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How the GOP’s battle over public education could affect the Maine race for governor

FILE - Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. A judge in Virginia dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, that sought to declare two books as obscene for children and to restrict their distribution to minors, including by booksellers and libraries. The books in question were “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas.
Rick Bowmer
FILE - Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. A judge in Virginia dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, that sought to declare two books as obscene for children and to restrict their distribution to minors, including by booksellers and libraries. The books in question were “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas.

In this week’s Pulse: The national GOP effort to ban books could come to Maine's gubernatorial race, new life for CMP corridor (or just life support?), and a posthumous endorsement?

A national effort to channel conservative angst over public education curricula could soon become a more prominent and contentious feature in the Maine race for governor.

Next week Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin will attend a fundraiser in Lewiston on behalf of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is seeking a third, nonconsecutive term. While Youngkin is sometimes discussed as a potential presidential candidate, he’s better known for leveraging disenchantment among some parents over the teaching of race and LGBTQ issues in public schools while securing Republicans’ first statewide victory in Virginia in more than a decade last year. His win, considered a potential bellwether for the 36 gubernatorial races this year, was also seen as a blueprint for other GOP candidates.

Youngkin’s focus on public education was aided by widespread school closures because of the pandemic, an issue that frustrated working parents in particular. According to survey data compiled by the Institute of Education Sciences, the percentage of fourth-grade students enrolled in in-person instruction in Virginia during the 2021 school year was among the lowest in the country. (Maine, which largely left decisions up to individual school districts after the early months of the pandemic, was in the middle of the pack.)

Mask and vaccination mandates also played a role. One of Youngkin’s first acts as governor this year was to repeal a statewide mask mandate.

The anger at mandates and school closures also paved the way for a conservative rebellion against race- and LGBTQ-based curricula, a push aided by hard-right activists who accuse schools, and sometimes individual teachers, of indoctrinating kids in liberal views of the country’s history of race relations, sexual orientation and gender identity.

It has also prompted efforts to draft more conservative candidates to local school boards. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a darling in the conservative campaign against “wokeism,” endorsed 30 school board candidates this year even though those races are considered nonpartisan and candidates’ party affiliations aren’t listed on ballots.

DeSantis, as well as Youngkin, have also spawned the proliferation of “parents’ bill of rights” legislation, bills that, on the surface, reassert or strengthen parents’ ability to access and shape school curricula. As of June, there were about 80 such bills introduced in roughly half of the states. The American Legislative Exchange Council, the preferred creator of model legislation for many Republican legislators, is also offering a template.

LePage has suggested several times on the campaign trail that Maine should have its own parents’ bill of rights. His website also references the concept, declaring, “It is time to let the parents decide their child’s future, not educational bureaucrats.”

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political advisor, would not provide additional details, or arrange an interview with the governor to discuss them. In an email response, he said, “We will be going into further detail on this down the road.”

Those details will be important. LePage and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills already have starkly different views of public education. Mills has made state investment in local education a centerpiece of her legislative agenda and recently touted the state finally meeting its statutory obligation to fund 55% of local costs. LePage has expressed a personal preference for private schools and he has drawn criticism for referring to public school teachers “as a dime a dozen.” He also supports lifting the state cap on virtual and publicly funded charter schools.

Overall, Republicans frame the parents’ rights bills as empowering parents to have a greater insight, and say, in the education of their kids. Critics contend the proposals are a Trojan horse designed to stifle and stigmatize teachings about race and LGBTQ issues and, more broadly, undermine public education.

Nevertheless, that’s unlikely to deter the opposition to those topics, or the campaign to deny Mills a second term.

“There's ulterior motives to these so-called bills, and they're not needed,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers in the state and that typically backs Democratic candidates. (Disclosure: Many Maine Public employees are represented by a union affiliated with the MEA.)

Leavitt said parents can view and access curricula through their local school districts and they can be shaped through school board elections.

“We encourage parents to be in communication with the teachers and to be involved in their students’ education,” she said. “Of course, that's how students best succeed, when everybody's supporting them.”

Leavitt’s view that the parents’ rights bills are conduits for a different agenda isn’t unique. DeSantis’ parents’ rights bill was branded by critics as the “don’t say gay” bill because it bans instruction or classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues for kindergarten through third grade, even though sex education in that state was already barred until fifth grade. It also allows parents to sue school districts over curricula they don’t like, a provision some argue could stifle instruction of race or LGBTQ matters because districts don’t have the money for legal battles.

While Republicans are leading the push for parents’ rights bills, some GOP governors have spurned them. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has stumped for LePage twice, this year threatened to veto a parents’ right bill over concerns that it would violate anti-discrimination laws. The proposal included a provision that would have required schools to notify parents if a student participates in a club for LGBTQ students or allies, potentially outing them. The bill never reached Sununu’s desk.

As noted above, LePage’s limits for a parents’ rights bill are unclear. However, the Maine Republican Party this year adopted a platform that banned teaching sexually based material, transgender identity and critical race theory — a collegiate study that has become a catchall phrase for some to describe the teaching of anything related to race. LePage also told the Rotary Club of Bangor earlier this month that he wants to remove what he described as “pornography” from public schools. He didn’t elaborate on what he defines as pornography, but the term often has a sweeping connotation among far-right activists, including those who claimed to author the Maine GOP’s anti-CRT and anti-trans amendment to the party platform.

The debate over such topics is expected to play a role in the gubernatorial campaign. The Maine GOP this summer released an ad attacking Mills over an online kindergarten lesson posted on the state Department of Education website. The video was submitted by a teacher who was attempting to explain the Pride Day holiday and what it means to be transgender. DOE removed the video and a spokesperson for the governor said Mills was not aware of it, but that she agreed with concerns over the age appropriateness of its message.

Overall, the state DOE encourages public school instruction of gender diversity, LGBTQ issues and sexual orientation, but there’s no mandate to do so and decisions about how to do it are largely left to individual school districts.

New life for CMP corridor – or just life support?

This week’s ruling from Maine’s highest court on the controversial CMP transmission line managed to simultaneously deliver a victory, of sorts, to the project’s developers while also giving opponents more time and opportunities to kill the corridor.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine arguably summed it up best by beginning its official reaction with the phrase, “Today’s decision is difficult to interpret but…”

Several days later, a few things are somewhat clearer.

The first is that Central Maine Power and its partners can’t simply fire up the bulldozers and resume construction.

Work stopped on the corridor back in November after Maine voters passed a referendum to block the New England Clean Energy Connect, which will allow Hydro-Quebec to tap into the New England power grid in order to sell renewable energy to Massachusetts.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim followed up that vote by suspending NECEC’s license on Nov. 23rd “unless and until” one of two things happen: either the various lawsuits are finally resolved, or a court grants the developers permission to resume work.

“And I don’t see that suspension being lifted after the Law Court’s decision in this case,” Elizabeth Boepple, an attorney for Say NO to NECEC, said on Thursday. “It hasn’t resolved the question that the commissioner found was sufficient to suspend the license.”

CMP and its partners had already cleared most of the vegetation along the 145-mile corridor route and spent nearly $450 million by the time work halted in November. In its ruling, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court cited those statistics as potential proof that the referendum violated the “constitutionally protected vested rights” of the developers by imposing new requirements on the project after it had been permitted by the state and after so much work had been done.

But the high court didn’t make a final determination on that “vested rights” issue. Instead, it ordered the Business and Consumer Court to figure that out.

Tony Buxton, a veteran energy attorney and lobbyist who represents the Industrial Energy Consumer Group that supports the corridor, said NECEC could ask the court to allow work to resume even as Business Court takes up the case.

In so doing, NECEC would be taking an additional financial gamble (on top of the $450 million already spent) based on what they see as their probability of success in the vested rights case.

“Perhaps it won’t happen, but I would hope that Avangrid would move for injunctive relief arguing that they have a few months that they could get work done,” Buxton said. “And the odds are very high that they will suffer irreparable harm by not being able to use the remainder of the fall at least into the start of winter.”

Time is definitely a consideration here for all sides in this pitched legal and regulatory battle.

The Consumer Court’s review of the case is going to take many months to complete — perhaps a year or longer — as the judge reviews the massive permitting record and considers the various parties’ briefs, counter-briefs and new evidence.

Under the timeline laid out in the contract with Massachusetts, NECEC was supposed to have completed construction by the middle of next year and the transmission line should be operational sometime in 2024.

“Realistically . . . no,” Boepple said when asked if that timeline was still feasible.

The opposition to the corridor is certainly hoping to use these delays as yet another way to defeat it. There’s also a second court case still pending in the Supreme Court about whether NECEC has a valid lease to pass through a mile-long stretch of state-owned lands.

It’s important to point out here as well that, while there has been robust grassroots opposition to the corridor, the referendum campaign was largely funded by competitor energy companies that would lose money if New England grid is suddenly flooded with electricity from Hydro-Quebec.

It is unclear how willing Massachusetts officials will be to push back the deadlines even further because they are tied into the state’s climate goals.

For his part, Buxton suggested that Massachusetts would have to essentially start the regulatory process from scratch – likely adding years to the process – if they dropped NECEC and decided to go with an alternative route.

“This project is half-built or 40% built and it’s probably the fastest way for Massachusetts to get what it needs,” Buxton said.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Re-introducing LePage: The Maine Republican Party released its second ad of the gubernatorial campaign in support of LePage. In a reboot of similar ads during his first two campaigns for governor, the ad offers a biographical look at how LePage survived a difficult childhood (abusive father, homelessness) to become a successful businessman and two-term governor. It ends with the line that “Paul LePage understands the struggles we face and he knows how to turn things around.” LePage’s personal story obviously resonated with voters in 2010 and 2014.
  • Posthumous endorsement? An unusual endorsement appeared this week in The Daily Bulldog, the free online news site covering Franklin County. It was in an obituary for Edward Hobbs, a Wyman Township resident who died last month at the age of 72. After the biographical information on Hobbs — a devoted family man, skilled storyteller and “jack of all trades” — was this line: “In lieu of flowers, please vote for Paul Lepage this election season!” 
  • A headline in the Boston Globe this week: “This was supposed to be the summer Maine tourism returned to normal. Instead, 'this year has been the toughest.'” Maine GOP press release in response to the headline: “It’s a brutal headline for Maine Governor Janet Mills, but it’s no surprise: Janet Mills made this situation far worse.” From the same Globe story (paywalled): “Through the first five months of 2022, Maine had the most robust recovery of tourism in the country, according to US Travel Association data, and spending in June was 6.9 percent ahead of 2019 levels.” The story primarily examines the implications of labor shortages in the service industry. Maine is not unique in experiencing this problem. According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry is still down 750,000 jobs, or about 6% of its workforce nationwide from pre-pandemic levels. 
  • Alaska voters had their first experience with ranked-choice voting this week in a U.S. House race. The Alaska RCV system is different than Maine’s because voters there opted in 2020 to pair it with a primary system in which all candidates from any party vye for the nomination. The top four primary candidates then advance to the general election, and if no candidate obtains a majority after the initial count, the winner is picked by a ranked-choice runoff. Normally, RCV will only be used in general elections, but because this week’s runoff was filling a vacant U.S. House seat, it was used to determine who holds that seat for the next five months. Democrat Mary Peltola won the RCV runoff, but she’ll face the same two opponents, including former governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, in November. 

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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