The two Democrats vying for their party's nomination in Maine's 2nd Congressional district held their first primary debate last night at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston campus. State Senators Troy Jackson and Emily Cain agree on most of the major issues. But when it comes to talking about their ideas and positions, the personal styles of the two candidates couldn't be more different.
Troy Jackson and Emily Cain are two of the top Democrats in the state Legislature. Both command respect in the party and are viewed as up and comers with bright futures.
But the two have taken very different paths to elected office, and this current moment of political opportunity. The candidates touched on these differences in last night's opening statements.
Here's Troy Jackson: "You know, where I am - I'm actually from Allagash. I've lived in that area my entire life. I'm a logger by trade. And, quite honestly, I got into politics back in '98 because I felt that things weren't going well for the people in my area."
Cain wasn't born in Maine, but told the audience she'd had plenty of her own experience with economic hardship. Her father, she noted, worked in the shoe business, so the family moved around a lot.
"Things weren't always easy for us, just like they aren't always easy for Maine families," she said. "But when we got here to Maine, we built the life we'd always wanted to have. And Maine has been my home ever since. I fought hard in the Maine Legislature for working-class and middle-class families because my family had to work so hard to stay in the middle class."
Cain was first elected in 2004, to the Maine House, after earning a masters degree in higher education from Harvard. She's currently earning a Ph.D. in public policy, part time, from UMaine-Orono.
Jackson also began as a representative, winning election in 2002. His ties to organized labor are among the strongest in the state - a by-product of his many years working in the northern Maine woods.
A handful of politicians, university professors and activists were tapped to question the candidates. Heidi Brooks, a physician and Democratic activist, kicked off the debate with a question on health care.
"The question is, 'Do you feel that health care is a human right and would you support a universal single-payer system?"
Yes and yes, both candidates answered, in ways that highlighted the contrasting styles that are likely to define this campaign. Cain thanked Brooks for her tireless work in Augusta, lobbying for Medicaid expansion, then flexed her policy knowledge.
"I absolutely support a universal, single-payer health care system," she said. "I think the way we do that is, it starts by putting everybody in it. We have great models. Whether it's in veterans benefits in health care or in Medicare itself. We have models that show us, when more people are covered, costs are lower. We can afford it and everybody is healthier. And that lowers costs all around."
Health care, Jackson noted, was a major reason he first ran for elected office.
"You know, I am someone that, for all of my life in the logging industry, I didn't have health insurance," Jackson said. "I wasn't allowed to bargain for it. And many of the people that I knew went without and had a lot of problems and actually had financial problems because of health problems that they had no control over."
This is how much of the evening went. Folksy, sometimes personal responses from Jackson and more polished, detailed, policy-oriented answers from Cain.
What, one man asked the candidates, would you do to address the high unemployment, mill closures and out-migration of youth that plagues rural counties in the 2nd District? There's no simple solution, Cain cautioned, that will make it all better.
"And it's a combination of focusing on education and training opportunities for people in rural Maine. It's a combination of that, plus support for small businesses," Cain said. "In 2012, I was actually recognized nationally as a champion for small business because of work I did on expanding the new markets tax credit that particularly focuses on rural, underserved areas."
Jackson began his answer this way. "I've been unemployed more times than I care to mention. I work in an industry that has all kinds of problems, as far as mills shutting down, people being able to get quality jobs. And I think that our whole focus here in Maine, and quite possibly the country, is really screwed up."
Other debate questions touched on veterans affairs, the environment, Maine's aging infrastructure and foreign policy.
Jackson enjoys strong backing from the state's major labor unions, who've played a big role in returning Mike Michaud to Congress over and over. But Cain has major financial backing from powerful Democratic donors in the southern part of the state and from well-funded national groups like Emily's List.
So it may come down to whether voters are drawn to Cain's polish and policy chops, or Jackson's homespun appeal.