over and over and over and over again.”

But 31-year-old Zak Ringelstein of Portland, a teacher and entrepreneur, has a different take.

Ringelstein, a Democrat, said he can topple the incumbent by tapping into what he sees as the growing frustration and “rightful anger” of a state that has been left behind and where more and more families are struggling.


During a campaign swing through Lewiston on Wednesday, Ringelstein said voters have to choose between “bold new leadership or more of the same.”

And he is confident that with a little luck, he can snatch away the Senate seat that King has occupied since 2012, where he has aligned himself with Senate Democrats without joining their ranks.

Some Democrats fear that breaking with King could open the door to a victory in November by Republican challenger Eric Brakey, a 29-year-old state senator from Auburn. Several party insiders said that if rank-and-file Democrats split the vote, it is possible the GOP contender could slip into office without securing a majority, much the way Gov. Paul LePage twice won multiple-candidate elections.

Before he can take a crack at King, though, Ringelstein has to win a June primary against Portland construction company president Ben Pollard for the chance to be the party’s general election candidate.

Saxl said he will be writing in King’s name when the primary rolls around, and will encourage everyone he knows to do the same. Saxl said if Democrats want to recapture control of the Senate, they need to stick with King, who offers a reliable vote along with dedication, eloquence, energy and insight.

Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the Republican-led Congress “has walked in near lockstep” with President Trump to strip health care from millions, hand out tax breaks to the rich and other “backward goals.”
“The last thing this country needs is another Republican senator to rubber stamp Donald Trump’s reckless agenda,” Bartlett said, vowing the Democrats “will fight tooth and nail to prevent that from happening.”
Saxl said he does not know Ringelstein but believes he ought develop his political skills at the local level or in the Maine Legislature, rather than seeking a crucial statewide office without any experience.

“Starting out as a United States senator is probably not the right thing,” Saxl said.

Ringelstein said that with American institutions under fire from Trump and his GOP allies, voters cannot afford to settle for status quo.

“We cannot vote from a position of fear,” Ringelstein said, or the next generation may suffer the consequences.

He said he is counting on “a continuing groundswell” of resistance to propel him into the Senate so he can press “for a government that functions rationally and actually provides for its people.”

Ringelstein’s chief gripe with King is that “he has really not done anything monumental,” and does noy appear likely to change his ways despite the churning political environment that has the Democratic base motivated to fight for something better.

He said that growing up with three brothers on a “very rural” plot near New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, he came to love history, finding his calling in the Kennedy-inspired idea that people should dedicate themselves “to what could be.”

After graduating in a high school class of 52 students, Ringelstein headed off to Columbia University in New York City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and eyed a future in medicine. But a stint with Teach for America, which landed him in a Phoenix classroom, sent him off in a new direction.

As a teacher, Ringelstein said he watched as the “No Child Left Behind” legislation spurred increasing reliance on testing that robbed students of opportunities to explore the arts and stymied inquiry-based learning.

He said it set up students to fail, especially those who struggled to conform. They ended up in the criminal justice system, he said, when instead they might have become innovators and leaders.

Hoping to lend a hand to beleaguered civics and social studies programs, Ringelstein and his wife, Leah, created a growing number of lesson plans that were shared across the country. It took off to such an extent that they wound up giving a joint TED Talk and cutting deals with Silicon Valley investors.

The company they founded, which they later sold, drew so much attention that Ringelstein was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for education in 2015.

At that point, he said, he felt like it was time for him to step into the political arena, something he had always felt the urge to try.

Ringelstein said he wants to give children “a shot at the American dream,” something that he believes government can promote. This is in sharp contrast to the libertarian ideals that Brakey espouses.

Even in education, Ringelstein said, people with money and the businesses they control do not see schools as places to teach the next generation. Instead, they see a chance to make oodles of money on tests, management and a whole lot else that is far removed from the classroom, Ringelstein said.

“We’re all being played for fools,” he said, and it amounts to “a huge waste of money.”

Ringelstein said there are many areas where change is necessary, not just education.

He said he plans to tap into what he sees as “a progressive revolution” that wants candidates for the Senate “who will turn the ship around,” instead of sailing onward or nudging it this way or that.

“When we win the Democratic Party” by coming out on top in the primary, Ringelstein said, “people are going to line up” to cast their ballots for something new and better.


Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Zak Ringelstein campaigns Wednesday in Lewiston. He is gathering signatures to get his name on the primary ballot in June as he seeks to unseat U.S. Sen. Angus King, a first-term independent. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Zak Ringelstein campaigns Wednesday in Lewiston. He is gathering signatures to get his name on the primary ballot in June as he seeks to unseat U.S. Sen. Angus King, a first-term independent. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

  • Jon Mann

    Do not need any more Liberals in Maine. They bring to many problems . Lets keep an Independent Mind in there. I am an Independent Voter and have been for years now. God Bless America. Jonathan Mann.