Maine News: Dems back progressive reforms in platform but protesters say party fell short on tribal rights / by Evan Popp

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. 

Youth activists outside the Maine Democratic convention on Saturday pushing for tribal sovereignty | Sunlight Media Collective

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 rightspublic 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 commentsslashed the social safety netignored 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

Originally published in the Maine Beacon, May 17, 2022,

Maine News: Progressive legislators not seeking reelection say institutional barriers often prevent change / by Evan Popp

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. 

Some of that was the result of electoral considerations, said Maxmin, who served one term in the House and one term in the Senate before deciding not to run again in 2022.

“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. 

Rep. Thom Harnett (left) speaks with another lawmaker on the floor of the Maine House | Via Facebook

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.

Mills last year vetoed a significant number of progressive priorities, including criminal justice reforms, labor bills, and environmental legislation. 

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. 

Rep. Genevieve McDonald of Stonington | Photo via Facebook

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)

Maine Beacon, May 9, 2022,