Pulse Newsletter: The Pandemic Is Biden's Top Priority

Jan 22, 2021

“Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
— Amanda Gorman, 22, inaugural poet.

There’s no cheering in the press box, but an exception can be made when contemplating Gorman’s optimistic view of the republic.

Here’s hoping she’s as prescient as she is gifted with prose.

In the meantime, the Maine politics news continues apace following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who signed a flurry of executive orders this week.

Several were related to the federal government’s response to the pandemic, including a vaccination rollout hampered by unreliable deliveries of vaccines from the federal government and a hands-off approach that’s led to a patchwork inoculation strategy across the states.

Biden’s overarching goal is 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. It has a nice ring to it, but the hurdles are ominous.

Among them is congressional approval for the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which is expected to include another round of direct payments to Americans, more support for small businesses and state funding for vaccines and testing.

President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.
Credit Alex Brandon / Associated Press

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine could play a part in getting the package over the finish line. Both are in what’s currently known as the Common Sense Coalition, as is Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. (Senators in the groups are reportedly debating using a different name.)

Collins, a Republican, told Capitol Hill reporters Wednesday that she and Manchin will soon meet with Biden’s economic advisers to discuss the package, but she already has a problem with its inclusion of a proposal that raises the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

She told Maine Public last week that the wage hike should be considered separately and she isn’t sure if $15 is the right target.

“It is overdue for us to look at increasing the federal minimum wage, but it should be considered separately,” she said.

Meanwhile, there’s already some hand-wringing among some Democrats over Biden’s pledge to work with Republicans like Collins. According to Politico, some Democrats want to fast-track the COVID bill in a way that would allow them to quickly pass it on a simple party-line vote.

It could come to that if the White House determines that the bipartisan deal making is more dalliance than functional.

In the meantime, Biden is already using executive orders to unilaterally retool the federal bureaucracy that will impact Maine’s COVID response in the following ways:

  • Making more public data available on cases and vaccinations
  • Providing additional guidance on public school reopenings, and ensure workplaces are protecting their employees during the pandemic
  • Directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states for vaccination and testing supplies, as well as costs associated with deploying state National Guards for pandemic purposes.

Seamounts see-saw

Among the president’s non-COVID executive orders this week is one that could potentially reestablish a commercial fishing ban at the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The monument off Georges Bank was designated by President Barack Obama and included a ban on commercial fishing in the area.

Former President Donald Trump reversed that ban last summer while attempting to woo voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

Biden’s order officially reviews Trump’s decision, but don’t be surprised if it’s a procedural prelude to a reversal and a new ban.

The monument is a very long haul for Maine commercial fishermen, although some applauded Trump’s order last summer. Nevertheless, federal data show that most fishing vessels who fish in that area generated 5 percent or less of their annual landings within the monument itself.

That statistic was inconvenient for the Trump administration, which sought to strike it from its 2017 review of the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Party shakeups

The Maine Republican Party last week voted to re-elect chairwoman Demi Kouzounas, but it has a new vice chairman in Shane Reitze.

Reitze replaces former Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, a divisive figure who, among other things, cheered on Trump’s bogus claims that the election was stolen from him, promoted the same election fraud conspiracy theories and endorsed a tweet saying Kyle Rittenhouse — the teenager accused of killing two protestors and injuring a third last summer in Wisconsin — should run for Congress.

Isgro recently told the Morning Sentinel that he’s retiring from politics. He has also deleted his Twitter account.

The Maine Democratic Party will elect brand-new leadership when it meets Sunday. Neither chairwoman Kathleen Marra nor vice chairman Erik Gundersen are seeking re-election.

Former state Rep. Drew Gattine is running unopposed to replace Marra, while Bev Uhlenhake is running unopposed to replace Gundersen, who is currently leading the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy.

Pardoned Liberty

Trump’s final pardon and commutation spree is already notorious for delivering clemency to political allies, friends, family members and, somehow, excluding “Tiger King” star Joe Exotic.

Former Portland developer Michael Liberty, who was convicted for using a straw donor scheme to funnel contributions to 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, also received a pardon from Trump.

It’s not exactly clear why.

Liberty is a prolific donor to political candidates, including Trump, but his contribution history isn’t exactly hyperpartisan. He has supported Democratic candidates and Republican candidates in Maine and at the national level, although federal data show he has a particular affinity for Trump.

Liberty’s most curious, but legal, contributions came in the 2014 Cumberland County Sheriff’s race when he bankrolled a political action committee created to boost Democratic candidate Michael Edes.

Liberty donated more than $100,000 to that PAC, an unprecedented amount for a county sheriff contest.

Liberty never explained the reason for backing Edes, but it could be because the two were friends.

“I know that Michael is loyal, almost to a fault, to his friends and the strong relationships he has in his life — he’s always been that way,” Rep. Susan Austin, a Republican from Gray, told the Portland Press Herald in 2014.

It turns out that Austin, who is still in the Legislature, was also loyal to Liberty. He donated to her campaign when she first ran for the Legislature. She ultimately backed his request for a Trump pardon.

The state of State of the State

Maine governors typically give their State of the State address in late January or early February, but it’s unclear when or how Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will deliver her’s this year.

The governor has several options, including an in-person address to a joint convention of the Legislature at the Augusta Civic Center, a livestreamed address to a joint convention, a videotaped speech or even just a letter.

Former Gov. Paul LePage chose the latter option in 2016 when he was feuding with Democratic lawmakers. Mills certainly has had her disagreements with Republicans, but it’s the pandemic that’s causing the disruption in tradition this time.

Mills’ office says it hasn’t yet worked out an agreement with legislative leaders for the State of the State, but it appears likely that the address will be delivered later in February instead of next week.

Bernie memes

By now the photo of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his uniquely New England style of braving the cold at the inauguration has been seen by millions of people. But just in case, here it is.

The ensuing riffs have been spectacular.

There’s Bernie and his sensible mittens at the Last Supper, Bernie on the Starship Enterprise and Bernie with Forrest Gump.

You too can create your own Bernie mittens meme, but if you need a little help or inspiration, you can try this website.

It allows you to punch in an address, and voila, Bernie will appear, as he does here atop Saddleback Mountain.

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