Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, left, who is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, listens to Dick Grandmaison during a roundtable discussion on prescription drug prices at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday. Others, from left, are Diane Grandmaison, Diane Poirier and Roland Poirier. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon’s U.S. Senate campaign has been so low-key it’s been nearly invisible, except for its online fundraising efforts.

But Thursday, the Freeport Democrat took small steps toward something closer to a conventional campaign in her quest to unseat four-term Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in next year’s election.

Gideon spent the morning schmoozing at The Gendron Franco Center on Cedar Street, then met briefly with protesters in front of Collins’ Lisbon Street office. Later, she convened a handpicked session in a private meeting room at the Lewiston Public Library with a dozen seniors to talk about prescription drug prices.

When she finished an hourlong session there — after booting out a tracker who hoped to record her comments for one of her opponents — she headed for Bates College to talk to young Democrats.

It was, in short, a comfortable excursion into friendly territory in a predominantly Democratic city.

Gideon, who has substantial backing from national groups, faces a potential four-way primary in June where she hopes to win support from grass-roots Democrats as she faces activist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, attorney Bre Kidman of Saco and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Treacy of Oxford.

The winner will get the chance to take on Collins in the November 2020 general election. There may be other contenders on the ballot as well, with independent Danielle VanHelsing of Sangerville already in the race and Lisa Savage of Solon weighing a possible run with the Maine Green Independent Party.

With two reporters watching, Gideon thanked the seniors she’d invited for coming, all of them Democrats but not all ready to support her. She called the rising cost of prescription drugs “an incredibly important subject” and asked her guests to tell her their experiences.

She also told them she’d like to “brainstorm a little bit” about “how to make significant change” to lessen the expense for seniors who sometimes struggle to cope with the tab for the medicine they need.

Diane Grandmaison of Lewiston told Gideon that she sees people cutting pills in half to stretch out the time between refills or taking doses every two days that are meant for daily use.

“We just need basic medication to live,” said the retired grandmother, who is active in city Democratic politics.

Gideon told her guests that legislators “have to stand up and say ‘no, this not acceptable’” when pharmaceutical companies and middlemen try to pad their bottom lines with prices many can’t pay.

“These drugs do not have to be as expensive as they are,” she said, a position echoed by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Collins.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport listens to seniors discuss prescription drug prices at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday. From left are Ronnie Paradis, Kevin Simpson, Gideon, Bill Coffin and Dick Grandmaison. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Gideon touted this year’s success by Democrats in Augusta in enacting a package of measures that she hopes will help, from creating a prescription drug affordability board to give Mainers a say in drug pricing to allowing for importation of less expensive drugs from Canada.

State Rep. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat, said she’s heard from many Mainers who can’t afford to buy necessary drugs.

Sometimes, she said, legislators can only listen helplessly to people “who, probably, are just going to die” because they haven’t got the money for the medication they need.

Gideon said the crucial question that needs to be answered is, “Why are costs the way they are?”

She said the federal government ought to allow importation of less expensive drugs without the need for states to obtain waivers. It should also give Medicare the right to negotiate prices with drugmakers the way the Veterans Administration does, she said.

Gideon also said the price of prescriptions ought to be capped for those on Medicare so people can afford the medication they require.

She also urged measures to make generic alternatives less expensive, an issue that Collins has championed as well.

“These are the things I would be trying to do,” Gideon said.

When an aide told her she was running 15 minutes late for the meeting at Bates, Gideon departed.


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