By Susan McMillan
TOPSHAM — Democrats in Senate District 19 tonight chose Eloise Vitelli as their candidate to try to hang on to former Sen. Seth Goodall's seat.
Vitelli, of Arrowsic, will face off against Green candidate Daniel Stromgren of Topsham, and the Republican candidate, likely a former senator, at a special election Aug. 27.
The district consists of Sagadahoc County and the Lincoln County town of Dresden. Goodall, a Richmond Democrat, who served as Senate majority leader this year, resigned his seat earlier this month after being appointed as the Northeast director of the federal Small Business Administration by President Barack Obama.
Vitelli defeated Will Neilson, an Arrowsic resident and mostly non-practicing attorney who owns Solo Bistro in Bath and Bath City Councilor David Sinclair, also an attorney.
She won on the first ballot, garnering what Bronwen Tudor, chairwoman of the Sagadahoc County Democratic Committee called "a significant majority" of the 89 votes cast.
Vitelli was nominated by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who said she could hit the ground running in the Senate due to her experience supporting entrepreneurs and helping shape state policy. Berry considered running for the seat before endorsing Vitelli in early July.
She works as director of program and policy development for Women, Work and Community, a statewide group focused improving the standing of women in business and communities. She chaired the Sagadahoc County Democrats from 2004 to 2008.
The candidates named similar policy priorities and decried the inability of the Democratic majority in the Legislature: To expand Medicaid, the federal healthcare program for the poor, raise the state's minimum wage and accomplish other key policy goals.
Vitelli said that although taxes, infrastructure improvements and environmental protection are important, her top three priorities are supporting entrepreneurs, supporting high-quality education for all and health care.
"We need to expand Medicaid and we need to take a more positive role in implementing the Affordable Care Act," she said.
Vitelli said she has worked with governors of both parties and the Legislature to secure funding for Women, Work and Community. She is also a member of the Maine Economic Growth Council.
Neilson, a former Republican, touted his experience in business, law and as a "bridger of differences."
He said people won't spend money on goods and services unless they feel financially secure and that cuts to Maine's social safety net would only worsen the situation.
"I bring firsthand knowledge that the goal of prosperity, which I believe is paramount for government, is not the opposite of the goals of fairness and equality of opportunity that are central to the values of the Democratic Party," he said. "To the contrary, the last five years have conclusively again that if we are to prosper, people need to feel safe."
Sinclair said he was the best candidate to counter the strengths of Paula Benoit of Phippsburg, the only declared Republican candidate, who will likely be nominated at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the American Legion hall in Bath.
Benoit held the seat from 2006 to 2008, when Goodall knocked her off by 162 votes.
Especially with the short timeframe for the election, Sinclair said it would be important for Democrats to have a nominee with name recognition and a record of winning elections and serving constituents in part of the district.
After the results were announced, Vitelli joined upraised hands with Sinclair and said that with strong organization and volunteer support, she can win the race. She plans to run with Clean Elections funding.
According to state data from November, the district has 559 more Democrats than Republicans. More than a third of its voters — more than 11,000 — are unenrolled.
The area also has a history of parity: Benoit beat an incumbent Democrat, Arthur Mayo, by 602 votes in 2006. Mayo was elected as a Republican two years earlier, but he switched his affiliation shortly after being elected.
After Goodall beat Benoit in 2008, he widened his margins in later elections, winning by nearly 1,300 votes in 2010 and nearly 6,000 in 2012.
Benoit's election wouldn't affect Senate control: now, the body has 18 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent. But both Democrats and Republicans have promoted the election as crucial referendum on each party's policies.
"For us at the party, this is about more than Senate District 19," said Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. "Everybody in the state is already looking at us to see how successful we're going to be in 2014."
Susan McMillan — 621-5645
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