NEW GLOUCESTER — Only one of the candidates for House District 65 says she is related to a former U.S. President, but the two women squaring off this November have at least one thing in common: their birthday.
That’s not where the similarities end with Republican Amy Arata and Democrat Misty Coolidge, both of New Gloucester. They both own small businesses, both are originally from central Maine, both are married with three children, and both joke about being mistaken for one another by voters.
But in their race to replace Rep. Ellie Espling in a seat that represents New Gloucester and part of Poland in the Maine House of Representatives, the two candidates differ on whether they’d follow in Espling’s footsteps.
Espling, a Republican from New Gloucester, currently serves as House minority leader and is termed out after eight years in the District 65 seat. A frequent legislative ally of Gov. Paul LePage, Espling is running against Dr. Ned Claxton of Auburn for the District 20 Senate seat being vacated by Eric Brakey, the Auburn Republican challenging U.S. Senator Angus King.
Arata, 45, complimented Espling for her “calm, respectful demeanor” and thinks she would emulate Espling’s approach in Augusta.
“I know she gets a lot of flack for not denouncing LePage and things he’s said over the years, but she has spoken to him personally in a mature manner, and I think she has been a calming influence on him,” Arata said.
Coolidge, 43, indicated a less favorable view of Espling’s time in office.
“Because I’m more involved with the Democratic committee here, obviously it’s a lot of negative – that they don’t like what she stands for,” she said about Espling. “We just need to make some changes in Augusta badly, with all the seats up there right now.”
A political newcommer, Coolidge grew up in Fairfield and Skowhegan before graduating from Husson University with a degree in paralegal studies. She went on to spend 25 years living in Portland, working first in the paralegal and real estate fields. She and her husband moved to New Gloucester two years ago, and she runs two small businesses: wedding and event space Coolidge Family Farm and a mobile bar service called the Maine Mixologist.
Despite her lack of political experience, Coolidge says she has “always loved politics” and pointed to a prominent political figure in her family.
“I’m related to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, so I was like, well, politics are in my blood, let’s give this a shot,” said Coolidge, who has drawn inspiration in her campaign button design from the button that Calvin Coolidge used in his 1923 presidential run.
Coolidge said she used to be a registered independent, but decided to run for office as a Democrat after being encouraged by her cousin, Ben Gagnon, who is finance director for gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills.
Arata is currently a member of the SAD 15 board and the Maine State Board of Education, and has served in several other local roles – including chairwoman of the New Gloucester Budget Committee, vice chairwoman of the New Gloucester Planning Board, and vice Chairwoman of the New Gloucester Capital Improvement Committee – since she and her family moved to New Gloucester in 2006.
“I’ve learned a lot – I’ve learned to require evidence. If somebody tells me something is true, I want evidence. I’m not going to take it at face value,” Arata said. “I’ve also learned that when you make hard decisions, you’re not always going to be popular. But you have to do the right thing, even if it’s not popular.”
After growing up in Albion, Arata received a bachelor’s degree in science from Gordon College in Massachusetts along with a master’s degree in genetics from the University of California, Davis.
“I grew up in Maine, I love the state of Maine. When I left, all I could think about was getting back here,” Arata said.
She and her husband own Range Pond Apartments in Poland, which she says they have transformed into an “asset to the town now” after it previously “had a bad reputation.”
Coolidge is also in the midst of her one-year reign as Mrs. Maine International, having won the statewide pageant earlier in 2018.
As part of her title, she is continuing and building on her volunteer work supporting food sustainability and efforts to help feed the homeless. One of her legislative priorities would be promoting the role that local farmers can play in helping to address food insecurity.
In her talks with voters, Arata said she’s heard a lot of concerns about Maine’s battle with opioid addiction.
“I think we need to throw everything at it we’ve got – from law enforcement, to counseling, to intervention, prevention,” Arata said. “And it’s not just a government issue, it’s also a societal issue.”
Coolidge said she thinks Maine needs a state-run recovery facility to help address Maine’s opioid addiction crisis.
“I really think the state should have state funding to open a place – safe haven – where people can go” for recovery services, Coolidge said. “There’s not a place for people to go to that is a safe place for this new type of addiction.”
Asked about expanding Medicaid in Maine, an ongoing state debate seemingly settled by voters in a November 2017 referendum that continues to meet resistance from the LePage administration, Coolidge didn’t hesitate with her position.
“The people already voted to expand that, and I definitely support it for our seniors and people that need that,” Coolidge said.
Arata called Medicaid expansion “more of a Band-Aid,” but said she would support expansion if it were to come back before the Legislature in some manner.
“I would support it, but we have to pay for it. We’re going to have to get the money somewhere. And we might have to sacrifice something else in order to expand it,” Arata said. “But I do acknowledge that access to health insurance is an important issue, and we have to face it – we can’t just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Coolidge is running as a publicly-financed candidate under Maine’s Clean Election Act, which provides matching state funds to participating candidates who raise a certain number of individual contributions from their community. Arata said she is not using the voluntary public funding program to finance her campaign.
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.