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Senate Challengers Trade Barbs In Maine Public Debate

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Maine U.S. Senate candidates, left to right, Eric Brakey, Angus King and Zak Ringelstein at Maine Public's debate at Bowdoin College in Brunswick on Tuesday.

In a tense and often confrontational meeting, Maine’s candidates for U.S. Senate took the stage in a debate hosted by Maine Public at Bowdoin College in Brunswick on Tuesday.

The candidates addressed a wide range of issues, including proposals for reducing health care costs and combating climate change — policy discussions punctuated by conflict, as well as boos and cheers from those in attendance.

Democrat Zak Ringelstein and Republican Eric Brakey frequently traded barbs, with Ringelstein accusing Brakey of inciting violence in a recent tweet saying the Democrats’ “new strategy is mass importation of new voters to transform our political culture.”

“We need calls for peace, we need calls for love, and we need calls for people to drop out of this race who are not calling for these things,” Ringelstein said. “Sen. Eric Brakey should be ashamed of himself.”

The Maine Democratic Party had previously called the tweet racist and anti-immigration. Defending himself, Brakey called Ringelstein’s words “very childish.”

“We have a serious debate about some serious issues in front of us, and we’re here to have that debate and have that discussion,” he said, before moving on to answer whether he thought gun laws should be tightened in an effort to curb violence. Brakey responded by touting his A+ rating from the NRA and cited his opponents’ low ratings.

“We can pass all the laws we want to pass to say that people can’t have this or that, but at the end of the day criminals don’t obey the laws,” he said. “The people that we’re disarming are law-abiding citizens who would use them for self-defense.”

In the second part of the debate, in which the candidates posed questions of each other, Ringelstein again cited Brakey’s tweets.

“In the last few days you have gone ahead and attacked immigrants,” Ringelstein said. “All the immigrants I know have more integrity in their pinky than you have in your entire body. From the way that I have seen things in the last few days, I have just been really disappointed at the racist, borderline neo-Nazi rhetoric, and honestly it’s a disgrace that we have a white supremacist on this stage.”

Cutting Ringelstein off, Brakey asked whether there was a question to answer, and Ringelstein said, “Can you sleep at night?”

Brakey fired back:

“Maine people are sick and tired of being called racist simply because we don’t want our communities to transform overnight. We’re sick and tired of being called racist because we don’t want noncitizens on our welfare rolls ahead of people who’ve paid into the system,” he said. “You seem to be the only person on this stage who’s actually obsessed with race.”

Ringelstein attempted to interrupt but was cut off by Brakey, who was received with a loud outburst of cheers from the audience.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, was largely spared from the fighting, but Ringelstein did put him on the defensive for taking money from lobbyists, PACs and — especially — oil companies.

“Many people have seen the UN climate report — it says we don’t have time, not that we can move incrementally,” Ringelstein said when asked about climate change. “Angus King is taking money from ExxonMobil, and I’d like to ask him: Angus, will you stop taking money from ExxonMobil and from the fossil fuel industries? Will you give the money back that you’ve taken?”

King answered yes to both questions.

It wasn’t the only decisive answer offered in the candidate-to-candidate section. King asked Brakey what he would do in the likely event that a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act came up in the Senate.

“I would vote immediately to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Brakey said. He called for “real, market-driven solutions” to health care, including health savings accounts.

Ringelstein called that “no solution.”

“I support Medicare For All,” he said. “I have committed solutions to our health care crisis.”

But Brakey questioned how such a system would work.

“You support open borders and Medicare For All. How do you expect to have a giant welfare state and the opportunity for anyone and everyone to come here and sign up for it?” he said.

“The way that I see America is very differently than I think most,” Ringelstein said. “We’re taxing the workers’ dollars in the state way more than we’re taxing the very wealthy, who make a lot of money off of unearned income — through dividends, financial transactions, estates and through capital gains.”

He coupled that with what he said would be lower costs under Medicare For All.

“Medicare For All would actually cost us less. We pay the most per capita on health care of any country in the world,” he said, “but other countries have better health care systems. They have single-payer, Medicare-For-All-style systems.”

As the senator did for most of the debate, King used his closing statement to focus on policy discussions.

“I’m surprised in this discussion we haven’t mentioned opioids. It’s the most serious public health problem that I’ve seen in Maine in my lifetime,” he said. “What I want to talk about in my minute is what we can do to deal with the issues that we have before us, like opioids.”

It was a problem neither of the other candidates had yet addressed in the debate, and the incumbent got the final word.

For more debates and elections resources, visit mainepublic.org/yourvote.

Originally published Oct. 30, 2018 at 8:01 p.m. ET.

Andrew Catalina is manager of digital news, responsible for editing and producing news content on all of Maine Public's digital platforms, in addition to myriad other news- and content-related roles.