You might not know it from the barrage of political advertisements on TV, but there are actually four candidates in the U.S. Senate race in Maine, not two. Independent Lisa Savage, overshadowed by Susan Collins and Sara Gideon, is an activist-turned-politician who’s banking on a progressive agenda and ranked-choice voting to elevate her chances as an independent Green.
Some political pundits took note of Savage after two recent Senate debates in which she attempted to connect with voters with statements like this one:
“when people in Maine are struggling to get by and they don’t have a voice in the Senate, because I’m the only nonmillionaire up here,” she said.
Savage is a retired school teacher and union negotiator from Solon who supports Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and believes public higher education should be tuition free.
University of Maine Farmington political science professor James Melcher says while Savage may be far down in the polls, her debate performance seemed to turn heads.
“I think a lot of people that aren’t even voting for her thought she left a good impression in those,” he says.
And, if anything, Melcher says Savage clarified her agenda, which includes universal basic income, free child care for essential workers and forgiveness of existing student loan debt. The latter would come with a lofty price tag, but Savage says the banks can well afford it.
“We always seem to come up with plenty of money to bail out the banks, bail out Wall Street, bail out out the corporations. You know the minute the pandemic hit — oh, billions were flying out the door,” she says. “Yet, we don’t have enough to bail out kids who did exactly what society told them to do, go get an education, and then they’re laboring for decades afterwards trying to pay off their student loans.”
To finance some of her other big ticket proposals such as the Green New Deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Savage proposes to defund the military and plow the savings into clean-energy jobs.
As evidence of her commitment, Savage has been arrested and charged more than once for blocking the entrance to Bath Iron Works. She also created the Maine Natural Guard, a group working to protect the environment by connecting the climate emergency to the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the Department of Defense.
Savage says she favors converting the shipyard from making warships to producing solar panels, offshore wind turbines or commuter trains.
“Of course, the Pentagon is the biggest consumer of fossil fuels of any organization on the planet. So the Pentagon is largely driving the climate crisis while fighting wars for access to petroleum, which further drives the climate crisis. And indeed, we can’t lose the jobs at BIW. But economist research has shown time and again that if you would invest in almost any other sector of the economy the same amount of money, you would actually generate more good union jobs with benefits,” she says.
Savage says military spending never piqued her interest until her youngest child grew up and left home. She says she had more time to analyze the federal budget and to volunteer with CODEPINK, a national women’s peace group that grew out of opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“And I would go down to Washington, D.C., sometimes to meet with Rep. [Mike] Michaud at the time and talk about my concerns that the money going to Pentagon contractors was basically corporate welfare and it wasn’t available to fund public education or other things that we need,” she says.
“I really like that she stands for bold positions like Medicare for All and getting our troops out of some of these endless wars. That’s important to me because I think we need those dollars back,” says Reggie Johnson, a part-time restaurant worker and Green independent who volunteers on the Savage campaign.
Johnson says it’s the first time he’s been politically active. At 32, he says he’s worried about climate change and doesn’t think the other candidates are doing enough to address it.
Savage is running a strictly grassroots campaign with no corporate money in a race against candidates financed by tens of millions of dollars. She makes regular in-person appearances and also uses virtual events to talk about homelessness, racial justice and single-payer health care. And she avidly supports ranked-choice voting.
“In ranked-choice voting you don’t have to vote a lesser of two evils; you can pick the person that most closely aligns with your values first and then your safety vote can be your second vote,” she says.
Melcher says that’s a good personal strategy for voters even if they know that Savage stands little chance of winning.
“You can kind of have your cake and eat it, too. You can say, ‘Well, I’m more to the left of Sara Gideon on a number of these issues but I’d prefer her to Susan Collins, so I can vote for Lisa Savage, get some publicity for her cause and make a statement to the Democratic Party, among others.’ So, it’s a strategy you really couldn’t use without ranked-choice voting,” he says.
At a recent campaign stop at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market, the idea appeared to pay off for Savage with at least one couple.
“We would definitely consider voting for you first, then. Of course, we’ll read more about your platform and continue researching,” said Brian Roche and Courtney White.
After spending a few minutes hearing Savage outline her priorities, they said they’d reconsider ranking Gideon first on Election Day. They say access to health care and progressive climate policy are the issues they care most about and Savage’s platform fits the bill.