Knox County’s District 12 may be home to one of a few state Senate races that will determine control of the upper house of the Maine Legislature this November, experts say. Though still in its early stages, it’s already shaping up to be very competitive one.

Former state rep and Knox County commissioner Pinny Beebe-Center, a Democrat, faces off against Rockport businessman Scott Rocknak, a Republican. What makes the race interesting is that the candidates couldn’t be more different. But each touts experience as the key reason you should vote for her or him.

Beebe-Center worked as a teacher and with community service organizations before getting elected to the County Commission and then serving three terms in the Maine House for District 93 (South Rockland). Her work with restorative justice programs strikes me as particularly useful as it speaks to her concern for under-served groups.

But if the coming election is going to be about change, six years in Augusta may actually be a handicap. That is unlikely to be the kind of experience frustrated voters will be looking for, if indeed they disagree that the party currently in power is really making their lives better.

“We need more business-like thinking in Augusta today. The past few years have shown that quite clearly. The decision-making skills you hone in business are about making complicated things work, and that is what I bring to the table,” Rocknak said recently in summarizing what he offers.

His background is not only running a family business — a Rockport-based boat brokerage — but also in the Merchant Marine and with disaster relief agencies in the U.S. and globally. He’s a multi-tasker who focuses on results, his website suggests.

Though he’s worked in Washington, D.C., Rocknak doesn’t sound like a politician. I met him recently for coffee in Rockland, and found him to be intellectually curious, and sincere. It was tough to tell who was interviewing whom.

“We need to ask more questions across about what we’re doing across a number of fronts,” he said, troubled by what he sees as a recent culture of acquiescence in Augusta.

It was the COVID lockdowns of two years ago that got Rocknak more focused on politics. He asks whether the massive disruptions to Mainers’ lives and livelihoods were indeed necessary.

Similarly, he is worried about the new challenges that fisherman and farmers confront in the district, and across the state. Now is the time for urgent action to help these iconic Maine enterprises survive, he believes. Recent court decisions burdening lobstermen with more costly gear requirements and limiting where they can fish highlights his point.

“I’m voting for Scott because he’s a businessman who has worked hard to be successful and because he looked me in the eye when I met him,” a woodsman in Hope told me. When I asked a shop owner in Rockland where he was leaning, he simply said “this year, I’m voting Republican.”

Though Rocknak calls for toning down the polarization that has made politics in our country angrier and more divisive than at any point in recent memory, partisanship will certainly play a role in this race. A woman in Rockport told me she’ll vote for Beebe-Center because “she’s a Democrat and a woman, simple as that.”

The demographics of the district have changed and now Camden and Rockland dominate the rest of the county, a veteran local politician told me, adding that this favors the Democrat. Yet this implies straight-ticket voting in a year where Gov. Janet Mills will either be reelected or defeated by her predecessor, Paul LePage.

Could a Mills voter conclude the current governor deserves a second term, but not with a blank check? Stranger things have happened.

“Scott listens to people, and really hears what they have to say, that is why he’ll win,” a Rockland city councilor told me. “Many people here reject voting simply on party lines. Maine voters pride themselves on electing representatives based on independent thought.”

She makes a good point, and that alone gives Rocknak a fighting chance in this race, no matter what the demographics may be.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox
County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.