District 17 candidates talk climate change, tobacco

ELLSWORTH — Incumbent Republican state Rep. Sherman Hutchins of Penobscot and Democratic challenger Ron Russell of Verona Island participated in a candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and local newspapers via Zoom Oct. 6.

Ellsworth American Publisher Chris Crockett moderated the event.

Maine House District 17 includes the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Penobscot and Verona Island.

The state rep worked for Pratt & Whitney as an engineer before founding his own construction business in 1968, which he ran for 25 years. Hutchins now works for the Wilson Museum in Castine. For the last 30 years, Hutchins has moderated town meetings for several towns in and near his district.

Russell, a Bangor native, is retired from a 42-year career at Darling’s in Brewer and is a volunteer. He lives on a farm on Verona Island. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. He serves on the boards of the Heart of Maine United Way, the Heart of Bucksport and Northeast Historic Film.

Candidates were asked the same questions and provided three minutes to respond.

One of the questions was on climate change: “What are the impacts of the changing climate in District 17? How can they be addressed by the Legislature?”

“The largest impact in Maine so far has been the considerable cost increases in energy — oil and electric,” Hutchins said. “What should have been done to start with was we needed a more serious study of the impact of climate change.”

“One of the worst things Maine did right off the bat, someone came up with the slogan Maine can’t wait,” the representative said. “I think that’s basically what we did with trying to come up with programs like switching over to electric cars.”

Maine has 7,000 electric cars versus a million gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles, he said.

“It will take a century to swap that so that it’s the other way around. If we were charging thousands of electric cars all at the same time, it would take one or two nuclear plants or the equivalent to do that,” Hutchins said. “So, we just haven’t thought it out very well and we need to. Unfortunately, we’re spending huge sums of money.”

“When there is finally a solution, it’s going to be hard to afford it because the state is spending so much money on ‘Maine Can’t Wait,’” he added.

Russell had a different response.

“We have lived on our farm on Verona Island for over 40 years,” Russell said. There is a stand of apple trees, a small hillside of blueberry land and “extensive native flowers that were the staple of my wife’s wedding flower business for over 20 years.”

Russell said his farm is a microcosm of what’s happening with Maine’s environment.

The vintage apple trees, thought to be one of the oldest stands in the state, are under threat due to more frequent periods of drought and brown tail moths, he said. “New insects we have not seen are continuing to arrive with new frequency. Ticks abound in our woods and field. All of this affects farmers in our district.”

“The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other East Coast body of water. Our vital lobster fishery is under threat from this change” and regulatory issues. “The list of impacts goes on.”

Russell added that conditions elsewhere are worse, and Maine can expect new migrations of residents, for which housing and a skilled workforce will be needed.

“I think the work of the Governors Climate Council is a step in the right direction,” Russell said. “I will support its continuing work.”

Russell also called for legislation that helps “farmers, fishermen and forest product workers” be a part of the state budget.

The candidate also called to remove excessive regulation that stands in the way of affordable housing.

“Change is hard but with change comes great opportunity,” Russell said. “I will work hard to learn the legislative process” and to work with fellow legislators to come up with solutions to deal with the effects of climate change on the state.

The candidates answered several other questions during the hour-long session, including whether they thought President Biden had been legitimately elected president during the 2020 election. Both agreed he was.

There was also a question from the public on ending the sale of flavored tobacco.

“A 2021 poll showed that 64 percent of Mainers support ending the sale of flavored tobacco products,” Crockett relayed. “But the Maine state Legislature has not yet passed legislation on the issue. Do you support a bill ending the sale of flavored tobacco products?”

“I do,” Russell said.

Hutchins had a longer reply.

“I think you’re determining that you want to not have children have flavored tobacco,” Hutchins said. “Well, it’s already illegal for children to buy tobacco anyway. But if doing away with the flavor would help fewer of them smoke, that’s probably not such a bad idea.”

“But the problem with the vaping products, when they first came out, I thought they were to help people to stop smoking,” said the candidate, noting that he has never been a smoker himself. “Come to find out it’s actually worse than the cigarettes. The fact that it’s flavored helps entice children but it’s already illegal for children to smoke.”

News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

Jennifer Osborn