Top photo: State Sen. Chloe Maxmin (left) and state Rep. Mike Sylvester (right). Photos via Facebook and Beacon archive
As the November 2022 election approaches, some progressive lawmakers are choosing to leave the legislature despite being eligible for another term. While proud of the work they accomplished at the State House, a number of those not seeking reelection say there are institutional barriers to creating significant change in Augusta that have often frustrated them during their time in office.
On the Senate side, Democrats who aren’t seeking reelection include Sens. Chloe Maxmin of Lincoln County, Heather Sanborn of Cumberland County and Ned Claxton of Androscoggin County. On the House side, Democrats such as Reps. Thom Harnett of Gardiner, Mike Sylvester of Portland, Genevieve McDonald of Stonington, Scott Cuddy of Winterport and Sarah Pebworth of Blue Hill are not running again. In addition, progressive independent Jeff Evangelos of Friendship is not seeking reelection.
To get a sense of the reasons behind those decisions, Beacon spoke with some lawmakers about why they are leaving and what reflections they have on their experience at the State House.
November election looming in background
A number of progressives who aren’t returning said they believe lawmakers succeeded this session in passing policies that will make a difference in the lives of Mainers but that there were many missed opportunities to enact more sweeping reforms to address unmet needs in the state, particularly with Democrats in control of both legislative chambers and the Blaine House.
“As Democrats, I think we’re really afraid of losing our seats and I think that leads to a more conversative policy-making approach when in fact it should lead to just the opposite,” she said. “People want to see us stand strong and fight for all the issues that Mainers care about. It’s that fear that drives people toward a more middle-ground compromise, and I think it’s just really unfortunate.”
Maxmin, elected in a rural Lincoln County-based swing district, said one reason she’s leaving the legislature is because she wants to devote more focus to grassroots organizing and movement-building outside of Augusta. She added that after seeing the power of legal analysis in the lawmaking process, she applied to and will be attending the University of Maine School of Law.
In emphasizing her belief in the power of movements to make a difference, Maxmin pointed to the success of a bill that will strengthen the state’s Good Samaritan law, creating more protections from prosecution for those at the scene of an overdose in an effort to encourage people to call authorities for help and save lives. That bill, which Maxmin sponsored, was opposed throughout the process by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. However, a grassroots-led campaign spearheaded by the recovery community succeeded in bringing the governor to the table, resulting in a deal to enact what Maxmin believes will be among the strongest Good Samaritan laws in the country.
Maxmin also succeeded in pushing for the passage of a state-level Green New Deal bill in 2019 in an effort to begin addressing the climate crisis, one of the first such policies in the country to pass in a state legislature.
However, for every success story, Maxmin said there are a number of bills that are significantly weakened during the course of the legislative process.
“I was just thinking how many months of conversation goes into each bill and then each bill inevitably gets watered down somehow and the only thing that can prevent that process is a strong movement that can hold the process accountable,” she said.
Maxmin added that the legislature needs a larger bloc of progressives. There is a group of progressive lawmakers in Augusta, but their numbers proved too small this session to pass bills such as restoring health benefits to immigrants through the state’s Medicaid program and tracking the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons and jails along with preventing some of the state’s historic budget surplus from being used to give checks to wealthier Mainers who don’t necessarily need the funds.
‘Fundamental change’ hard to accomplish in Augusta
Another progressive not seeking reelection is Harnett, who served for two terms and was the chair of the Judiciary Committee this past legislative session.
“I realized I’m kind of impatient,” Harnett said of his reason for leaving. “People would tell me you’re moving the ball forward, you couldn’t get stuff out of committee the first time but then you got it through both chambers. But I didn’t bring about the type of fundamental change that I had hoped to accomplish and I need to figure out is there another way to do that.”
One of Harnett’s primary areas of focus was reforming the state’s farmworker labor laws. As Beacon previously reported, farmworkers across the country were exempted from federal labor protections as part of a push by Southern Democrats to specifically exclude workers who were predominantly people of color from New Deal-era legislation in order to keep them in an economically subservient position.
Pointing to that legacy of racism in Maine’s current laws, Harnett introduced a pair of bills in the 2021 legislative session to expand labor rights to include farmworkers. One of those bills would have made such workers subject to state wage and overtime laws while another would have allowed them to unionize without fear of retaliation.
However, the farmworker bills ran into both a legislative and executive branch buzzsaw. The wage and hour bill was defeated in 2021 when 20 House Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose it. And while the farmworker unionization bill narrowly passed in the legislature, it was vetoed by Mills earlier this year in a decision that advocates blasted as “fundamentally immoral” and “an absolute disgrace.”
That experience speaks to another frustration with serving in the legislature, Harnett said. While there are supposed to be three co-equal branches of government, the executive branch seems to have more power than the other parts of government, he said, a result of the governor’s ability to veto bills that a majority of lawmakers have agreed to.
“I like a lot of the stuff that the governor has done, but her politics don’t align with mine, nor do they have to,” Harnett said of Mills, a conservative Democrat. “That became clear not just on my bills that failed but on other pieces of legislation that friends and colleagues supported. I saw those meet the same end, and that’s frustrating.”
Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment from Beacon.
Despite that struggle, Harnett said he views his time in the legislature as a positive experience overall and is proud of much of the work that lawmakers accomplished during the past session. But he said it’s frustrating that more ambitious bills to create significant change are often ultimately defeated even if they pass both chambers of the legislature by not receiving funding in the governor’s budget or from the powerful Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which doles out leftover money to enact certain bills along with helping craft the overall state spending plan.
“I certainly came into this looking at how we had a Democratic House, Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the Blaine House and I expected that sort of trifecta to result in more of the change I wanted to see,” Harnett said.
Mills’ ‘automatic veto’ difficult to overcome
Sylvester, another retiring lawmaker, also expressed frustration with the governor’s intransigence on a number of progressive priorities. Sylvester, who served three terms and chaired the Labor and Housing Committee, said he is leaving in part to spend more time with his family but also because of the barriers within Maine’s current political landscape that often prevent systemic change.
“The short answer is I couldn’t conceive of a bill that I was interested in putting in or that was a continuation from another legislature that wasn’t an automatic veto,” he said.
The Peaks Island-based lawmaker said he is particularly disappointed with the governor’s current opposition to a landmark bill that would recognize the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki and reset a relationship with the state fraught with paternalism, ensuring that tribes in Maine are treated like other Indigenous nations across the country. While Mills signed other bills supported by the tribes, such as a measure to address the unsafe and deteriorating water system at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation and legislation to allow the tribes exclusive control of online sports betting markets, the governor has staunchly opposed the larger sovereignty effort.
Likely hoping to avoid a high-profile veto sure to infuriate her base — which overwhelmingly supports tribal sovereignty — Mills applied pressure on the legislature to kill the larger measure and not send it to her desk. The legislature has so far declined to take action on the bill, although they may do so May 9 when they gather again to vote on bills vetoed by the governor.
Sylvester said a recent letter from Mills to the tribes and legislative leaders in which she said her opposition to the sovereignty bill was “not personal” but expressed concerns over the impact of the bill essentially served as the governor saying that “her ideas and her objections are more important than the sovereignty of a whole people.”
“The fact that she doesn’t understand the privilege that it takes to say something like that is really one of the major issues going on in state government right now,” he said, noting the legacy of continued systemic racism in the debate over tribal sovereignty.
Given such barriers, Sylvester said he wants to give others a chance to push for change in Augusta.
“My level of frustration is not greater than my level of hope, but they’re pretty darn close,” he said. “And I think it’s time to leave with my sense of humor and a spirit to continue fighting in other ways.”
Legislature must be more accessible
Another progressive leaving Augusta, McDonald — from the town of Stonington on Deer Isle — said while she has enjoyed her time at the State House, it’s simply become too difficult to fulfill her duties as a lawmaker while also working another full-time job and raising children.
McDonald, who has also decided to apply to law school, said she felt she had to prioritize her career outside of Augusta, particularly since the financial compensation lawmakers receive is so low.
As Beacon previously reported, legislators are paid $14,074 for the first year of the two-year session and $9,982 for the second, far less than many state lawmakers around the country. McDonald noted that if legislators are doing their job well, it is a full-time position, cutting into the time they could spend supplementing their State House income.
“There’s something to be said here for paying lawmakers a living wage,” she said. “Certainly that would help. We won’t truly have a representative citizen legislature until more people can afford to serve.”
That argument is borne out in the data, as a significant portion of the Maine Legislature is made up of business owners and retired people, rather than waged workers.
Still, despite those challenges, McDonald said she would encourage other progressives, particularly progressive women and parents, to run for seats in the legislature. She said such voices are crucial in the legislative process and aren’t sufficiently represented right now in the State House.
Reflecting on her two terms in Augusta, McDonald emphasized that she’s proud of much of the work accomplished by the Democratic-led legislature during those years.
“I was able to pass a number of initiatives that were helpful to my district,” she said. “Increasing the availability of harm reduction services and legislation to protect our marine environment and support the sustainability of our fisheries.”
McDonald said she hopes the next wave of progressives will continue to push for change that will benefit Mainers.
“We made some progress,” she said. “I think there’s much more work to be done.”
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.
Maine Beacon, May 9, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/