Pingree and Thelander clash over support for the lobster industry in 1st Congressional District debate

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Oct. 12—Republican Ed Thelander apologized for referring to federal fisheries regulators as rapists after being criticized by Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree during a spirited debate between the 1st Congressional District candidates Wednesday.

While the candidates debated a range of issues, including asylum seekers, energy, abortion and student loan debt, it got personal when they challenged each other over their support for Maine's lobster industry, which is facing severe restrictions to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Pingree called out Thelander for statements he made earlier Wednesday at a rally for the lobster industry in Portland. In a speech at the event, Thelander compared federal regulations to raping children, saying "you don't negotiate with rapists." Maine Democrats issued a statement Wednesday saying the comments show he is unfit for office.

"That is not a good way to move forward on policy and I think doesn't help the debate at all," Pingree said during the debate. "It sort of drags it down into the gutter in a way that shouldn't happen."

After Pingree criticized the comments, Thelander apologized.

"My comments were over the top and I apologize for that," he said. "I'm very passionate about it. I love those families. I'm seeing the struggles they have and nothing has been done about it."

Pingree rejected that assessment. "We didn't do nothing," she said, pointing out that she and other members of the delegation from both parties have been fighting similar restrictions since 1997. "Don't say I'm not passionate about it," said Pingree, who lives in an island community that relies on the lobster industry.

Both candidates agreed that asylum seekers who are in the country legally should be allowed to work sooner. But Thelander also alleged that asylum seekers are driving crime — an assertion that has previously been refuted by law enforcement.

"If people come here legally we need to get them to work," he said, adding "because if they come here and can't work what are they doing — they're stealing or they're causing problems."

When asked why immigration reform, when framed as a workforce issue, wasn't getting bipartisan support in Congress, Pingree accused Republicans of stoking fear that immigrants are looking to steal jobs from citizens to win votes.

"I think it's partly because Republicans use it for rhetoric and campaigns," she said. "They want to scare people."

Thelander also criticized Pingree for supporting student loan forgiveness, saying that blue-collar workers who did not go to college are being left behind. He said going to college is "a business decision," and if a student doesn't have a plan to repay the loans, "then shame on you — you made a deal."

Pingree acknowledged it is a difficult issue, but said the problem has been allowed to grow for too long.

"A tremendous number of young people in Maine, young people and families, are struggling under the weight of that debt," she said, adding that many people in their 40s are also struggling with college bills. "If we don't deal with that problem, I think we're going to be in trouble."

Regarding energy policy, Thelander argued that the U.S. could bring down prices in general by increasing the supply of oil. "We've got to start drilling for oil again here in America," Thelander said. "Getting the price of oil down is going to help with everything."

Pingree said Maine residents are facing a difficult winter with rising energy costs, but that drilling for oil won't help. "I believe investing in renewable energy is how we'll bring the costs down," she said.

Regarding abortion, Pingree said she supports passing a federal law to restore the right to abortion nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the adoption of strict bans in many states. While Maine law allows abortion until a fetus is viable, or 22 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, Pingree said that could change if Republicans win control of the Blaine House and the Legislature.

"We would be Alabama tomorrow," she said, referring to one of the states that banned abortion after the Supreme Court ruling.

Thelander said he is opposed to abortion, but that he would leave it up to individual states to establish limits and does not support a national ban on abortions. "That's not a federal issue," he said, adding he wouldn't impose his personal views through a federal law.

The candidates also clashed over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Thelander said the invasion was caused by a lack of respect for American foreign policy resulting from the messy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. "We need to lean forward hard and get that back," he said.

Pingree, however, accused Thelander of excusing "the horrendous actions of Putin and what he's done to the Ukrainian people," adding that Republicans and Democrats are united in helping Ukraine.

"Listen, I lived through four years of the Trump administration," she said, saying the former president shunned allies and embraced adversaries. "He helped get us into this situation by being soft on Putin."

The debate can be streamed at pressherald.com. The event was sponsored by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Public. Jennifer Rooks of Maine Public moderated the discussion and Joe Lawlor of the Press Herald and Kevin Miller of Maine Public asked questions.

Pingree has represented Maine's coastal and southern 1st Congressional District since 2009 and hopes to win an eighth term on Nov. 8. Thelander, a former Navy SEAL and a newcomer on the Maine political scene, is campaigning to end that winning streak.

The candidates, like their parties, have opposing views on a wide variety of issues facing Congress and the state.

Pingree has easily defended her seat over the years. In 2020, she won reelection with 62 percent of the vote, and her district is heavily skewed toward Democrats. A September poll from the University of New Hampshire showed Pingree leading Thelander by 57% to 32%. Pingree also leads in the money race, with $615,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent federal campaign reports, compared to $154,000 for Thelander.

Pingree, 67, lives on North Haven, an island in Penobscot Bay. A former state senator, Pingree challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2002, but lost that race. Before winning her congressional seat in 2008, Pingree was president and CEO of Common Cause, a national nonprofit with a mission of being a watchdog on government. She has three grown children.

Thelander, 53, served in the Navy for 21 years and participated in U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean, according to his campaign website. He lives in Bristol with his wife, Liliana, who immigrated from Venezuela and became an American citizen in 1999. They have three children.