House District 81 Democratic candidate Daniel Sipe. | From Sipe’s Facebook page
Origninally published in the Beacon on November 24, 2022
Political newcomer Daniel Sipe came within 392 votes of unseating a conservative stalwart in a rural district in western Maine. He did it by talking to residents about their most immediate concerns: jobs, healthcare, housing, energy costs and the environment.
“I really think that people are closer together on how they want the country to move forward than we are told by the media,” said Sipe, a resident of Norway and a first-time political candidate.
Sipe, a Democrat, lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Sawin Millett by nine percentage points in House District 81, which includes Norway, Waterford, Greenwood and Stoneham. Millett, who has been in the legislature off and on since 1969 and served in the administrations of four governors, is an influential member of the legislature’s powerful budget-making committee.
Sipe was able to keep the race relatively close, considering his opponent’s name recognition and the perception that his district leans conservative. However, after knocking on over a thousand doors and having countless conversations, he’s begun to question that characterization.
Sipe found that while voters may consume different media and identify with different candidates or parties, if he kept the conversation on the issues that impact them most, there is a surprising degree of commonality.
“The first thing is meeting people where they’re at and listening to the problems they face,” Sipe said. “When you get them talking, you see that people want good jobs and they want their neighbors to have good jobs. They don’t want to be saddled with medical debt. And they don’t want their neighbors to be saddled with medical debt either.”
People want real solutions, not tweaks
Sipe entered Maine politics as a canvasser with the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project), working on referendum campaigns to increase the minimum wage, expand Medicaid eligibility and increase funding for public education through taxes on the wealthy. He moved to Norway in 2020 when he co-founded a non-profit consulting company where he works closely with local artists and craftspeople in the community.
He said the issue that voters in his district were most concerned about this election season is the lack of good-paying jobs in the community. The biggest employers in the district are the school system, Stephens Memorial Hospital, and the New Balance shoe factory in Norway. There are no chain stores in the entire district.
“People feel forgotten about out here in western Maine,” Sipe said. “We have massive infrastructure problems. Our roads are quite bad. A lot of folks don’t have access to good internet. No one is going to move their business here if we don’t have good roads and internet.”
People are also worried about the high cost of goods and energy, he said. The price for a gallon of heating oil has hit a record high. Electricity bills for many customers of Central Maine Power and Versant will increase by as much as 49% at the beginning of next year. This follows rate hikes made earlier this year with more likely to come next summer.
“It’s scary to think about the winter that’s coming,” Sipe said. “I think that it’s one of those things as a state legislator, unfortunately, there’s not much that we can do about high prices, but we can work to provide heating assistance to low-income families.”
On a complex issue like healthcare, Sipe found that rural voters are not afraid of confronting difficult and persistence problems at their root.
“People talk about getting rid of insurance companies and providing healthcare for everyone. That is not as radical an idea as it seems,” he said.
While Maine’s larger towns and cities often get the headlines, Sipe said the housing crisis hits all corners of the state. Across Maine, rents are soaring. Home prices have climbed dramatically in many areas. Average long-term mortgage interest rates have risen above 7% for the first time in decades. As a result, people are taking on more debt to buy a house.
Residents want the state to take urgent action, Sipe said.
“People feel that housing is a huge problem here. It’s a huge problem everywhere,” he said. “We need to invest at the state level in housing.”
And, as Europe had its most severe drought in 500 years last summer, residents in western Maine were also concerned about the lack of rain. It was the third consecutive year that large parts of the state experienced drought.
“People have started experiencing drought that they’d never experienced before. People’s wells are running dry,” Sipe said.
He added, “They’re worried about large corporations taking advantage of our landscape. They’re worried about CMP, for instance, not just the rising electricity costs, but the fact that they are not really going to benefit from a corridor that is just owned by an out-of-country corporation,” referring to CMP and Hydro-Quebec’s 145-mile transmission corridor that was rejected by voters in 2021.
Hitting the right target
There has been some debate in Maine politics about what Democrats need to do to win in rural districts. Rifts in the party emerged after former Democratic legislator Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro co-authored a book, “Dirt Road Revival,” claiming that the party has lost touch with rural voters.
Despite losing his race on Nov. 8, Sipe believes that Democrats can steadily win voters in rural districts if they consistently prove themselves to be loyal to working-class Mainers. That has not always been the case, he said, and that failing has given Republicans an opening to present themselves as the party of “family values and workers.”
“I think Democrats need to stop kowtowing to large corporations and go to work for the people that live here. We need to focus on the things that make people’s lives a little bit easier,” he said.
Sipe said progressive policy arguments will win, even in rural areas, if the correct sources of problems are consistently articulated to voters. Otherwise, right-wing narratives and scapegoating will win the day.
“Oftentimes people focus on who they see as taking advantage of the system. But I think when you have a real conversation about who’s taking advantage of the system, you can change their lens,” he said. “It’s not your neighbor who might be getting assistance to pay for food or who has a disability and can’t work who is the source of the problem. It’s the corporation that is not paying any taxes and is raising the cost of goods and making it really hard to survive.”
Sipe continued, “We need to be constantly pivoting away from blaming the folks who have it hard and putting the focus on the folks that are taking advantage of us. I think most people instinctively know what the actual problem is. It’s just not always what they go to first.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.