Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Republican challenger Jay Allen debated mask mandates, health care costs and student loan debt during a fast-paced debate Tuesday in the race for Maine’s 1st Congressional District.
The two candidates were cordial and occasionally found themselves in agreement on issues despite strongly divergent political philosophies.
Pingree, a progressive Democrat seeking a seventh two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives, is widely considered the favorite in the low-profile race. Allen is a family physician and former U.S. Army doctor who is running on a conservative platform for a seat won by Democrats in every election for the past 24 years.
Those differences were clear from the beginning of News Center Maine’s televised debate when moderator Pat Callahan asked Allen whether the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House had changed his opposition to broad government mandates on wearing face masks.
“No not really because I look at the numbers, not just the fact that people who are healthy don’t spread the virus,” Allen said. A resident of New Harbor in Lincoln County, Allen said even if 40 percent of infected people were asymptomatic it would still only result in handful of cases there.
“The numbers don’t justify the amount of masking that we have been doing here,” he said.
Allen’s position on mask wearing during the pandemic is at odds with recommendations from state, federal and international public health organizations. The American Medical Association has waged a “Mask Up” campaign and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that cloth face coverings are “a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.”
Pingree said she “takes the completely opposite point of view” from Allen because studies show that people are infectious to others before they themselves begin experiencing symptoms. As evidence, Pingree pointed to the White House and to a large outbreak in Maine believed to have started during a wedding and reception in the Millinocket region.
“I think this whole idea that not wearing a mask is a more important personal liberty issue just kind of goes against what kind of people we are,” Pingree said. “We want to take care of each other. Wearing a mask means you are keeping the other people as well as protecting yourself. We don’t think twice about saying we should have laws that say you can’t drive drunk on the road because you could endanger other people.”
On the issue of health care reform, Allen called the Affordable Care Act “a misnomer” because it has not lowered costs for many Americans. Allen said he opposes a so-called “public option” allowing people to buy into Medicare, but supports “health savings accounts” as well as improved transparency in medical billing.
“What need to do is give more control back to patients so that they can control how their dollars are spent,” Allen said.
Pingree said she also supports transparency and health savings accounts but believes the country should be moving toward “Medicare for all,” beginning with a public option for Medicare. The Democrat also criticized President Trump and Republicans for attempting to dismantle Affordable Care Act, saying the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the need for health coverage.
“If the Supreme Court knocks it down that is the end of health care that protects people with pre-existing conditions,” Pingree said. “And remember, every person who has gotten the coronavirus, and the many more who will still get it, have a pre-existing condition.”
The candidates also had differing view on the question of government forgiveness of student debt.
Pingree said she would support forgiveness if it’s possible to find a way to pay for it. Pingree said there has also been “mismanagement” of federal student loan programs but said young people need to be fully aware of their career options – including technical training or other non-college tracts – before they take on debts.
“We have to make sure we are offering the full option to kids so before they end up with $30,000 to $50,000 debts,” Pingree said.
Allen responded that student loan forgiveness programs will largely end up benefiting middle- and upper-class families because they make up a disproportionate share of college attendees.
“Student debt is an investment in yourself,” Allen said. “If you are not willing to invest in yourself, then why should we as average Americans invest in you?”
The race for Maine’s 1st Congressional District has received relatively little outside attention, at least when compared to heated competition between first-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and Republican challenger Dale Crafts in the 2nd District. Maine’s race between Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Democrat Sara Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn is also one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.
A resident of the island of North Haven, Pingree was first elected to Congress in 2008 and was reelected with 59 percent of the vote in 2018 over a Republican and an independent.
Allen, who is running for public office for the first time, has been a physician for 23 years. During a 20-year career in the U.S. Army, Allen served as a doctor and held positions as clinic commander and deputy commander of clinical services with units.