By Zachary Guiod
When I first got the idea to interview a candidate for the U.S. Senate, I was doubtful I’d even get a reply. But the day after I emailed him, Zak Ringelstein responded to me personally, and we set up a time for an interview the following week. I met him at his campaign headquarters on Congress Street, a hotspot of highly caffeinated activity on a Tuesday afternoon.
Ringelstein is running against sitting independent Angus King and Republican
challenger Eric Brakey. Despite his party affiliation, his policies set him apart from traditional Democrats.
Similar to progressive politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders and congressman Beto O’Rourke, Ringelstein takes no money from corporate PACs. His campaign messaging centers on a single issue: “Get money out of politics.” I asked him how he planned to do this. He emphasized the necessity of overturning Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court decision holding that political spending is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. But, acknowledging that this would be “complicated,” he suggests other ways of improving our democratic process: limiting gerrymandering and imposing congressional term limits. He mentions a recently introduced bill that would “give every single American the opportunity to donate $50 to a campaign.” He considers this a small step in the right direction.
The upcoming Maine election will be the first in history to use ranked-choice voting to decide a Senate race. Ringelstein calls ranked-choice “a really great reform.” He elaborates: “This is the first U.S. Senate race in the history of America where you don’t have to worry about a spoiler effect. And what that means is that we get out of this two-party-system mentality. Instead of thinking about, ‘Oh, I have to vote the lesser of two evils,’ I can vote for my hopes.’”
He has encouraged his supporters to rank Angus King second. “Angus is a pretty good guy,” he says. “I like him. But he’s not going to save us from this crisis right now.”
The crisis Ringelstein is referring to is climate change, a critical — and personal — issue for him. “We don’t have time,” he says. “The message of our campaign is there is no time.” Ringelstein is the father of two young kids, Zion and Jack. “In 20 years when they’re just becoming adults,” he says, “it’s very clear that if we stay on this path, they’re not going to be living in a safe world.”
His proposed Green New Deal, as described on his website, would include “Divesting from fossil fuels and transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2035, all the while creating new renewable energy industries and high-wage jobs here in Maine.”
Ringelstein’s strategy sharply distinguishes him from Senator King, who, Ringelstein notes, “takes money from Exxon Mobil and recently introduced a bill to fast-track pipelines through our state.” Last week, Senator King addressed a natural-gas industry conference and spoke enthusiastically about the fuel: “Natural gas is at the forefront of an energy revolution and energy transformation in this country.” A recent tweet by @RingelsteinME called the senator out for his position. “While Angus King is promoting fracking and natural gas, I’m fighting for 100% renewable energy. The planet does not have another second to waste on dirty energy!”
Ringelstein recently joined the Democratic Socialists of America, a move that sets him apart from most Democrats. He says the group’s progressive platform is the reason he joined. “The Democratic Socialists stand for Medicare for all, they stand for raising teacher salaries, they stand for giving workers more power, they stand for saving our planet through a ‘Green New Deal.’” The Issues page on his website includes plans to “Reduce income inequality” and “Make the rich pay their fair share of taxes,” but says nothing about the abolition of capitalism.
Ringelstein shows again that he is far from your average Democrat when we discussed the recent increase in military spending — which 40 Senate Democrats and Angus King voted for.
“What was so disturbing about the $82 billion they added to that budget was that it wasn’t talked about. I didn’t see it on NBC, I didn’t see it on CBS, I didn’t see it on ABC, I didn’t see it on MSNBC, I didn’t see it on Fox News. It is not a talking point. With all that’s going on, adding $82 billion to the military budget is a big deal — it’s the biggest military budget since the Iraq War. Angus King and Susan Collins both voted for that. And I always remind people that for $82 billion we could have tuition-free public colleges.”
As he brought up tuition-free college, I asked what he would do to help the 44 million Americans who collectively hold $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt. “I think I’m the only candidate who’s talking about total loan forgiveness,” he tells me. “It sounds crazy, but we spent $1.9 trillion giving a bunch of money to the ultra wealthy through the tax bill.” He goes on to say that Millennials are buying homes, starting business, and investing in the stock market at lower rates than the previous generation. “The reality is that if they didn’t have the burden of student debt, they would actually have a shot at living the American dream.”
He then brings up ways that people could serve our country to help pay back their student loan debt. “I want to propose different ways to serve our country domestically. Meaning like in our national parks, as teachers, as nurses, in different capacities that will also have loan forgiveness components.”
Ringelstein supports a federal jobs guarantee — an idea that has been slowly gaining steam in the Democratic party. “Instead of having an unemployment office, we have an employment office.” He explains that a “jobs-for-all” program will set a standard of wages and benefits that the private sector will have to compete with. “That’s really powerful considering the degradation of unions in the past 50 years or so. Union jobs used to be that standard, that bar, and now there isn’t much of a bar at all and that’s one of the reasons we have poverty wages. And I think that’s criminal.”
As a former public school teacher, Ringelstein supports several policies to improve public education in America. He believes that students have to deal with far too many standardized tests; wants to see higher teacher salaries and lower class sizes; and supports a federal minimum teacher salary of $60,000, with any pay increases left up to individual states.
In June, Ringelstein went to McAllen, Texas, to bring supplies to children who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. He was arrested on a charge of criminal trespass and spent a night in jail. The experience was “really intense and showed me just how bad this problem is. I always say we go to war with other countries for less human rights violations.”
If elected in November, Ringelstein will be the youngest serving senator at 32 years old, which is close to half the age of the average senator today (61.8 years). When asked about the pros and cons of that, he says, “I think it’s all an advantage. It’s our future, we need to start to own our future and that’s part of this campaign.”
He doesn’t plan on being a senator for that long. “Twelve years is long enough. And I will stand by that — unlike Susan Collins, who didn’t stand by her commitment.” He believes that career politicians are part of the problem with our current political system. “They stay in office too long, it gets comfy, and they learn to play the game.”
As the interview approached its conclusion, I felt it was important to ask about foreign policy, particularly our government’s close ties to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government had recently assassinated a journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and killed 40 children in a school bus as part of their ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen. When asked if we should continue to be so close to a monarchy that does such horrific things, Ringelstein replied instantly, “No, absolutely not. This is something I have taken issue with Angus King over, because Angus King takes money from Raytheon. The shells that were found from the bomb that killed those children was a Raytheon bomb.”
Every election, people say, “This is the most important election of our lifetime!” But this time it really could be true. Our country is facing serious issues such as economic inequality, climate change and political corruption. Regardless of who you plan to vote for, show up to the polls on Nov. 6 to participate in the first ever ranked-choice election in U.S. Senate history.
For those interested, the Maine rapper Spose is performing a free concert on Oct. 27 to get the vote out for Ringelstein. It is at Fort Allen Park, from 3 to 5 p.m.