Over the past week, Gov. Janet Mills has signed into law dozens of bills passed by the Maine lawmakers this session. For the two African American members of the Legislature, a pair of bills in particular stand out.
The two Democrats say the measures are significant because of how they begin to tackle systemic racism in one of the whitest states in the nation, at a time when hate crimes are increasing around the country.
Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland is a ninth generation Mainer who has worked on civil rights and social justice issues for more than 20 years. Her father, Gerald Talbot, was the first African American member of the Maine House of Representatives in 1972 who worked on housing discrimination and human rights issues, and he was was instrumental in getting the N-word removed from Maine place names.
Serving her second term in the House, Ross sponsored trainings this year for lawmakers to better understand the tribal-state relationship, implicit-bias in their decision-making and race equity.
"So those three trainings, which have never taken place before, were able to be the backdrop for some of the bills that we moved forward, of which I'm very proud of," she says.
The capstone of that effort, Ross says, is LD 777, a bill to create "The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations." It was signed into law by Gov. Mills last week. Ross says the independent commission's creation marks a historic moment for the state.
"It is specific to advise the governor and the state legislature on issues related to disparities, disparities that are the product of systemic and structural racism...and hopefully you'll see new policy coming forward because of the group," Ross says.
The commission will include representatives from federally recognized Indian tribes in Maine, from the immigrant community and from organizations representing youth, the homeless, faith groups and organized labor as well as a college faculty member who specializes in historically disadvantaged populations. Ross says the commission will not include any members of the Legislature.
"And one of the best things about this commission is it's not going to assume that all people of color experience racism in the exact same manner," she says.
The commission will do research, hold public hearings and gather data as a way to inform policy. The collection of data will also be a big part of another bill passed by the Legislature to prevent bias-based profiling by law enforcement.
"This isn't about trying to make anyone look bad. It's about protecting the liberties of all people," says Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop.
Hickman was the chief sponsor of the bill that prohibits traffic stops, detentions, searches or asset seizures and forfeitures efforts based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other biases. It also requires anti-profiling training for law enforcement officers and directs the state attorney general to set up a complaint process and to explore ways to collect and analyze profiling data. The bill received unanimous consent in the House and Senate. It was signed into law by the governor on Juneteenth, or June 19th, the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
"The bill is really for the children and our children need to know that they will be seen as every other human being in the eyes of the law and so... it is a new day," he says.
Against a national backdrop of vitriol, incivility and outright hate, the Maine Legislature, Hickman says, was able to shine light on issues important to minorities in the state who are often overlooked.