Top photo: Gov. Janet Mills outside the Maine Democratic Convention over the weekend | Photo via Maine Democrats on
Maine Democrats finalized their party platform at a convention over the weekend in Bangor, including some progressive policy principles such as the right to health care, housing, food and reproductive freedom but also drawing the ire of youth advocates who pointed out the party’s failure to pass a bill recognizing the sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes this past legislative session.
The convention comes as Maine — and the rest of the country — is preparing for a pivotal midterm contest in November. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will face a difficult reelection battle against conservative Trump supporter Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden will likely be up against Republican Bruce Poliquin in a race for Maine’s Second Congressional District.
Around the state, legislators will also face reelection in November. Progressives are hoping to gain ground in Augusta but Republicans have their sights set on breaking the Democratic stronghold in the State House.
Against that backdrop, Democrats gathered to set their policy agenda and listen to speeches from party leaders such as Mills, Golden, U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and state Senate President Troy Jackson.
“So much of what we value so deeply is on the ballot,” Mills said in a speech at the convention, Spectrum News reported. “The right to affordable health care, including safe and legal abortion, the right to a great education for every child in Maine regardless of their ZIP code.”
“We won’t go back,” the governor said at multiple points.
Tribal sovereignty a point of contention
One of the most powerful moments of the event, however, took place outside the convention hall, where around two dozen youth leaders held a demonstration Saturday calling for Democrats in Maine to fully support recognizing the sovereignty of the Wabanaki tribes.
Specifically, the youth groups rallied around LD 1626, a bill the legislature considered this session that would have ensured that tribes in Maine are treated like other federally-recognized Indigenous nations around the country. Advocates wrote chalk messages in support of Wabanaki rights and talked with elected officials who were headed into the convention about the importance of the measure.
Despite receiving massive grassroots support, that bill was opposed by Mills throughout the legislative process. And although almost every Democrat in the legislature supported the bill during initial votes, they failed to advance the measure to the governor’s desk after she applied pressure on lawmakers to kill it, likely hoping to avoid a high-profile veto of a bill widely supported by the party’s base.
“Democratic leaders did not respect the tribes nor represent future generations when making the decision to kill LD 1626. We were watching, and we see you,” over 20 youth leaders at the protest said in a joint statement.
In an interview, youth community organizer Luke Sekera-Flanders said young people were there to bring attention and accountability to the death of the tribal sovereignty bill in the Democratic-led legislature and to ask the party to stand in solidarity with the Wabanaki and do everything it can to support Indigenous rights going forward.
“Respecting the inherent sovereign rights of the Wabanaki nations is on the current party platform. LD 1626 was a key step, it was really the only measure to fully recognize tribal sovereignty put forward this session and [Democrats] did not support that as strongly as they could have,” Sekera-Flanders said.
The party platform approved over the weekend states “we must recognize, honor, and uphold the sovereignty and self-governance of all tribes in Maine.”
Democrats in the State House did work with tribes to make some progress this legislative session, approving a bill to address the water crisis at the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Reservation and a measure to allow tribes to run online sports betting markets. But Wabanaki leaders don’t view either of those bills as a full recognition of their sovereignty.
Saturday’s protest outside the convention drew significant attention, as Sekera-Flanders said convention security personnel washed away chalk messages supporting tribal sovereignty. He added that someone inside the hall called the police about the messages and about the protest and young people’s efforts to engage with legislators around LD 1626. He noted the irony of the authorities being notified, given that Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was recently widely mocked for calling police about a chalk message in front of her home in support of abortion rights. Sekera-Flanders said he doesn’t know who specifically within the convention complained to the police.
On Monday, a Maine Democratic Party official told Beacon the party itself did not call the police on the youth activists.
The fate of the sovereignty bill is just one frustration some advocates have with Mills, a conservative Democrat who has vetoed a number of progressive bills, including on issues related to workers rights, public electricity and criminal justice reform.
Still, Mills and Democrats will hope to gain significant support from left-leaning voters in the upcoming election and have repeatedly drawn attention to LePage’s disastrous legacy as governor, during which he made a series of racist comments, slashed the social safety net, ignored dangerous environmental problems and opposed policies to stop harmful treatment of LGBTQ Mainers.
At their convention earlier this month, the Maine GOP doubled down on extreme right-wing policies, such as proclaiming marriage as between only a man and a woman (an unpopular stance with the majority of Mainers), curbing abortion rights, anti-union policies, anti-immigrant proposals, and policies that would make it harder for certain people to vote.
Dems’ platform seeks to protect basic rights under attack
The Maine Democratic Party platform approved at the convention is vastly different from its GOP counterpart. For example, in the wake of a draft Supreme Court opinion taking aim at Roe v. Wade, Maine Democrats reiterated their support of bodily autonomy and reproductive health care.
The platform also includes support for LGBTQ rights, a direct contrast to the stance of the Maine Republican Party and the legacy of LePage, who vetoed a bill to ban conversion therapy that was later signed by Mills.
In addition, Democrats call for adequate health care, housing, education and food for all and argue it is a “moral failure in such a rich and powerful nation that many people do not enjoy such basic human rights.”
In many areas, the platform does not put forward specific policy prescriptions for solving political issues, instead relying on value statements. The platform is non-binding, although it does provide a glimpse into what issues are important to the party.
Maine Democrats also say in their platform that they support equal pay for equal work, a living wage, paid vacation and family and medical leave, and the right to unionize. In addition, they state that too much wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the few and argue for progressive taxation as a remedy. Such values haven’t yet resulted in legislative action, though, as Democrats have had full control in Augusta since 2019 but haven’t reversed LePage-era tax cuts favoring the wealthy and corporations. Mills during her first gubernatorial campaign pledged not to raise taxes, complicating the path for progressive revenue bills in the legislature.
Along with economic rights, the platform spells out the imperative to address the climate crisis, with the party stating that without bold action, “none of our visions for a better world will be achievable.” Environmental policies put forward in the document include reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a rapid shift to green technology and increases in energy efficiency.
The platform also includes support for full funding of public education and “an honest treatment of all subjects, with a curriculum guided by educators, not corrupted by political agendas rooted in prejudice or unhinged from reality,” likely a reference to efforts by conservatives, including the Maine GOP, to censor certain forms of education, such as teachings about race and sex ed.
Criminal justice reform is mentioned in the document as well, with the party stating that the War on Drugs has had racist, unjust consequences and that reforms to the system must emphasize rehabilitation and evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for those with mental health issues and substance use disorder. That section, however, is one of several in which the platform contains differences with Mills’ view. The governor is a former prosecutor who has blocked or opposed a series of criminal justice reforms.
In addition, the Press Herald reported that some specific progressive criminal justice reform measures, such as decriminalizing drugs and sex work and ending mass incarceration and cash bail, were put forward as proposed amendments but not included in the platform. A proposal to support the campaign to replace Central Maine Power and Versant with a consumer-owned utility also failed. Mills has opposed the push for a consumer-owned utility.
The Democratic platform also expresses concern about the increasing hostility toward democracy exhibited by many, such as those in the Republican Party who have trumpeted former President Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and have failed to condemn the attempted January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“American Democracy faces an existential threat. The values and rights espoused in the U.S. Constitution are under attack,” the platform reads. “Maine Democrats are pledged to protect them and to ensure they endure.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Maine Beacon, May 17, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/