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Why Maine politicians are brandishing their lobster bona fides

A lobster fisherman hauls a trap, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, off of Kennebunkport, Maine. The conservation group, Seafood Watch, has added lobster to its "red list" as a species to avoid. They say current management measures do not do enough to prevent entanglements of fishing gear with whales.
Robert F. Bukaty
A lobster fisherman hauls a trap, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, off of Kennebunkport, Maine. The conservation group, Seafood Watch, has added lobster to its "red list" as a species to avoid. They say current management measures do not do enough to prevent entanglements of fishing gear with whales.

In this week’s Pulse: Maine pols unite over lobster "red listing," channeling book-ban fever, GOP candidates decline to answer BDN survey questions, swamped election officials, and a few programming notes.

Every few months, news outlets around the country pick up stories about Maine fishermen hauling in extremely rare blue, yellow, white or even bi-colored lobster.

Just as rare here is the anti-lobster politician, although recent campaign rhetoric would have you believe they’re in our midst and working to undercut a signature industry facing regulatory and political threats. And that’s led politicians running for reelection this year to redouble their stated loyalty to lobster.

“Like everyone in the state of Maine, like all four members of the congressional delegation, I am livid at this unwise decision,” Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said last week in denouncing the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “red listing” of Maine lobsteron its influential Seafood Watch list.

Echoing Sen. Angus King’s dismissal of the aquarium as a “fish zoo,” Mills said the designation wouldn’t protect endangered North Atlantic right whales but would merely “insult thousands of hardworking lobstermen who risk their lives to put food on the table and practice responsible stewardship.”

Like coal in West Virginia or corn in Iowa, the lobster industry is an economic and political powerhouse in Maine.

Although there are only about 6,000 licensed commercial lobstermen in Maine, the $725 million worth of crustaceans they pulled in last year make theirs the most valuable single fishery in the nation. Factor in the estimated $1 billion spent on bait and gear, plus the countless lobster rolls and dinners served up by the state’s $3 billion restaurant industry, and the industry’s economic impact quickly adds up.

So it’s not surprising that Maine’s elected leaders would rush to the defense of the industry while blaming ship strikes and lesser-regulated Canadian fisheries for the recent spate of whale deaths. Biologists and whale advocates have, in response, often felt ignored in Maine. They point out that only a fraction of the rope and gear found wrapped around or embedded in whales can be traced back to any specific fishery.

But the industry is bracing for additional restrictions. And Republicans, sensing a political liability across the aisle, have been accusing Mills and other Democrats of undermining lobstermen.

"Maine Democrats, including Janet Mills, took dirty anti-lobster campaign contributions and support — and now they’re crying crocodile tears,” Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine GOP, said in a statement last week. “The Democrats’ lefty environmental groups are the only reason our iconic lobster industry is in this mess. The anti-lobster crowd spent more than $1 million getting Janet Mills elected in 2018, and she has never disavowed their support or returned any money.”

A little context could be useful here.

Those “lefty environmental groups” include Maine Conservation Voters and the national League of Conservation Voters that helps fund the state affiliate. MCV endorsed Mills in 2018 and helped raise money for her campaign.

But it’s a major stretch to describe those groups, and particularly Maine Conservation Voters, as “anti-lobster” given their focus on a broad range of environmental issues. MCV, for instance, has not supported the additional restrictions on lobstermen and has not included votes on any lobster-related bills in their annual legislative “scorecards” of state lawmakers during the past decade. In fact, the group is a vocal advocate for funding the Land for Maine’s Future program, which has protected more than two dozen commercial working waterfront sites used by the fishing industry.

The national group fired back at what it called “a bad faith attack” from Republicans.

“The League of Conservation Voters is not pushing for lobstering restrictions and has absolutely no involvement in the recent red-listing of Maine lobster by the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” said senior director of government affairs Matthew Davis. “Even more importantly, our state affiliate, Maine Conservation Voters, has been extremely clear that they have never supported – and will never support – the proposed right whale regulations that would harm Maine’s iconic lobster industry.”

The Maine GOP did correctly point out that the League of Conservation Voters’ 2019 congressional scorecard included an attempt by Maine Rep. Jared Golden, D-District 2, to block federal regulators from imposing new gear restrictions on lobstermen.

LCV opposed the amendment, which failed on the House floor. And both Golden and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, received demerits from LCV for their votes in support of the measure.

All that said, Mills has undoubtedly received support – political and financial – from environmental groups that the lobster industry regards as hostile to their interests.

For example: the Natural Resources Defense Council has been trying to get the Marine Stewardship Council to rescind its certification of Gulf of Maine lobster as sustainable because it views the fishery as a dire threat to the survival of endangered right whales.

NRDC’s political arm, in collaboration with the League of Conservation Voters, is also helping raise money for Mills through the groups’ Give Green online portal. Curiously, that’s despite the fact that Mills is not among the seven gubernatorial candidates (all Democrats) endorsed by NRDC this year.

Those dynamics have given Republicans an opening during an election year when fishing interests claim ever-tightening federal regulations could make lobstermen an endangered species.

“Janet Mills is once again promoting her endorsement in this campaign from a wealthy, out of state, liberal special interest group determined to shut down Maine’s lobster industry,” LePage said following the Seafood Watch’s red-listing of Maine lobster. “She says she will fight for our lobster industry but then time and again works both sides.”

Asked about the Maine GOP attacks last week, Mills said she had no association with the groups behind the right whale lawsuit.

“We are united in saving the Maine lobster industry for all good objective reasons,” Mills said. “This isn’t about politics and no politician should be interfering and saying this is a Republican thing or a Democratic or an independent thing. This is a unified front here.”

Channeling book-ban fever

Deciding what books belong in public school libraries is largely a local decision in Maine, but a national conservative group with ties to another that opposed same-sex marriage is trying to connect those debates to Gov. Janet Mills, as well as other Democratic governors.

Last week the American Principles Project launched its opening salvo in a multimillion dollar, multistate campaign to target LGBTQ instruction in schools. The group is operating here under the political action committee Maine Families First, but it’s effectively controlled by APP, a national group that plans to spend $10 million in several states.

Exactly how much money APP will devote to Maine is unclear, but its efforts here so far suggest its messaging will get noticed, at the very least.

Its early $100,000 texting campaign here mirrors an effort in Michigan targeting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The texts link to ads that highlight sexually explicit scenes in the award-winning graphic novel “Gender Queer,” a memoir that explores the author’s journey with gender identity and sexuality. The book was recommended by the American Library Association, which is one of the reasons it’s available in public libraries across the country. But a conservative backlash to teachings about race and LGBTQ issues in public schools has made the illustrated “Gender Queer” a uniquely convenient target. It’s now one of the most banned books in the U.S. and at a time when banning books has skyrocketed because of political pressure and campaigns.

While governors don’t determine what books are in school or public libraries, APP asserts that Mills “wants this kind of literature in your schools” because a link to the American Library Association’s list of recommended LGBTQ books appears on the Maine Department of Education website.

The effectiveness of APP’s campaign against Mills is to be determined, as is its planned spending. But APP president Terry Schilling believes these attacks are a game-changer for Republicans, who are already running campaigns that attempt to tap angst over public education. Former Gov. Paul LePage is among them, and like other Republicans, he’s pitching a parents’ bill of rights. LePage hasn’t released any details about his rights bill, but iterations in other states have been quite controversial, leading critics to frame them as squashing instruction of race and LGBTQ issues and part of a broader attack on public education.

Meanwhile, others worry about the effect the rhetoric will have on literature written by, and for, marginalized people.

PEN America, which advocates for free expression in literature, tracked book bans in 26 states and 86 school districts over a recent nine-month period. It also found that more than 40% of the bans or restrictions stemmed from political pressure, specifically in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. With 713 bans in 16 school districts, the Lone Star state is the most prolific book banner in the U.S.

Mills, for her part, indicated this week that she has no plans to use her office to get involved in regulating school or public libraries, saying in a statement that “Maine parents do not want a governor interfering” in local decisions about what “should or shouldn’t be in their kids’ classroom.”

Leave blank if unsure

Three dozen Republican state House candidates refused to participate in a candidate survey by the Bangor Daily News, the newspaper reported this week.

The candidates sent the paper a letter saying the survey included multiple-choice “gotcha” questions that they believe were “designed to frame Republicans in a

bad light and influence the election.” They also described the paper as “becoming essentially nothing more than a mouthpiece for the far-left Democrat agenda.”

As it happens, the lawmakers had specific concerns with two questions that many Republicans across the country are not comfortable answering. According to the BDN, the questions had to do with election security and abortion.

“One asks candidates whether abortions should be easier or harder to get, or whether no changes in state abortion law should be considered,” the BDN reported. “The second asks whether Maine’s voting system is safe and secure, with “yes” and “no” as options alongside an open “other” answer.”

The paper acknowledged that those questions forced candidates to make a choice, but it also noted that the survey also provided an opportunity for open-ended answers on the same questions, “allowing candidates to expound on their ideas.”

In their letter to the paper, the lawmakers said they encouraged voters “to engage directly with their Republican candidates for the Maine House to get their unfiltered views on the issues.”

According to the BDN, the newspaper made it clear in its instructions to candidates “that their responses would be published verbatim.”

Status of election officials: swamped

Last week Maine Public reported how Trump activists who still believe that the former president won the 2020 election are threatening litigation and sending records requests to election officials in multiple states, including Maine.

Since then there have been several national reports detailing how widespread these record requests have been.

The Washington Post reported that two dozen state election officials have been affected by the deluge of requests, while “scores” of local clerks are inundated, too. The Post also noted how some of the people making records requests aren’t quite sure what they’re asking for, or even if the officials have it, a likely byproduct of a social media campaign that generated form letters for Trump supporters to use, but might not be applicable in every state, town or county (For example, requests sent to Maine make mention of “parishes,” which the state does not use in designating voting districts or polling places.).

“In Wisconsin, one recent request asks for 34 different types of documents. In North Carolina, hundreds of requests came in at state and local offices on one day alone,” the Post reported. “In Kentucky, officials don’t recognize the technical-sounding documents they’re being asked to produce — and when they seek clarification, the requesters say they don’t know, either.”

Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on elections and voting, homed in on a commonality of the requests: the vote cast record. Votebeat published a helpful breakdown of what the vote cast record is and why it’s unlikely to be useful to anyone trying to prove there was widespread election fraud.

Many of the officials who commented in these reports echoed statements Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows made to Maine Public last week. Bellows, a Democrat, said the requests were frivolous and bogus, but time consuming because officials have to respond to them as public records requests. She and others worry that the requests could hamper administration for the upcoming election.

"It could undermine our local and state officials' ability to do the tremendous amount of work to ensure that the 2022 elections are free, fair and secure," Bellows said.

Programming notes

Beginning Sept. 30 and through the November election, the Pulse will be teaming up with Maine Calling to air and produce the weekly podcast that is the companion to this newsletter.

Subscribers to the newsletter won’t notice this change. The same will mostly be true for online listeners of the Pulse podcast, which will continue to be released Friday afternoons and can be heard either on the Pulse landing page, or through podcast providers Spotify and Apple.

Also, be sure to listen to the Pulse podcast this week. Portland Press Herald reporter Randy Billings will be joining us to discusshis story about the origins and evolution of the rivalry between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and her challenger, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

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.