The People’s Choice
Perhaps no place in Maine epitomizes the state’s schizophrenic political character more than the Somerset County town of Solon (pop. just north of 1,000, about an hour’s drive west from Bangor). Somerset County is Trump Country. Barely a third of its voters chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, and though Clinton narrowly won statewide, Trump swept the wilderness of northern and western Maine, earning the only electoral vote he got in New England.*
Yet Solon is an outlier. Since the late 1960s it’s been home to an eccentric collective of politically radical, back-to-the-lander artists, most notably the painter Abby Shahn. Every Fourth of July, in addition to fireworks and a patriotic parade, the community improv-theater group In Spite of Life Players stages a leftist protest play against war and greed, using gigantic, brightly painted sets and props, a la Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater.
by Nathan Bernard and Chris Busby
September 8, 2020
Solon is also the home of Lisa Savage, a schoolteacher and peace activist who’s challenging Republican Sen. Susan Collins in a four-way race this fall. Because Maine’s electoral system is as idiosyncratic as its independent-minded electorate, Savage has a chance of becoming the first Green U.S. Senator in history.
In addition to its unusual method of allocating electoral votes, Maine now has ranked-choice voting (RCV) for federal elections. Also called “instant runoff voting,” RCV allows you to rank multiple candidates for the same office, according to your preference. If no candidate wins a majority on the first round of tabulation, the contender with the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated and the candidate listed as the second choice on those ballots gets those votes. The process of elimination and reallocation continues until someone tops 50 percent of the tally.
Mainers are comfortable voting for independents**, such as Sen. Angus King, who previously served two terms as governor. But liberal locals have been burned before. In 2010 and 2014, a wealthy lawyer named Eliot Cutler, running as an independent, siphoned enough support from establishment Democrats to give proto-Trump Republican Paul LePage the governorship and a second term.
With RCV, Savage’s supporters can rank her first on their ballot and make the mainstream Democrat, current Speaker of the Maine House Sara Gideon, their second choice without fear they’re helping hand Collins a fifth term. (If Savage is eliminated before Gideon, Gideon gets those votes.) In 2018, Mainers re-elected King to the Senate using RCV, and it’s the system used for party primaries in national contests, but it’s not used for state races or most local elections, so many voters still don’t understand it.
“Ranked-choice voting is a game-changer,” Savage told Mainer during an interview last month. “And that’s exactly why those words will never pass Gideon and Collins’ lips” during this campaign. RCV empowers political outsiders like Savage or fellow independent Max Linn, the fourth candidate in this race, whose diehard support of Trump could cost Collins votes from the far right.
RCV was instituted in Maine in 2016 through a citizen-initiated referendum, not by state lawmakers. Voters in Massachusetts will decide whether to adopt the system this fall.
“The two-party system wants the two-party system to stay how it is,” said Bre Kidman, a progressive attorney who challenged Gideon in this year’s Democratic Party primary and is now backing Savage. “It needs to be clear that you can rank your heart first and then rank the party second. … In RCV, you vote your values. What Democrats should be doing is asking progressives for their second-choice votes.”
Savage is like a female Bernie Sanders with a milder temperament and hair that behaves. She’s the only candidate in this race who supports universal health care and a Green New Deal. She’d abolish student debt and provide tuition-free higher education. Savage is miles ahead of her rivals on racial justice and economic inequality, and would be much more generous with pandemic relief for workers and small businesses than either Collins or Gideon — both of whom, as high-ranking elected officials, have been responsible for actually providing that relief, with results ranging from spotty to tragic.
Unlike independent Senators Sanders and King, Savage would not necessarily caucus with Senate Democrats. Instead, she’d re-enroll in the Green Independent Party and form her own caucus of one to pull Democrats in a more progressive direction.
Savage only shed her affiliation because Maine election law required her to get signatures from 2,000 party members to run as a Green on the ballot. Maine’s Greens are widely scattered around the state, and many switched their enrollment to the Democratic Party last winter in order to vote for Sanders in the primary. As an independent, Savage needed twice as many signatures to get on the ballot, but could collect them from any voter. Her team quickly gathered over 9,000 signatures at polling places on March 3, a.k.a. “Super Tuesday.”
“I’m still Green in my heart and my values, our platform didn’t change,” said Savage. But she later remarked, “In many ways, I’m lucky that it doesn’t say ‘Green’” after her name on the ballot. “A lot of Maine voters go, ‘Independent! That’s what we need.’”
Who Wants to Elect a Millionaire?
Like much of Trump Country, Somerset County is dirt poor. Nearly one in five households are below the federal poverty line, and median household income, estimated in 2017 to be about $41,500, is more than $20,000 below the national average.
“It’s really my motivation to run,” Savage said of the deep, persistent poverty in rural Maine. “What keeps me going is, even before the pandemic, the families of the kids I was working with, they were struggling. Even if they had a job and had a car to get there, they were like one accident, one bad decision, one illness away from total collapse of their economic situation. And as an educator I can see how much it affects their children’s readiness to learn. They have food insecurity, they have housing insecurity. They’re not ready to become readers. They’re just trying to cope with life.
“So,” she continued, “addressing those economic inequities, I don’t really see how the people of Maine can be well represented by millionaires. But Angus King is a multi-millionaire, Susan Collins is a multi-millionaire, Sara Gideon is a multi-millionaire. … I think that I understand the economic situation of most people in Maine a lot better than a millionaire can.”
Another thing about Somerset County, and Solon in particular: the Internet up there sucks. We spoke with Savage in the midcoast Maine city of Bath — at the home of Bruce Gagnon, a fellow peace-and-justice activist — where Savage has been staying this summer.
“The reason I’m living here in Bath is there is not enough Internet in Solon, from any provider, to conduct a U.S. Senate campaign,” she said. That’s also a big reason why she supports the establishment of a consumer-owned Internet provider in Maine, as well as a publicly owned electric utility — an effort that’s recently gained traction due to dissatisfaction with foreign-owned Central Maine Power.
Gagnon and Savage are core members of a group of gray-haired rabble-rousers who’ve been protesting outside the gates of Bath Iron Works (BIW) for decades. They’ve been advocating for the conversion of the shipyard, which makes warships for the Navy, to the production of renewable energy infrastructure and green transportation alternatives, such as light rail.
Like direct cash payments to every American, this is an example of a demand that sounded almost ludicrous before the pandemic — compelling a corporation to fundamentally change its business model — but which seems like the height of sanity today. In fact, this idea has already been put into action. This spring, Senators King and Collins, among other federal officials, helped a Maine manufacturer of COVID testing swabs ramp up production by enlisting BIW to make machines that produce the swabs.
It’s also a telling example of the difference between Savage and Gideon. While Savage was in the street protesting the weapons manufacturer, Gideon and her colleagues in the Maine Legislature were handing it another huge tax break: a $45 million giveaway that would have been $60 million but for the activism of Savage and her ilk. This was done despite the fact BIW’s parent company, General Dynamics, is so awash in profits that it’s been buying its own stock to the tune of over $10 billion since 2013.
Savage said, “All of our Congressional critters, whether they have an I, D or R after their name, are always there kissing the ring of General Dynamics every time there’s a christening” of a new warship. “The reason why: they take money from them for their campaigns.”
Gideon’s campaign claims it won’t take money from political action committees (PACs) funded by big corporations. “That’s a lie,” said Savage. “Of course she’s taking corporate money.” So-called “leadership” PACs organized by top Democrats and funded by Wall Street interests have poured fortunes into this race to back Gideon. “Those PACs … are just a money laundering scheme for corporations,” said Savage.
By the end of June, the Collins and Gideon campaigns had raised more than $40 million combined, and PACs and other special-interest groups had marshaled another $16 million to spend on the race. This has already generated a blizzard of ads on the Internet and the airwaves for and against Collins and Gideon. “The fundraising amounts are obscene,” Savage said. “Especially given the fact that it mostly goes into corporate coffers. It’s just making Silicon Valley more rich … it’s mostly like YouTube, Facebook.”
On Aug. 27, the Savage campaign proudly announced that it’d made history: theirs is the first Green campaign in Maine to raise over $100,000. There are, unsurprisingly, no corporate PACs spending a dime to get her elected. Savage has made it clear that she supports repeal of the tax breaks given to wealthy corporations and individuals by lawmakers in both major parties over the years.
“Wealthy people used to pay their fair share of taxes in this country, but then they seized control of Congress and wrote the tax laws to suit themselves,” she said. “I’ve been paying about 28 percent as a school teacher. I believe Jeff Bezos paid zero last year. … Maybe we could split the difference.”
Savage was born in Bangor in 1956. Her paternal grandfather, Brooks Savage, was a state lawmaker and lifelong friend of Margaret Chase Smith, the U.S. Senator deified for her 1950 Declaration of Conscience, in which she rebuked her Republican colleagues for McCarthyism and defended the right to protest and advocate unpopular beliefs. Collins, who strives to liken herself to Smith, has become a national punchline for her failure to strongly rebuke the Trump Administration for its cruelty and intolerance.
Savage grew up in California, where her mother’s family was from, but returned to Maine to study history at Bowdoin College. She “graduated into a recession” in 1977, and left the state again, eventually finding work at an ad agency.
It was during this period that Savage, then a young mother of two, lived in Japan for four years with her partner, who taught English there. The experience gave her an enlightening perspective on what government can do for people.
“We just paid a flat 10 percent income tax. There was no paperwork. Everybody got 10 percent taken out,” Savage recalled. “And they had amazing public transportation, and they had amazing socialized medicine. It was just phenomenal. I think my co-pay was $2.50 to take my baby to the doctor.”
The Japanese “really had no military budget to speak of, hardly at all,” Savage continued. “That’s why we can’t have nice things in the United States, because the military just eats up every resource that’s out there.”
In 1988, Savage moved back to Maine to help her brother run Bloomfield’s Cafe and Bar, in Skowhegan. “It was my dad’s retirement project, and he died suddenly, leaving an operating business,” she said. “I was working in a start-up that wasn’t going to start up.”
After seven years behind the bar at Bloomfield’s, Savage was at a crossroads. She thought, “If I want to stay in Maine, I’ve either got to go to work for the paper mill, or move to Portland, or — hey, how about school teaching?”
Her first classrooms were in a school district west of Waterville that included the towns of Belgrade and Oakland. “I was pretty broke as an entry-level teacher,” Savage said. “Teachers reach into their pocket and spend thousands of dollars’” on supplies and teaching materials.
“At first, I did that,” she continued, “but I became a union official and I became chief negotiator for the local bargaining unit. I started to realize, ‘Oh, that’s undercutting the contract. Whether I can personally afford it or not, that’s hurting the collective bargaining agreement. I should stop doing that.’”
About halfway through her 25-year teaching career, Savage relocated to Solon, an area “way poorer than the school district I started out in.” The last teaching job she held before retiring to run for Senate this year was as a literacy aid, a position she helped create by working on the application for the federal grant that funded it.
“We didn’t get any good applicants,” Savage recalled. “Nobody wants to work in those super-poor school districts with a lotta, lotta, lotta kids being raised by their grandparents ’cause they saw their dad die of an overdose right in front of their eyes when they were three.”
In contrast to Gideon, who pledges to “give law enforcement the tools they need to fight the epidemic,” Savage advocates a public health approach. “Law enforcement is not the tool to defeat it. The opioid epidemic is a health issue, a mental health issue. It is not a criminal justice issue. And we’ve been criminalizing drugs … for years. How well has it worked? How is our opioid overdose rate?”
Savage also scoffed at Gideon’s advocacy of “affordable” treatment for addicts. “It means she’s never taught school in Anson, Maine,” a town near Solon. “She doesn’t realize these people can’t afford anything. They can’t afford a car to get to work. They can’t afford for-profit, corporate healthcare. It doesn’t matter how cheap you make it.
“But all the other wealthy countries treat substance-use disorders like a medical issue and they do harm reduction,” Savage added. “They make sure people have access to clean needles and a safe place to [use drugs], and the kind of community support, the counseling, the programs to help people get into supportive housing, get educated or get into work. It’s poverty that needs to be addressed first and foremost, rather than criminalizing the use of drugs.”
If, as many expect, neither major party has firm control of the Senate after this fall’s election, Savage would be in a pivotal position to shape policy and confirm or reject appointees. That’s basically the role Collins has played in recent years, most notoriously during the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
“That’s really what’s gotten Susan Collins in trouble with her voters, is Kavanaugh,” said Savage. “I never voted for her. She lost me with Jeff Sessions. She’s going to introduce a blatant white supremecist as Attorney General of the United States, glowingly, to her committee?”
The idea of Savage bending the Senate to her will is no more outlandish than Gideon’s claims that she’d be able to get both parties to work together and get things done, while simultaneously vowing, as she did during a Democratic Party forum in June, to “represent our best interests [as Mainers] and never back down from that.”
“I’ve been a union negotiator. I’m pretty good at bargaining, actually,” said Savage. “You go in with your best ask, which is gonna sound like ideological purity. [But] why would I already reduce what I’m asking for? Because the way negotiation is, I come in with my strongest ask, you come in with your strongest position, and we start looking for common ground and coming to the middle.
“I’m entirely ready to engage in that process,” Savage added, “but I’m not gonna start weak already, saying, ‘Oh, the corporations will never agree to that!’”
*Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that don’t award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins statewide; Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016.
**In the print version of this story, we incorrectly stated that “most Maine voters are not registered as members of either major party.” In fact, about two-thirds of Mainers who are registered to vote are Democrats (approx. 386,800) or Republicans (approx. 295,100), compared to about 339,800 registered voters unaffiliated with either major party. About 41,700 Mainers are registered Green Independents.