AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Education Committee split along party lines Friday in rejecting the governor’s nomination of conservative blogger Susan Dench of Falmouth to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees.

“I think they value partisanship over diversity of opinion,” Dench said after the 8-6 vote.

Democrats on the committee questioned her writings and positions on social and educational issues, and heard testimony from one speaker who accused Dench of plagiarism. An allegation Dench denied.

It is the first time since at least the 1970s that the committee has rejected a Board of Trustees nominee along party lines, according to the governor’s office. Democrats and Republicans are in the heat of an election battle for control of the governor’s office and the Legislature.

The nomination must still be considered by the state Senate. However, it takes a two-thirds vote to overturn the committee’s recommendation, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to reject the nomination.

Committee members didn’t ask Dench about any controversial topics for most of the hour-plus hearing, but later asked her to return to the podium to respond to speakers’ remarks.

At least a half-dozen speakers said they opposed her nomination, citing her traditional gender views, her position that people who immigrate illegally should not benefit from taxpayer-supported programs, and her support for English-only instruction. In one tweet, Dench said a Texas school principal who was fired for prohibiting students from speaking Spanish “should be promoted, not fired.”

Dench told the committee that she stood by everything she wrote.

“I have no regrets sharing my personal views. They’re my personal views,” she said. “I’m not going to be bullied into not sharing my personal views. I have detractors, but I have a lot of people who agree with me.”

Dench is president of the Informed Women’s Network, which promotes conservative policies through its 10 chapters around the nation. A businesswoman and an author, she has worked as a manager or marketing manager for several businesses, including General Electric and Idexx.

Her husband, Bryan Dench, an attorney for Skelton, Taintor & Abbott of Auburn, is treasurer for Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election committee. The couple have donated to a number of political campaigns, including $2,600 to LePage’s re-election committee.

Danna Hayes, director of public policy for the Maine Women’s Lobby, said the group opposed the nomination based on Susan Dench’s position on traditional gender roles. Hayes cited a blog post in January titled, “Schoolboys should be taught to grow into real men, not women.”

“These power imbalances lead to sexual violence,” Hayes said. “We are concerned that her beliefs about rigid gender roles will hinder the University of Maine System’s important work” in preventing sexual violence.

In May, Dench wrote about the “feminizing” of schools. “But in our quest to build girls up, we’ve also feminized our schools, making them more sensitive, less competitive, more cooperative places that mitigate risk-taking and failure,” she wrote. “We’ve given out medals for just showing up. And instead of encouraging boys and girls to achieve at a higher level, we’ve lowered the bar to the lowest common denominator, so we don’t hurt the feelings of those who don’t achieve.”

One speaker at Friday’s hearing, the chairwoman of the English department at the University of Southern Maine, said Dench had plagiarized long sections of a Free Republic website post about “the true lesson of Thanksgiving.”

Dench denied any plagiarism. The Maine Republican Party also released a statement Friday saying the accusation was untrue.

“I don’t accuse people of plagiarism lightly, but this is actually not a difficult case to spot or decide,” said associate professor Jane Kuenz, who supplied copies to the committee of all the referenced work. Properly citing work is “a core principal” for the university, Kuenz said. “Anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business on the Board of Trustees.”

Some exchanges between Dench and committee members were terse.

House chair Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, challenged her English-only position, citing several research papers showing that students thrive with bilingual education. “The statements you make fly in the face of basic research,” he said.

“You have access to studies I haven’t found,” she responded.

“Well, I found it in five minutes searching the Internet, and if I were writing about it I might have done that,” MacDonald said, turning away.

After the hearing, Senate chair Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, returned to the charge of plagiarism.

“Representing the university system should be reserved for those of the highest ethical caliber and neither students nor faculty could get away with the slack standard of plagiarism,” Millett said in a prepared statement. “And, even beyond that, Mrs. Dench is simply not qualified for this position.”

Trustees serve five-year terms and are not compensated. Appointments usually aren’t so partisan.

Dench was one of three people nominated by LePage to the 16-member board. The other two, James Donnelly of Brewer and Samuel Collins of Caribou, were confirmed unanimously, as were nine previous LePage appointments.

Donnelly, a former state representative, is executive vice president of Machias Savings Bank.

Collins, the current chairman of the board of trustees who was nominated for an additional term, is the brother of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. He owns S.W. Collins Co., a lumber and building company in Caribou that has long been part of the Collins family. The company has donated $1,000 to LePage’s re-election committee.

Adrienne Bennett, the spokeswoman for LePage, said the committee’s rejection of Dench on a party-line vote is “unwarranted and it’s unprecedented.” She said the administration checked the records dating back to the 1970s.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the vote because clearly we have people who are refusing a well-qualified woman for this appointment,” Bennett said. “We would encourage the full Senate to look at the governor’s nominee on merits and not political agendas.”

Republican Rep. Michael McClellan of Raymond said he was “frustrated” with the result. The committee usually operates in a bipartisan way, but “it didn’t sound like that today,” he said.

The Senate will vote Tuesday on LePage’s 51 political appointments to various state boards and commissions.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

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