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This week in Maine politics: sidewalk chalk and dirt road wars

Abortion rights advocates' messages appeared on the sidewalk outside Susan Collins’ Bangor home on May 10, 2022, after she complained to police and public works washed away messages on May 7, 2022.
Lia Russell
Abortion rights advocates' messages appeared on the sidewalk outside Susan Collins’ Bangor home on May 10, 2022, after she complained to police and public works washed away messages on May 7, 2022.

It was a relatively quiet week in Maine politics, so much so that one of the biggest political stories involved … sidewalk chalk.

The underlying issue here — whether women should have a legal and/or constitutional right to abortions — is of enormous importance to people on all sides of the abortion debate. But the reaction to Sen. Susan Collins’ response to those chalked messages was illustrative of how contentious the debate over abortion rights has been, and will be in November even though Maine’s senior senator isn’t on the ballot.

The incident began last weekend when someone wrote, “Susie, please … Mainers want WHPA – Vote yes, clean up your mess” in multi-colored chalk on the sidewalk in front of Collins’ Bangor home. “WHPA” is short for the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill put forward by Democrats to codify abortion rights in federal law.

The city washed the messages away only to have the sidewalk scrawlers return with more. Collins’ call to police and her description of the messages as “defacement of public property” to the Bangor Daily News made national headlines and put her at the center of yet another social media storm among her vocal critics in Maine.

Liberal commentators, from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to late night host Seth Meyers, joined in, too.

“Terrified Susan Collins calls cops after chalk vigilantes politely ask her to protect women’s rights,” declared the headline of one column in Vanity Fair.

On Tuesday night, Collins’ office put out a statement saying that, “Because Senator Collins periodically gets threatening letters and phone calls, we have been advised by Capitol Police to notify the local police department when there is activity directed at her around her home.”

Collins has received multiple threats that have been investigated by police. One woman was sent to federal prison for mailing a powder-laden letter to Collins’ home in 2018.

Collins’ office provided more recent examples as well. In one, the writer called her a traitor and said “the angel of death is about to visit your house.” And in a voicemail, a man tells Collins he would kill her if she voted “for that Black (expletive)” in reference to newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who Collins supported.

But Collins’ critics weren’t buying the equivalence between those real threats and a sidewalk message that the Bangor Police described in its incident report as “intricately drawn” and in “multiple colors.”

Collins was once viewed by some abortion rights activists as a rare ally (at times, at least) in a Republican Party dominated by anti-abortion politicians.

But any goodwill dissipated after she cast the pivotal vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Kavanaugh was among the five justices who signed onto the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, as supporters predicted he would in 2018.

Deepening that divide, Collins joined all of her Republican colleagues on Wednesday in blocking the Women’s Health Protection Act from coming up for debate in the Senate.

The Maine Republican said she supports codification and has introduced such a bill with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But she said the Democratic bill goes too far by overturning some state-level requirements and potentially forcing Catholic hospitals to perform the procedures. Supporters of the WHPA, meanwhile, say the Collins-Murkowski bill leaves gaping holes that won’t overturn extremely restrictive state laws, including Texas’ ban on abortions after six weeks.

The reality is that neither the WHPA nor the Collins-Murkowski bill have a path around the 60-vote filibuster.

Dirt road wars

State Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, has received a lot of local and national attention for her recent column in the New York Times that asserts Democrats have “willfully abandoned” rural communities.

The column, a prelude to Maxmin’s book, “Dirt Road Revival,” has landed Maxmin appearances on FOX News and Bill Maher.

It also landed her in the Maine Dem doghouse, particularly among activists who helped her win a state Senate seat two years ago.

Julia Brown was a key player in that victory. Brown formerly ran the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, a spinoff of the Democratic party focusing on state Senate elections. Maxmin doesn’t name Brown in her column, but she asserts that the MSDCC told her campaign in 2019 “that it didn’t believe in talking to Republicans.”

“That blinkered strategy is holding the party back,” Maxmin and co-author Canyon Woodward wrote. “When Democrats talk only to their own supporters, they see but a small fraction of the changes roiling this country. Since 2008, residents of small towns have fallen behind cities on many major economic benchmarks, and they watched helplessly as more and more power and wealth were consolidated in cities. We saw up close the loss, hopelessness and frustration that reality has instilled.”

The claim was irresistible to FOX News, where TV personalities often espouse a cruder variation of the assertion that Democrats don’t care about “real America.”

Brown saw the connection, tweeted about it and eventually posted a lengthy response to Maxmin’s thesis on Medium, noting that Maxmin’s victory in rural Lincoln County wasn’t as pioneering as some were led to believe. After all, Maine is a rural state and Democrats don’t have majorities in Legislature just because they happen to dominate Portland and are competitive in the suburbs (See: Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash).

“Over the last three campaign cycles, State Senate candidates and their teams have knocked over 300,000 doors,” Brown wrote. “More than half of these conversations were with Republican and Independent voters. It’s why I’m so offended by claims that Senate Democrats do not talk with Republicans — it is a flat out lie. In fact, how Senate Democrats talk to voters has been vital to our success cycle after cycle.”

Brown doled out several other critiques, including that Maxmin could campaign the way she did because she can afford to.

But the intranacine tit-for-tat obscured a larger point: Maxmin wasn’t the only Democrat who won Senate District 13 in 2020. President Joe Biden carried an overwhelming majority of those towns, as did Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. In several towns Biden and Pingree received a greater share of votes than Maxmin did.

Additionally, Maxmin — who critics concede worked extremely hard in 2020 — also benefited from groups that can spend unlimited money to influence legislative contests. In 2020, Senate District 13 was one of the top targets for such spending, drawing nearly $270,000. More than 73% of that spending was designed to bolster Maxmin or attack her Republican opponent, former GOP Senate leader Dana Dow.

Semi-open primaries

Maxmin can take credit for a new law that will eventually allow Maine’s independent voters to cast ballots in party primaries.

Maxmin sponsored the bill, which passed last year, but wasn’t funded until the second regular session of this year. Gov. Janet Mills allowed it to become law without her signature.

Under current law, unenrolled voters can vote in a party primary, but only after they enroll in one of those parties and remain enrolled for at least three months.

The new law implements what’s known as a semi-open primary system, allowing unenrolled voters to vote in one of the party primaries without having to register with that party.

June 14 is the next primary election, but the new law will not go into effect until 2024.

Dem convention

The Maine Democratic Party began its state convention this week.

The event is held every two years, but the pandemic wrecked the traditional in-person gathering in 2020.

The Democrats’ in-person activities will be held at the Cross Center in Bangor with scheduled speeches and rallies ramping up on Friday evening and ending Saturday afternoon.

A full schedule of the speakers and estimated times of their addresses can be found here.

Mills goes 5-for-5 on vetoes

As mentioned at the top, the Legislature wrapped up its 2022 session on Monday.

Gov. Janet Mills successfully blocked five bills from becoming law after supporters failed to secure the two-thirds majorities needed to overturn her vetoes. Those bills dealt with bail and probation requirements, non-essential electricity corridors, tax credits for the forest products industry, membership of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, and tweaks to Maine’s new earned paid leave law.

Tribal sovereignty bill quietly dies

One bill that didn’t come up was the tribal sovereignty measure, despite a last-ditch attempt.

The bill, LD 1626, would have overhauled the 42-year-old legal agreement between the state and the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. Tribal leaders said the bill — which dealt with taxation, criminal justice, land use, natural resource management and other issues — was about the state recognizing their communities’ inherent sovereignty.

It received initial approval in the House and Senate but faced an all-but-inevitable veto from Mills, who warned it could create more problems and legal wrangling instead of less. Rather than cause a politically embarrassing confrontation during an election year, Democrats in the Legislature opted not to force Mills’ hand by sending it to her desk.

Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who has been a vocal supporter of the sovereignty push, tried one last time to put the bill on the Senate floor for a final vote. But that effort failed, so the bill was among hundreds that died a quiet death as the Legislature adjourned for the year.

Mills and tribal leaders have vowed to continue discussing the issues.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.