Articulating a Positive Vision of Maine

MLK Day Rally in Portland

Prior to moving to Maine in February of last year (yes, I moved in February- thank goodness it was a soft winter), I spent four lucky years travelling around the U.S. working with grassroots organizations to build their state and local organizing campaigns. I spent the majority of my time moving between New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and our great state of Maine. While, I had a deep respect for the struggles, and successes of organizers in each of these states, Maine was always an outlier. The activists and organizers in Maine were able to reach a level of discourse, collaboration and outcomes that few other states are able to reach. That’s one of the major reasons I chose to leave Brooklyn, DC, Chicago and other places in the dust and moved to Lewiston.

True to Maine, whenever I’ve tried to explain this phenomenon to folks living in the state, they often shrug and smile- very humbly. Perhaps that’s because we can never be satisfied by our social justice work. It can feel like there is always work left to be done. Or, perhaps we have not yet had many opportunities to observe just how strong and productive our community is in the face of real and immediate opposition that is on the attack.

After last November’s election, we can be sure that we will get at least four years of chances to put our progressive organizing infrastructure to the test. Governor LePage and his long four year term, may very well stand at the epicenter of the challenges ahead of us. In his first week and a half in office he has already given us plenty to fight against, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Many politicos in Maine like to remind me that LePage won with only 38 percent of the vote, and that there are a majority of Mainers that did NOT vote for him- that may very well be true, just as true as it was for Governor Baldacci. However, if we allow that figure to lull us into a sense of security, we’ll be sure to miss the growing fear and insecurity that is motivating more and more Mainers to move in the direction of Tea Party politics. This election it was 38 percent, now let’s make sure it’s never that high again. The question before us is: will we rise to the challenge of taking the risks necessary to break the status quo of political movements to the right in this country?

There is a very real, and growing group of individuals in Maine motivated by fear, frustration, and anger. We’ve all got plenty of reasons to feel that way. It is up to us to help those feelings be expressed and directed at the right targets, through the right tactics. This point was brought home for me during the election in October at a phonebank in downtown Lewiston. I was on my umpteenth call when I reached one nice woman in her home and asked her who she was supporting for Governor. She put it very simply. She was upset with the way that government had been run, and she wanted someone hard-headed and direct like Mr. LePage to shake things up and clean house- and then she hung up the phone.

That brief call gave me pause. There was little I could do in our current organizing structure to reach this woman, let alone have a conversation with her. In the face of adversity, we often remain in our own progressive or conservative echo chambers, and there are very few mechanisms for us to move outside of our comfort zones. This may very well be our downfall.

In the face of anger at Governor LePage’s infamous "kiss my butt", Dan Demeritt, LePage's Communications Director chose to capitalize on the very same sentiment of the woman from the phone call, saying that Governor LePage was simply communicating in the same direct manner that Mainer’s have come to expect and value in him. Wrong answer. Mainers did not give Governor LePage a mandated to offend, marginalize and attack valued members of our state.

We must not cede this ground to the LePage administration. It is certainly true that a minority of Mainers approve of LePage’s aggressive and offsensive rhetoric. That number will grow if progressives cannot begin to address the frustration, anger, and anxiety that many Mainers are facing. Up until now, we have often been able to reach people through sympathy, compassion, and a sense of right. What’s right doesn’t always address people’s feeling of being left behind, left out, and ignored. We must more strongly communicate values and vision that can attract voters from all walks of life, and bring them to the table of politics, arming them with the tools to have a say in our government. I believe in the ability of Mainers to move beyond this dark period in our state’s political history- let’s call the question in our townhalls, bars, school gyms, and streets. What are we offering Mainer’s in opposition to LePage’s grim view of reality?

Already, I can hear the first answer coming- today- in Portland at the People’s March for Justice. Organizations including, but not limited to the NAACP, MCLU, Maine People’s Alliance, Centro Latino, Tengo Voz and individuals like Sister Pat Pora and other residents of Southern Maine, are joining their voices and raising the flag for a more Welcoming Maine. In the face of our poor economy, loss of jobs and so much more, folks at the People’s March for Justice are saying we choose to throw our doors open, draw on the strength of our diversity and rich experiences and form a Welcoming Maine committed to the success of all our residents. We believe that is the only way to fixing our economy and ensuring the health of our state for generations to come. We are rejecting Governor LePage’s removal of Governor Baldacci’s ban on state officials ability to inquire about resident’s immigration status, his negative rhetoric, and a politics of division.

This is a start in articulating a positive vision of Maine that Mainers who feel fear, isolation and anxiety can gain courage from and be proud of. We must continue to build this vision, and I look forward to seeing which politicians, activists, and organizations in the state will be able to do that. Who do you think can do this work? Where else are you seeing rays of hope?