Born on a little Wisconsin dairy farm near the Kickapoo River, Craig Olson isn’t one of those Mainers with deep roots who’s slightly suspicious of folks from away.

The 52-year-old Democratic congressional hopeful is someone who lived in a number of states before buying “a complete fixer-upper” in a nice neighborhood on Islesboro 17 years ago as the best place he could find to raise a family.

It hasn’t always been easy — medical bills nearly buried him in debt a few years ago until an island charity helped his family get caught up — but Olson said the community turned out to be everything he’d hoped it would be.

Now with two of his three daughters in college and another closing in on it, he’s got his eye on somewhere even more unlikely: a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Olson is one of five Democrats vying for the opportunity to challenge 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a two-term Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election. A Democratic primary in June will determine which of them secures the party’s backing.

A history buff who operates his town’s transfer station and runs a bookstore, Olson said that what spurred him to jump into the race last summer was the effort by Poliquin and others to gut the Affordable Care Act.

He said that he got skin cancer a few years ago, racking up some big medical bills to deal with it. Olson emerged healthy, but his finances took a hit despite having a bronze ACA plan. When a boiler in his house picked the same time to die, it wasn’t clear to Olson how they’d get by.

Olson said he knows what it’s like for an average Maine family to struggle with the bills and try to cope with the hefty cost of health insurance.

So, he said, it “got me riled up” when politicians in Washington who have “never had to deal with it” sought to strip away a layer of protection that has done so much for families like his.

“We’re struggling and working through the same things as anybody else,” Olson said, working several jobs and patching things together to earn a living.

Olson’s political experience is entirely on the local level. He’s served on his town’s Board of Selectmen and its Planning Board, learning the importance of getting along with everyone and trying to work things out with those who have different approaches.

He said it’s a great experience because in a little town, people who disagree “will track you down” to offer their thoughts on an issue. Being respectful and working through decisions is a necessity, Olson said, adding that it’s an approach he would bring to the nation’s capital.

He earned a degree in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, then went on to secure a master’s degree in history museum studies at the State University of New York’s Cooperstown Graduate Program. Olson met his wife, Melissa, at Cooperstown.

Olson took a museum job in Michigan for four years and then another in Iowa that he held until moving to Maine in 2001, where he initially worked for a foundation that sought to preserve rare breeds of animals.

When he and his wife visited Islesboro, they wound up talking to a teacher and looking around enough to fall for the place. They bought a house and never left, surrounded by “a lot of cool, interesting people.”

During his time in Iowa, Olson said, he would make regular trips to Capitol Hill to lobby for Sioux City, where he worked at the time, and got enough exposure to Congress to get a sense of how things are done there — and how they ought to be done.

Olson said the thing that separates him from Poliquin and many other politicians in Congress is that he knows what it’s like to start a business, struggle to make it profitable, and (what it takes) to patch together a good life for his children here in Maine, to ensure they have a decent quality of life and opportunities to flourish in the world.

He said he knows how it feels to try “to figure out how do we pay the bills?”

Olson said he thinks too many people elected to go to Washington are “really dissociated from the people they’re serving.”

One thing that’s done too often in the world of politics, he said, is to encourage the sort of “scorched-earth policy on everything” that has let partisanship trump common sense. What’s needed is to get back to the ideal of trying to work things out together.

With far less money than Poliquin, Olson said that victory in November will require him to “go out and talk to as many people” as he can. “It’s got to be grass-roots and it’s got to be positive,” Olson said.

He said that President Donald Trump complicates the political landscape because “everything keeps flipping” with his unsteady approach that tends “to blow minor things way out of proportion” and make it harder to deal with larger problems.

Plus, Olson said, “everybody’s on edge” much of the time, uncertain what might come next.

For him, though, what’s next is to finish collecting enough signatures to get on the primary ballot and then to emerge from the field to win his party’s primary.

Facing him in the primary are Democrats Jared Golden of Lewiston, Lucas St. Clair of Bangor, Tim Rich of Bar Harbor and Jonathan Fulford of Monroe. Olson said he likes all of them.

A handful of independents are also in the general election race, among them Henry Bear and Danielle VanHelsing.

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Democratic congressional candidate Craig Olson makes a campaign swing through Lewiston on Friday. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

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