State Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, is stressing the importance of education and health care as she seeks re-election in Senate District 23, Dresden and Sagadahoc County.
Vitelli described District 23 as a diverse group of communities emblematic of Maine’s history of farming, fishing, and small businesses.
“This region is a microcosm of the state, vibrant small towns and rural areas. There is a lot more we can do to support traditional industries and whatever we can do for more economic development for the state will help this area,” Vitelli said.
Vitelli said she favors Medicaid expansion, as health care is a big issue for her district.
“We need to make sure Medicaid expansion gets enacted fully, so 70,000 people who are currently uninsured have access to health care,” she said.
Vitelli said that during her time in the Senate, she introduced a bill laying the groundwork to control the cost of prescription drugs, describing it as the next step in the state’s efforts to address health care access. The bill, L.D. 1406, passed and became law this spring.
She is looking forward to reviewing the report of the Task Force to Provide Health Care Coverage to All Mainers to see what its recommendations are and what the costs are to implement the recommendations.
“I think it is time we realized people should have access to health care. People shouldn’t have to go bankrupt to pay for health care,” she said.
Vitelli said access to preventive care could reduce health insurance costs.
Vitelli first came to the Legislature in 2013, when she won a special election after Sen. Seth Goodall’s resignation to take a position in the U.S. Small Business Administration.
After a defeat in a three-way race in 2014, Vitelli ran again in 2016 and returned to the Senate.
Vitelli formerly served in public office at the local level, sitting on the Arrowsic Zoning Board of Appeals and putting in 10 years on local school boards, including the RSU 1 Board of Directors.
Vitelli chaired the Sagadahoc County Democratic Committee for four years, recruiting and supporting candidates throughout the region.
Before becoming a senator, she gained familiarity with the Legislature through her work as director of programs and policy development for New Ventures Maine, an organization dedicated to creating an empowering environment for Maine people to define and achieve their career, financial, and small-business goals.
Vitelli spent 38 years with New Ventures Maine, founded by law in 1978 as the Displaced Homemakers program and operated as Women, Work and Community until its 2015 rebranding as New Ventures Maine. She retired in June.
Vitelli spent 20 years on the Maine Economic Growth Council, a nonpartisan group appointed by the governor, senate president, and speaker of the house, of which she was a co-chair.
Vitelli was a member of the Midcoast Economic Development District Board of Directors for two years, helping navigate the agency, active mostly in Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, through a tumultuous period around 2009.
“Lincoln County wanted to withdraw and I wanted to keep it together,” she said. “In order to get better funding help for infrastructure projects, I felt we needed an (economic development district) and fought to keep it together.”
Vitelli said she is proud of her work introducing and advocating for legislation to help Mainers.
She worked to support the Maine Enterprise Option Program, a program created by law that allows people on unemployment insurance to start a small business. She helped run the program for 10 years under the purview of the Maine Department of Labor.
Vitelli said the now-defunct program enabled people on unemployment to focus on starting a business instead of looking for other employment.
She also worked to support the family development accounts program. For those who qualify, the program matches savings toward education or small-business development of up to $1,000 year at a rate of 2:1 or 4:1.
“The idea is so people don’t spend their way out, but save their way out of poverty,” Vitelli said.
Originally from Trenton, N.J., Vitelli grew up in Easton, Penn. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in education counseling from the University of Southern Maine.
She first came to the Midcoast with her parents, who had friends in Damariscotta. She lived in Newcastle for a year before moving to Phippsburg and then Arrowsic, where she built a house with her husband in 1978.
Vitelli is married to Bob Kalish, a former reporter for The Times Record and current columnist for The Coastal Journal.
The couple has two adult sons, Sam and Will, in addition to five chickens and two cats.
Vitelli’s first job in the area was as a teacher with Head Start, where she worked for five years in Waldoboro, Nobleboro, and Brunswick.
She said education is another important issue for her district, and it starts with prekindergarten.
In her first year in the Senate, she helped pass a bill initiated by her predecessor, Goodall, to expand public pre-K.
Vitelli spoke highly of public-private partnerships to ensure more kids have access to pre-K programming, listing the Bath YMCA’s Head Start as an example of such collaboration.
“It’s the biggest bang for your buck in the long haul,” she said.
For older students, Vitelli said she is in favor of creating more vocational schools to teach trades.
Vitelli discussed MaineSpark, an education and workforce initiative powered by schools, universities, nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses, with the goal of getting 60 percent of Mainers to hold education and workforce credentials by 2025.
“It’s not just four-year degrees but two-year degrees and other certifications,” she said.
Regarding the state’s ongoing opioid crisis, Vitelli said the Legislature should allocate adequate funds for prevention, treatment, and law enforcement, voicing support for a state task force’s recommendation of a “hub-and-spoke” model.
“The hub is the treatment center and the spokes are connections to community resources, and the Legislature can reinforce that,” Vitelli said.
On the hikes in the minimum wage, which will reach $12 per hour in 2020, Vitelli said $12 is still below a livable wage in most parts of the state and it is important to keep moving toward that point. She said she understands concerns from small-business owners struggling with the hikes, proposing a tax credit as a way to help.
“I’m interested in looking into other ways we can provide support for our small businesses. Eighty percent in Maine have 20 or fewer employees and those are people we need to support,” she said.
On the topic of retaining graduates and attracting people to Maine, Vitelli said expanding broadband access and ensuring affordable workforce housing is key for individuals starting their careers.
Vitelli sits on the Marine Resources Committee.