Conversations on doorsteps with folks in rural Kennebec County have taught state Rep. Kent Ackley that voters want lawmakers in Augusta who can make an immediate impact on their lives. “People are concerned about being safe in this new pandemic setting,” he said. “They’re concerned about making sure that we get back to normal, safely.”
Ackley, an independent vying for his third term representing District 82, said voters are eager to talk about everything, from issues of statewide importance like the controversial Central Maine Power corridor to hyperlocal matters — like protecting local firefighters, the ability to buy ethanol-free gasoline locally and protecting nearby lakes from invasive plant species.
“It’s all common sense stuff,” he said. “They’re interested in the bread-and-butter, rubber-hits-the-road issues. ‘What changes have you made in my life?’”
Ackley, 53, whose district includes Wales, Litchfield and part of Monmouth, is running against Republican Randall Greenwood, 47, a former state lawmaker who he unseated in 2016 and narrowly beat again in 2018 by just 16 votes.
Greenwood, who declined Beacon’s request to discuss his policy stances, has downplayed the severity of COVID-19, referring to it as a “quote-unquote” pandemic. As a legislator in 2015 and 2016, he voted against a bill to study the feasibility of implementing a universal, single-payer health care system in Maine and voted in line with former Gov. Paul LePage’s failed legislation to impose penalties on poor families who rely on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
In his most recent term, Ackley sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to allow Mainers to register to vote online, establish universal health care, create paid family and medical leave, and return the estate tax threshold to its pre-LePage level.
But the best policy ideas, he said, come from the community. One successful piece of legislation he was able to pass this year came out a discussion he had with a local fire chief about the propane explosion in Farmington in September 2019 that killed a fire captain and injured seven other people.
“In the wake of the Farmington incident, I had [Wales Assistant Fire] Chief Anthony Siderio ask me at a meeting we were attending, ‘Hey, what happens to the family of one of my people if they passed away in the line of duty?’” he said. “My initial answer was, ‘Chief, I don’t know. But let me go do some homework and find out.’”
It turned out that the state statute setting the family benefit for volunteer and paid emergency responders lost in the line of duty had not been touched since 2002.
Ackley’s legislation raised the benefit and tied it to the rate of inflation. It was one of the last bills signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills before the legislative session was cut short in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s the perfect example of why it’s so important for state representatives to engage their constituents on a regular basis, knock on doors, meet them at gatherings in a safe way,” he said.
CMP corridor is ‘deeply unpopular’
Ackley is a registered Maine Guide with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and involved in environmental conservation. He was also appointed as vice president of the Annabessacook Lake Improvement Association and is a board member of the Friends of the Cobbossee Watershed District.
He says that opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) power transmission corridor is overwhelming in his area.
“This is deeply unpopular,” Ackley said. “With all the effort [former] Governor [Paul] LePage and Governor Mills have done to push the CMP corridor through, there’s probably 70 percent of people that made up their mind that they don’t like it.”
“My constituents who are environmentally minded, they have concerns about how clean this energy really is,” he added.
Ackley said residents were shocked to learn that more than $9 million had been spent by Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec to defeat a citizen’s initiative to block the corridor.
As a member of the Legislature’s Veteran and Legal Affairs Committee, Ackley has vocally opposed measures to limit the right of Mainers to push policy changes through the ballot in the face of legislative inaction.
In reaction to the massive amount of money Hydro-Quebec has spent, he drafted legislation, LD 2136, to prohibit contributions and participation by foreign organizations and corporations in citizen-initiated ballot referenda.
The bill did not get a vote in this year’s abbreviated legislative session.
“To me it’s foreign influence meddling in an election they have no business meddling in,” Ackley said. “If the election that they were doing this in was one that involved candidates, it would be prohibited under federal law. Because the citizen initiative process comes through the Maine state constitution, we need a statute to protect it.”
“It’s a terrible deal for the state of Maine and, and I think there’s no amount of advertising that corporations can spend, that is going to convince people otherwise.”