PORTLAND — Sick of the gridlock in Congress? State Rep. Marty Grohman is right there with you.
“If we want to end partisanship, we can’t keep sending partisans to Congress,” he said during an interview at a busy co-working space on Federal Street. “We’ve got to do something different.”
Grohman is an independent state legislator from Biddeford running for Maine’s 1st District seat In the U.S. House of Representatives. He’s challenging five-term incumbent Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mark Holbrook.
In 2016, Pingree defeated Holbrook, 58 percent to 42 percent. If re-elected, Pingree promises to fight the Trump administration at every turn. If elected, Holbrook says he would fight for the president’s agenda, the Constitution and the Second Amendment.
Grohman, who has been in the state Legislature since 2014, prefers another approach. It’s right there in his campaign slogan, “Fix. Not Fight.”
“I think not having to answer to a party and instead answering to the people of Maine is a big, big difference,” he said.
Grohman is an entrepreneur who built a multimillion-dollar business, sold it, and now works on helping the building-products industry adopt more environmentally sustainable practices.
He hosts a podcast about Maine businesses and promotes opportunities for fellow entrepreneurs across the state. He and his young family live in Biddeford, a mill city seeing a lot of revitalization activity. He also volunteers with addiction-recovery programs and works closely with veterans.
Even his campaign website offers a fresh approach: It’s engaging, easy to read and includes a straightforward video about Grohman’s story and a lighthearted video that encourages voters to join his FixNotFight movement.
How far off track is our political discourse? Grohman offers a telling example from the Maine Legislature. A colleague asked Grohman to reach out to the Department of Labor on behalf of a business in that colleague’s district. No one at the DOL would speak with him, the colleague said, “because he’d been attacking them in the newspaper.”
“I don’t ever (attack anyone personally),” Grohman said. “If we have a policy difference, then we have a policy difference. We’re all trying to make progress. We just have a different idea of what the best approach is. And I don’t make any of that personal.”
So far in the race for Congress, Grohman’s opponents haven’t followed suit.
Soon after Grohman announced he was running as an independent, the chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, Phil Bartlett, released a harshly critical statement.
“(Grohman) wants to go to Washington to work hand-in-hand with Republicans to roll back the minimum wage for working people, hand over tax breaks to the wealthy instead of the middle-class, and support backward policies that would only make it harder for people to put food on the table,” it said. “Congresswoman Pingree continues to make Maine proud, and the last thing Maine needs is to send her opponent to D.C. when he’s already so tragically out of touch with Maine people.”
And from the right, Republican Holbrook calls Grohman “a slippery politician who was a liberal Democrat until about 10 minutes ago,” someone who is just out to advance his career.
“That’s what we’re getting too much of now,” Grohman said. “People are just really sick of these attacks and this partisanship. It’s like each side is primarily interested in making sure the other side doesn’t get a win. That, by definition, means that nothing will happen.”
In keeping with his “Fix. Not Fight.” slogan, Grohman is avoiding personal attacks that often define campaigning. He did cite House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a regular GOP target, but with no trace of the vitriol typically directed at her.
“Congresswoman Pingree votes with Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time,” he said. “And I just don’t think the people of Maine would vote with Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time.”
A storybook rise
Grohman, 50, grew up in western Maine, on a family farm in Carthage. He graduated from Gould Academy in Bethel and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He worked as a chemical engineer until he invented a composite deck material.
In 1999, Grohman launched a manufacturing business called CorrectDeck. It grew to employ 75 people and gross more than $30 million in sales. Ten years after its start, Grohman sold the company to a larger building materials manufacturer, GAF. Today, he works for GAF, focusing on ways to make the industry more environmentally friendly.
He was twice elected to the Maine Legislature as a Democrat, in 2014 and 2016. In 2017, he left the party. According to his website, Grohman has been ranked the most bipartisan member of the Legislature, as well as being named “Legislator of the Year” by the Maine Retail Association and the American Legion.
He received the President’s Award from the Maine Sheriffs Association and was named an honorary life member of the Vietnam Veterans of America. And he’s gathered a following from across the political landscape. Supporters include veterans’ and sportsmen’s groups; prominent Maine GOP names like Gov. Paul LePage; Christie-Lee McNally, former Maine campaign manager for President Trump and former executive director of the Maine Republican Party; and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a friend and classmate at Gould Academy.
Democrats supporting Grohman include former state legislator John Kerry of Saco, Augusta Mayor David Rollins and Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant.
“I’m a get-it-done type who is not in a fringe position on most issues,” Grohman said. “(People) are sick of the professional wrestling aspect of politics we have right now. They’re frustrated, and they want to see a change.
“It’s time for an independent voice in Washington that can work with both sides to get things done. That’s what I’m uniquely positioned to do.”
Q&A with Marty Grohman
Why are you running for Congress as an independent?
Marty Grohman: I’m trying to make a difference. Congress right now is at a standstill. Republicans and Democrats are just going at each other, and Mainers are really suffering for it. I want to change that. What we’re doing isn’t working, and we can’t keep sending partisans to Congress if we want to end partisanship.
What did the Legislature teach you about political parties?
Grohman: I did serve as a member of the Democratic Party for a while. There were times when the party would have a particular position and say, ‘We know this isn’t right for your district, but the caucus needs your vote.’ I just thought, ‘That’s not why I do this. I come to represent the people of Biddeford (not a party).’ Now I can do that same thing for the people of Maine.
I don’t answer to anyone other than the people of Maine. And I’ll do what’s right for the 1st District all the time. I think that’s what makes me different.
How big of a factor was the passage of ranked-choice voting in your decision to run?
Grohman: (Ranked-choice voting) was not a factor in my decision to run. I am passionate about making a difference for Maine. I’m uniquely positioned for this mission I’m on. But I do think that ranked-choice voting makes a big difference in the race. It’s a big factor because it opens up the race for moderates.
Why should voters send you to Washington?
Grohman: Sometimes people will talk about defensive votes or choosing the lesser of two evils. What people are really looking for is somebody who isn’t a partisan. They’re sick of the professional wrestling aspect of politics we have right now. They’re frustrated, and they want to see a change. That’s what I’m uniquely positioned to do.
What are your top three priorities for the district?
Grohman: I’m a member of the Criminal Justice Committee in the Maine Legislature, so that informs a lot how I think about these things. I would say, thematically, there are a lot of things that I want to get done. I’m really passionate about access to healthcare. I’m very passionate about my work in opioid recovery. And as a business founder and owner of a manufacturing company, I’m always really focused on jobs and the economy. So I’ll always want to push on those things.
But I don’t think any of those things can (change) if we don’t break apart this gridlock that we have. I really am blessed. I have a lot of support from people all over the political spectrum. We just announced today that John Kerry (a former Democratic state senator from Saco) endorsed me. So those things are huge and I think that speaks to the passion that people have and how they’re sick of what we’re doing now.
Holbrook is clearly the conservative choice. What’s the difference between a vote for Pingree and a vote for Grohman?
Grohman: No one is telling me how to vote. I’m always listening and learning from the people of Maine, trying to see what the right direction is and how we can move ahead. I think not having to answer to a party and instead answering to the people of Maine is a big, big difference. It’s a very significant difference.
Healthcare and energy costs continue to hamstring families and small business owners. What can you do, if elected, to address these concerns?
Grohman: I’ve got a lot of perspective on this. I started a good-sized company with a 24/7 manufacturing operation. I paid energy bills that were more than my mortgage. I’m committed to working with the business community. I always think that every issue that we want to take on, if it’s healthcare or renewable energy or anything like that, we want to be working in conjunction with successful growing businesses of Maine. We actually reduced our energy use while increasing sales, and I think that those two things can work together and should work together. We don’t ever want to be in opposition to a successful, growing businesses because that’s what makes all the social programs and so forth possible.
I’m a strong supporter of energy efficiency and renewable energy. I like to see industrial projects that can really help lower energy costs for successful, growing companies over the long term. And I think we can really do those kinds of projects that are really out there.
Do you see a government role in financially supporting programs to help get them off the ground?
Grohman: Yes, absolutely. There are instances, in a new technology or something like that, that can reduce costs or improve access – say, to broadband or something like that – for the long term. I think that Mainers really deserve a representative that will work for them full-time across the board, bringing in resources to move the best ideas forward.
I think as an independent, I’ve got a much better opportunity (for success). Sometimes, you’ll hear Congresswoman Pingree say, “Well, I couldn’t get anything done because I was in a minority.” As an independent, I could work with anybody and get things done. I’m not playing for either team.
I’ve been a long-term and a passionate advocate of increased access to healthcare. As an entrepreneur myself, I’ve seen how hard it is to strike out on your own, because healthcare coverage or lack thereof can be a real barrier.
As a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, one of the first things you do is tour all of the county jails. That’s incredibly affecting. There’s a lot of high-potential people sitting in those jails in orange jumpsuits. And about 8 of 10 are there for something related to substance use disorder.
We’ve got to be smarter about investing in those people, helping them get back on their feet and get access to healthcare in order to pursue treatment for their brain disease and substance use disorder.
Even a fiscal conservative point-of-view would be to look at the cost of incarceration at around $50,000 a year, look at the severe workforce shortage and realize that helping people get back on their feet (makes sense).
Immigration is a huge hot-button topic. However, there are many here in Maine who believe that legal immigration can serve as a positive step toward possibly growing our economy. What’s your view on diversifying Maine’s population base through expanded legal immigration opportunities?
Grohman: When we go around visiting with business owners and talking to them about the issues that they’re facing, this is the No. 1 thing that we hear about. We need to start with strong, secure borders. We’ve got to value the magnet for talent that America has become and build a clear, safe legal path to citizenship (for undocumented workers who are here) because we are really crippling our businesses.
We just met with a commercial roofing contractor that could be doing 30 percent more business if they had the talented staff. I think (current immigration policy) is holding back jobs in the economy and we need to need to do more. As an independent, I don’t have any party position. I’m just in the middle finding a solution.
There have been several recent studies that have linked children born into poverty in Maine to our state’s sluggish job growth. By one account, the number of Maine children who are food insecure is now close to 25 percent. What can you do to provide a better foundation for Maine’s next generation?
Grohman: Kids aren’t going to learn when they’re hungry. My wife works (in an elementary school), and my kids are in public school, and we absolutely get a firsthand perspective on this. I’ve worked with the (Biddeford) school department on what they call the summer slide. A lot of children that are food insecure, they eat at school, but they don’t have reliable food sources at home. So we do these food drives and hand out backpacks over the summer that have a five or seven days’ worth of meals in them. It’s a combination of state and private contributions. Things like (ensuring proper nutrition for kids) is critical.