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Gov. Mills, Democratic leaders rally party faithful with vows of ‘We won’t go back’

Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills walks among abortion rights supporters outside of the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday after her speech to the Democratic state convention was cut short by a fire alarm at the facility. Mills then addressed the abortion rally, vowing not to allow a rollback of abortion laws in Maine as long as she is governor.

In an election year when many pundits predict Republicans will have a political advantage, Maine Democrats said they are both energized and well-positioned to retain control of the governor's mansion and the Legislature.

That was a central theme over the weekend as hundreds of Democratic activists and party leaders gathered in Bangor for the state party convention.

"And I say, bring it on,” said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, in a message aimed at so-called “talking heads” who he claimed have all but declared the November elections for Republicans.

A fifth-generation logger from the northernmost corner of Maine, Jackson is known for his more progressive politics, his support for unions and for his ability to deliver an impassioned speech. He accused Republican politicians of being more beholden to corporate interests and wealthy individuals than to regular, working Mainers. But he also acknowledged that Democrats have their work cut for them this year.

"So instead of burying our heads in the sand or writing off our opponents, it's time to dig in, buckle down and get to work,” Jackson told several hundred delegates gathered at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. “The stakes could not be higher."

Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, addressed participants in the Maine Democratic state convention on Saturday in Bangor.

Democrats are on the defensive as they seek to hold onto majorities in both the Maine Legislature and Congress while polls show many Americans increasingly concerned about rampant inflation and record-high energy prices. The gathering of Democratic faithful in Bangor came two weeks after Republicans held their own state convention in Augusta.

While the Republican convention was all in-person, Democrats opted for a hybrid event in which delegates could choose to attend or Zoom in remotely. Everyone who came to the Cross Insurance Center was required to wear a mask and be fully vaccinated in light of rapidly rising COVID cases in Maine, while masks were exceedingly rare at the GOP gathering in Augusta.

And there were major differences in tone.

Republicans and former Gov. Paul LePage, who is seeking a third non-consecutive term in the Blaine House, talked about out-of-control government spending, draconian COVID-19 lockdowns and progressive policies that were harming businesses and people. They blamed Democrats for inflation. And in his speech, LePage pledged to eliminate the income tax and sought to link Mills to Democratic President Joe Biden.

Delivering the keynote address on Saturday to Democrats, Mills repeated a refrain of “We won’t go back” aimed squarely at LePage and what she portrayed as the divisive politics of the former governor and former President Trump.

Mills, who is the first woman elected governor in Maine, said her administration expanded Medicaid, made drug overdose reversal drugs more widely available and adopted policies to grow the clean energy sector and address climate change. Seeking to differentiate her administration from her predecessor’s, Mills also said she filled public health positions left vacant by LePage, invested in both K-12 and higher education, and is helping Maine families cope with inflation by sending $850 direct checks to most taxpayers.

"Bipartisan success is not something we saw much of under Paul LePage,” Mills said. “But the days of partisan rancor and gridlock are over. The days of my way or the highway rule, of vitriol animosity and hatred are past. We will not be divided. We won't go back."

But another theme throughout Saturday's convention was abortion. Mills told delegates and abortion rights supporters rallying outside that she would not allow any rollback of women's access to abortion in Maine as long as she is governor even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling this summer, as expected.

And Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who is seeking an eighth term representing Maine's 1st Congressional District, told convention goers that Republicans will try to push beyond Roe v. Wade in Congress and at the state level.

"This is a very dangerous time,” Pingree said. “I think we all know that. And I think we are all very concerned that they are not going to stop here. They are going to take on birth control, they are going to take on invitro fertilization, they are going to take on gay marriage. There will be no end to the damage they do our country. And the only way to fight it is in Congress and our state legislatures."

Republicans responded by calling the Democrats' smaller hybrid convention "sleepy" and by accusing Democrats of focusing on abortion as they ignored how the rising costs of gas, groceries and other necessities are hurting Mainers. When Republican leaders held a press conference outside of the convention center, a small group of Democrats tried to drown them out with chants of "We won't go back" and surrounded them with pro-Mills or anti-LePage signs.

“Maine Republicans are focused on what Maine voters are worried about: costs, costs, costs,” said Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party. “We just hit record gas and diesel prices. Food prices are out of control. Shelves are bare and mothers are desperately searching for baby formula. Let’s be clear: this mess didn’t happen by accident. Augusta and DC Democrats have failed. Mainers need to hold Janet Mills, Jared Golden, Chellie Pingree, and Democrats in the legislature accountable. They are responsible for the direction of this state and country. They have failed."

The Republicans pressed on despite the disruptions, however. Immediately afterward, Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage told reporters: "I hope you all saw what happened. We were here to talk about the problems that Maine face and we got abortion chants and disruption because the other side does not want to talk about the issues that people are facing."

Republicans weren't the only ones who were disrupted, however. Mills had to hastily wrap up her speech as she was building to her finale because monster trucks performing on the other side of the arena apparently set off the building's fire alarms, forcing a mass evacuation.