BANGOR – Poverty, abortion rights and teen pregnancy emerged among the top issues at a forum Wednesday where three of the four major Blaine House hopefuls sought to solidify their support among women voters.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, Maine Green Independent Party nominee Pat LaMarche and independent Barbara Merrill addressed those and several more issues at the morning forum, sponsored by the nonpartisan Maine Women’s Policy Center.
Merrill, a first-term state representative from Appleton, scuttled her prepared opening remarks to focus on a newly released report on poverty that found a 50 percent increase in the number of Maine households using food stamps in the past three years.
“Today’s paper sums it up,” said Merrill, holding up a copy of the morning newspaper, which ran a front page story on the report. “The status quo isn’t working in Maine, and it hasn’t been working.”
“The word I used was ‘staggered,'” LaMarche said of her initial reaction to the report’s findings.
“We’ve got a real problem,” she added, noting that, in general, poverty disproportionately affects women.
There were few – and only relatively minor – points of contention at the event, which drew about 100 people to the Spectacular Event Center. The crowd offered its strongest show of support when each of the three candidates pledged to protect abortion rights in Maine.
“It’s about treating women with respect, and recognizing they’re capable of making their decisions about health care -and how it impacts them – between them and their doctor and their family,” Baldacci said. “It is a very, very basic right … and if it devolves back to the states I’m going to make sure Maine respects Roe versus Wade.”
Baldacci also touted his administration’s efforts to reduce teen pregnancy rates. He noted that Maine, which once had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, now has one of the lowest.
Merrill said Maine could improve on those efforts by adopting a program similar to one in Indiana that offers college scholarships to financially eligible young people who, after signing up in middle school, maintain good grades through high school and participate in mentoring programs.
Those interviewed after the forum expressed a general satisfaction with the three candidates’ messages.
“I think we’d be OK with any of the three,” said Bev Hazard of Bangor. “As long as it’s not the one who didn’t show up.”
Hazard was referring to Republican Chandler Woodcock, who declined his invitation to the Bangor forum, and three additional Maine Women’s Policy Center events in other parts of the state. Unlike the candidates at the forum, Woodcock, a social conservative, opposes abortion rights.
Woodcock’s absence – based on prior commitments, his campaign said – did not go unnoticed. Some in attendance offered a smattering of applause when his absence was noted.
Woodcock spokesman Chris Jackson said Wednesday that his candidate would welcome an opportunity to speak with the policy center’s board at a mutually convenient time.
“We’re not trying to avoid anything,” Jackson said.