When asked about the prospects of Democrats winning back the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Tom Allen, the five-term incumbent in the 1st District, smiles.
He is confident, he tells a handful of supporters who have gathered at a town hall meeting in Bridgton on a weekday morning earlier this month, that his party will win a majority number of seats in the House on Nov. 7. Democrats may also win control of the Senate, he believes.
If his party wins the House, the Democratic agenda will include goals Allen has pursued since he was elected in 1996: providing more people with access to affordable health insurance, and easing the burden of paying for that insurance for the owners of small businesses.
A former lawyer who graduated from Bowdoin College and Harvard School of Law and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, Allen, 61, began his political career on the Portland City Council, eventually becoming that city’s mayor. He was unsuccessful in winning his party’s primary for governor in 1994, but won the primary for the 1st District race in 1996, then defeated incumbent Republican James Longley Jr.
But in each of his five terms, Allen’s party has been in the minority. He’s a bit of a policy wonk who can speak authoritatively on a number of issues – in one exchange, he cites the added cost to General Motors and Ford vehicles linked to company health care benefits – but he works to simplify partisan debates to a handful of core issues.
Speaking to an early morning Bridgton Rotary Club meeting, Allen outlined what he sees as the key issues: Iraq, affordable health care insurance and the federal deficit.
Allen’s independent challenger, Dexter Kamilewicz, a former Allen supporter, has said he is running because Allen voted to fund the war effort. Speaking to the Rotary Club, the incumbent stressed his early opposition to the war.
“I voted against giving the president the authority to go to war,” Allen said, concluding that Iraq had no ties with al-Qaida and that the country had no nuclear weapons. Allen believed then that Iraq probably had chemical and biological weapons.
“[But] I was afraid we would create more terrorists than we killed,” he said, which subsequent national security reports confirm. “That is a long-term problem, not just for us, but for Western democracies,” he said.
Kamilewicz has called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, while Republican challenger Darlene Curley favors a two-year withdrawal process. Allen believes the U.S. must leave in 2007.
“I think we need to negotiate a deadline with the Iraqi government to leave, which should be next year,” he said. Allen then favors a “gathering of the neighborhood” nations to solicit their input in maintaining peace, and then a conference of European nations to solicit funding.
This last step will be difficult, he said, since private U.S. contractors like Halliburton are making millions rebuilding the country, freezing other nations out of the economic opportunities.
“Iraq is probably not going to be a Western democracy for a very long time,” Allen said.
He voted to fund the war effort, he explained later, to keep troops equipped, calling it a moral imperative.
On health care, Allen proposes the federal government work to bring at least two private insurance plans to each state aimed at businesses with 50 employees or less. The plans should be similar to the Anthem/Blue Cross coverage provided to federal employees, Allen said.
The federal government would pay for the catastrophic portion of the plan – claims of $100,000 or more – and for insuring children. It would also pick up about 20 percent of the cost of premiums.
The proposal is not a single-payer system, Allen stressed, but “would get us a step toward the rest of the developed world. This is an area where you need federal involvement.”
Curley has asserted that government should not be in the health care business. Allen countered that it already is, efficiently delivering veterans and Medicare programs.
While Allen conceded the plan would cost billions in federal funds, he said it would lift at least part of the burden of the cost of providing health care insurance from small businesses. Republican congressional leaders are unwilling to address this burden on small business, he charged.
On federal spending, Allen said federal deficits are projected at $300 billion to $400 billion over the next five or six years, “then they get dramatically worse.” He blamed the shortfalls on poor revenues, the result of Bush’s tax cuts.
In fact, Allen said, “The interest on the national debt is the fastest growing portion of the federal budget.”
Democrats, if they gain control of the House, will adopt a “pay as you go” approach to rein in spending, he said.
Later in his campaign swing through western Cumberland County, Allen said Democrats have discussed how to conduct themselves if they win control of the House, pledging not to take revenge on Republicans by blocking their bills in committee, or by relegating some members to undesirable committee assignments.
Allen said partisan conflict seemed to be ratcheted up during President Clinton’s tenure, and that Democrats have returned the vitriol under Bush. It is time to return to a more collegial approach, he said.