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AG Mills Faces Backlash From Maine Tribes and Progressive Groups Over Lawsuit

A.J. Higgins
Maine Public
Janet Mills 2015

An array of progressive groups and two of Maine's Native American tribes are criticizing Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills for joining a Washington State lawsuit over tribal water rights.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month, and its outcome could affect a long standing legal battle in maine over water quality standards in the Penobscot River.

This new criticism coming from progressive activists comes just as Mills is attempting to convince Democrats to support her run for governor.

The letter criticizing Mills is signed by the leaders of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes and more than 20 progressive groups. It accuses her of attacking "tribal fishing rights at home and well beyond Maine,” a reference to the Washington State lawsuit and her office's ongoing legal challenge against federal rules affecting water quality standards in the Penobscot River.

The arguments in the lawsuits are complicated and technical. But for Mills, the lawsuits are now also highly political.

Last summer, Mills attended a rally at Portland City Hall over Russian interference in the 2016 election. She was there to call for an independent investigation, but as she began her remarks, she was quickly met by members of the Penobscot tribe holding signs that read, "Janet Mills promotes environmental racism."

The encounter foreshadowed her current predicament as she balances two roles: one, as a leading candidate for governor; the other, as the state's top legal authority.

As a candidate, she's won the backing of EMILY’s List, a national group that promotes Democratic women running for political office. The group also spends heavily to support these candidates. But the letter attacking her role in the tribal legal cases is also signed by the two women who helped organize last year's massive Maine women's march.

It's also signed by groups that are expected to play a role in mobilizing and influencing Democratic primary voters this June.

Many declined to talk on tape.

But Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group that's advocated for stricter water quality standards in the Penobscot River for decades, said the federal rules opposed by Mills' office -- and the Washington state case -- were important to the tribes and the public for ecological reasons.

“The tribes can't carryout traditional fishing practices unless the water quality is high enough for the fish to be safe to eat," Bennett said. 

NRCM supports the federal rules that Mills' office is challenging in court. Bennett says the federal rules are key to restoring water quality to a point that would allow the tribes, and everyone else, to fish the Atlantic salmon that once swarmed the Penobscot.

He says the same is true in Washington state, where the government is fighting a federal order to spend $2 billion on culvert work to restore the pacific salmon that tribes there once relied on for sustenance.

"In both cases they deal with a fundamental issue of rights tribes have for sustenance fishing," Bennett said.

Mills deferred comment on this story to Assistant Attorney General Jerry Reid, who would not talk on tape.

Reid says the Washington case could affect Maine's challenging of the federal rules.

And from the perspective of the AG's office, enforcement of the federal rules undercuts Indian settlement acts, while forcing Maine to conduct costly cleanup efforts that will likely never restore the Penobscot River to a point where the tribes can actually live off its wild resources.

But for Mills, a successful legal argument may come with a political cost: the tribes themselves may not be a huge constituency but as last year's protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline illustrated, progressive activists are motivated by their plight.

And Mills' rivals know it.

In written statements, attorney Adam Cote and former House Speaker Mark Eves, two candidates expected to challenge Mills' bid for the nomination, both vowed to defend their sovereign rights of indigenous people.

This story was originally published March 14, 2018 at 5:48 p.m. ET.