It may seem tempting to become complacent now that Maine is once again a blue state. Paul LePage's second term is winding down, as the governor is apparently planning to flee the state (good riddance!) for Florida (you’re welcome to him!). Additionally, many state GOP hopefuls with similarly racist, anti-immigrant views were not rewarded during the midterm elections (though Larry Lockman of District 137, who is well known for his anti-immigrant, white nationalist views, did manage to hold on to his seat).
However now is not the time to become complacent. Let’s not don any rose-colored glasses in the midst of this blue wave, especially with issues of race and honoring difference. That won’t do us any favors — and by “us” I mean we people of color and also the collective us, Mainers.
For white progressives and moderates who welcome the return of Democratic dominance, getting complacent now and thinking that we've “arrived,” that we've solved the problem of intolerance through the election, would be a disaster. Even in a state as racially homogenous and overwhelmingly white as Maine, such complacence would only reinforce the already bad race-relations image LePage cemented onto the national landscape. For Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color (or people of difference like LGBTQ folks), complacence could mean very real continuing harm.
Let’s focus on race, since I think that’s been the biggest “black eye” (forgive the pun) since LePage took office. Maine has never had a large minority population, but one thing's for certain: Maine’s demographics are shifting. Much of our population growth is coming from immigrant and refugee communities who are choosing to make Maine home. That means it’s time to have serious conversations about what diversity and inclusion really mean in this state.
If we are interested in truly being an inclusive state, that means shifting the dynamics of power. While Maine has two state legislators of color, Craig V. Hickman (HD-82) and Rachel Talbot Ross (HD-40), we need more people of color in positions of power. Those who are the most affected by inequity need to be a part of the solution, and the best way to be part of the solution is to be at the decision-making table. Period.
It was reported in the Portland Press Herald last month that many of Maine’s foreign-born and naturalized citizens were hoping that Maine’s next governor would be more supportive of immigrants than LePage was. Given that immigrants are routinely touted as the solution to Maine’s aging population and that they pay millions in taxes ($245 million in federal taxes and $116 million in state and local taxes according to the American Immigration Council), offering a seat at the table is the least we can do.
To be sure, that seat at the table is not just about economic worth. It’s about respecting the dignity of all humans and seeing them as part of our community and the larger world. It is about making sure we don’t “other-ize” people and use them as cute lessons to cart out when the mood strikes us.
Over the past eight years, we had a leader who specialized in dehumanizing non-white people, from creating fictitious bogeymen of color to blatantly disrespecting people and institutions of color. For many, LePage was a slap in the face. In sharing his views publicly, he broke with the rules of whiteness and niceness.
LOOK BEYOND VULGARITY
While I have no doubt that newly elected Janet Mills will not engage in such vulgar, obvious and rude behavior as governor, that doesn’t mean I trust that she will be the balm for the wounds of non-white people in Maine.
We’ve seen Mills oppose the Penobscot Nation in a more than four-year-long dispute over who has jurisdiction and full fishing rights over a 61-mile stretch of the Penobscot River. According to Maine’s 1980 Indian Claims Settlement Act, the Penobscot Indian Reservation consists “solely of Indian Island, also known as Old Town Island, and all islands in that river northward.” The State of Maine, with Janet Mills as attorney general, has interpreted this quite literally to the detriment of Indigenous people, even as the Penobscot claim their ancestral right to the islands, the riverbank, and the waterways connecting them, doing so in part on the basis of a Supreme Court precedent defining islands as including submerged land.
On her website, Mills said that it was part of her job to defend the state in litigation and that “I don't always get to choose the cases that come in front of my office.”
That may be true, but if we are going to be true to a blue wave and claim that Democrats are in any way progressive, we are going to have to hold her to what she says, even on her website. We want to believe her when she posts that that “As Governor, I will work to find new ways to partner with the indigenous nations of Maine, and to form stronger alliances on economic development, renewable energy sources, and health care. And I will work with everyone to respect and maintain the cultural identity and the right to self-governance of the thousands of Native Americans in this state” and also, “[My] first priority will be to improve communication and trust between the four Tribes, the state, and local governments, so that together, we can improve the lives, opportunities and wellbeing of all our people.”
While we’re at it, also make sure that Maine's Black people, African and Latin American immigrants, Muslims, and so many others who have been mocked, ridiculed, threatened and pushed to the margins also see their human needs addressed under the administration of Mills and the Democrat-controlled legislature.