Candidates offering themselves as alternatives draw crowds in Portland
With two former presidents vying for more time in the White House, candidates positioning themselves as alternatives to mainstream politicians are trying to appeal to Mainers. Visits to Portland this week show they are garnering some attention.
More than 500 people gathered on Thursday at Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal in Portland to hear from independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The next day, about 50 people gathered at the University of Southern Maine to hear from Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
Kennedy and Williamson are not beating out frontrunners former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. But among some populations their appeals are working. Kennedy has an edge with younger voters compared to Biden and Trump, and Williamson has drawn a Gen Z following on social media.
In wide-ranging conversations that covered subjects including gun safety, Israel-Palestine, corporate power, and even the effort to free Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (both candidates said if elected they would drop the case against him), the candidates touched on issues that resonated with the crowds.
Kennedy, Williamson campaigns on taking power back from corporations
Kennedy and Williamson focused much of their speeches in Maine on rebuilding the middle class. In order to do so, they say the government must take power back from corporations and place it into the hands of the people.
Kennedy, the nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, is an environmental lawyer by trade who in recent years has been an outspoken critic of vaccinations and vaccine mandates. He was initially running as a Democrat but last month dropped his bid for the primary to instead run as an independent.
“There’s nobody in this generation who believes that [the American Dream] applies to them,” he said, noting that of his seven kids, only his oldest can afford to own a house despite that the others went to college and have solid jobs.
Between the cost of basic needs, the chronic disease epidemic and credit card debt, Kennedy said everyone feels the American economic system is rigged and working against them. “Because it is,” he said.
Williamson, a self-help author and spiritual guru, made a previous bid for president in 2020 but suspended her campaign a month before the first primary because she did not want to get in the way of a progressive candidate winning. This year, she was the first Democrat to formally challenge Biden for the 2024 nomination.
Her platform also centers on economic issues, specifically the creation of what she calls a “moral economy” through an Economic Bill of Rights, which includes rights to things such as universal healthcare, a living wage, free college, affordable housing and a clean environment.
“It is impossible to overstate the role of economic anxiety in the kinds of social and cultural breakdowns that we are experiencing today,” Williamson said, citing the figure that 70% of Americans say that they are stressed about personal finances.
Williamson also said current struggles, such as war and injustice, are not unique to this generation and that America needs to “toughen up.”
Both of them need signatures to get on ballots and made a strong appeal for support to their Maine audiences. Williamson needs 2,000 signatures from registered Democratic voters in Maine by Nov. 20 to get on the primary ballot in March. Kennedy needs 4,000 signatures to get on the general election ballot in November.
“I can’t do it without your help,” Kennedy said. “I need an army.”
Maine’s independent tradition
University of Southern Maine student Chris Brown, who attended Williamson’s event on Thursday, said that regardless of platform, he wants to see candidates who are apart from mainstream politics have a chance at success.
“Regardless of if you feel connected to their message, it’s disheartening,” Brown said of the likelihood non-mainstream candidates will secure nominations from the two dominant political parties. While a supporter of Williamson, he said it’s also “refreshing to see the success of RFK Jr. being able to make a successful campaign.”
Maine is fertile ground for candidates outside the mainstream. Two independent governors — James B. Longley and now-Sen. Angus King — have been elected to office while other statewide races have prominently featured independent candidates. Roughly one-third of Maine voters are not enrolled in a political party. Though, this does not mean unenrolled voters do not lean Democrat or Republican but more so that they share a distaste for parties.
Although running as a Democrat, Williamson panned the dominant political parties as “huge corporate entities.” When Brown, the USM student, asked if she’d consider running as an independent, she brought up Kennedy — and money.
“Well, Bobby Kennedy has $15 million in the bank,” she said. “His name is Kennedy. He has the ability to go third party.”
Kennedy’s meet-and-greet opened with an introduction from Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos — who was elected four times as a state representative not affiliated with a party. Evangelos said he’s supporting Kennedy because he “sends the right message” to the country, which has an “irrevocably broken” two-party system.
On Wednesday, Kennedy explicitly spoke about finding common ground across the political spectrum.
“I try to focus on the issues, or the values that we all share in common other than focusing on these little issues that keep us all apart,” Kennedy said.
Matt Dillon drove four hours from New York to attend Kennedy’s event in Portland. If he had to pick, he’d say he leans more Republican but also said he regretted voting for Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 riot.
Given that he’s running as an independent, Dillon said he knows his vote for Kennedy will be a “throw-away vote,” but will give Dillon what he sees as a moral victory.
Nick Marold, a Portland resident who plans to volunteer for Williamson’s campaign, said he’s cautious about taking a vote away from whoever ultimately becomes the Democratic nominee, though feels more comfortable casting a vote for Williamson with support for Biden trending down.
“We need someone that’s progressive in the right way,” Marold said, noting that another thing he likes about Williamson is that “she doesn’t fluff it.”
From conversations with his friends, some of whom expressed interest in Nikki Haley, Marold said his overall impression is that “people are running away from Trump and Biden.”
Candidates discuss Lewiston shooting and conflict abroad
Kennedy said mass shootings were “unacceptable” but is more interested in exploring the reasons behind them.
Kennedy claimed the National Institutes of Health has been banned from studying why such tragedies happen, but said he thinks they should be. He was referring to language from a 1996 spending bill barring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from advocating for gun safety that was later extended to NIH. In 2018, new language clarified that the causes of gun violence could be studied, though advocacy was still barred. In 2021, NIH and CDC began awarding grants for gun violence research for the first time in over 20 years.
When asked if the root cause of mass violence is mental health or guns, Williamson said it’s both.
Williamson pointed to lower incidences of mass shootings when there are assault weapon bans, saying that she was glad to see U.S. Rep. Jared Golden change his mind on the policy following the tragedy in his hometown.
However, she also attributed mass violence to American culture, declaring, “We are a violent society,” which in her view goes back to economic policy. “Our food policies are violent. Our environmental policies are violent. Our criminal justice policies are violent,” Williamson said.
Both candidates also brought up foreign policy, notably the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Williamson called for a ceasefire and for Hamas to release Israeli hostages as well as for planning for a two-state solution. Williamson also said leadership in Israel needs to change. “If I were president, I would be making it very clear that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was not my idea of the person to lead.”
Kennedy, who has said the U.S. “must provide Israel with whatever it needs to defend itself,” did not say whether or not he would call for a ceasefire.
As for the ongoing war in Ukraine, both expressed concern about indefinite aid.
Drawing attention to the $113 billion the U.S. committed to Ukraine, Kennedy compared it to funding for domestic agencies. “Just for reference, the entire budget of the [Environmental Protection Agency] is $12 billion,” he said. “That’s all we’ve got for the environment in this country.”
Williamson said she agrees with Biden in the need to support Ukraine, “but I did not agree with his ‘for as long as it takes.’”
Other candidates in the running for 2024 include Republicans Ryan Binkley, Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott, as well as Democrat Dean Phillips. Other third party candidates include Chase Oliver (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), and Cornel West (Independent).