As former Gov. Paul LePage and legislators clashed and the toxic national discourse seeped into the everyday discussions of many Mainers, some feared the state had veered from its famously civic-minded roots.

In response, an effort got underway to nudge the state back on track that proved so successful Maine has become a national leader in a growing and ever more serious bid to revive civility more broadly.

With a number of powerful organizations lining up to support the initiative, there are signs it is making inroads, not just in the State House but across Maine and perhaps beyond.

Among those pushing the civility campaign are the Maine AARP, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Development Foundation.

So, too, are former U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and George Mitchell, a Democrat, both renowned for their decency and willingness to compromise.

Snowe said in a recent magazine piece that it is “imperative that we ensure this is an aberrational chapter in our history” and that voices urging cooperation soon prove louder than those pushing polarization.

Mark Hews, the state coordinator for Maine Revives Civility, said he’s hoping to bring civility education into Maine schools by getting it into the curriculum, perhaps as part of the community service requirements many districts have.

Hews said the goal is to have “a lot of people really trying, sincerely, to try to change the conversation” throughout the Pine Tree State to allow open, respectful debate on the issues of the day.

State Sen. Matthew Pouliot, a Republican from Augusta, said that back in 2014, former state Treasurer Terry Hayes invited an Arizona institute to come to Maine and train interested lawmakers about how they could promote civility in the Legislature and beyond.

With help from a number of facilitators, the effort flourished.

Even though Maine “has had its challenges,” Pouliot said, there has been a growing and strong desire among lawmakers in Augusta to revive civility and lock it in with rule changes that encourage bipartisanship and trust.

That sort of cultural change, he said, needs to become “just the way we do business.”

Some saw one recent decision by the Legislature as a good step forward.

Yellow Breen, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Development Foundation, said that for a number of years, lawmakers have talked about what they could do to break down partisan barriers and improve civility.

A suggestion that always came up, he said, was to change the arrangements so that Republicans and Democrats weren’t seated by party in their own areas.

“Well, guess what? This year the Senate president and the House speaker have intermingled the party seating,” Breen said.

Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, said mixed seating will foster a sense of congeniality, mutual respect and trust among members of opposing parties.

“The people of Maine sent us here to solve a host of complex problems that interfere with their ability to lead happy, healthy and successful lives,” Jackson said last month when he ordered the change. “By focusing on the values and goals that unite us, we will be more likely to move the needle on critical issues.”

A seating chart is hardly a cure-all for a civil society that’s grown ever less civil, but legislative leaders feel it’s a start.

Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley, sit in the front row of the Maine House of Representative during a session on Thursday at the State House in Augusta. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

ENCOURAGING MORE CIVILITY IN MAINE

After taking in the 2014 program by the Arizona-based National Institute for Civil Discourse, Pouliot was among the lawmakers determined to promote its pro-civility agenda.

He was so impressed that he traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2014 so he could become a facilitator, an assignment he’s embraced so thoroughly that last week he ventured out to Oregon to speak with state legislators there trying to follow Maine’s lead.

Maine civility backers convinced the Maine Development Foundation a few years ago to add civility training to the program it has long put on for incoming legislators to help get them up to speed.

Breen said the foundation wanted to help conceptually but also realized that more bipartisanship and civility would help its quest to ensure greater policy continuity over time.

“We need to be able to forge bipartisan consensus and stick with it,” he said, rather than having policies seesaw depending on who’s in charge.

This month, the foundation held the sixth civility seminar in Maine for about 30 legislators. That makes Maine the leader nationwide.

“Maine has done this work more than any other state,” Breen said. He said the National Institute for Civil Discourse has recognized the Maine Legislature as “the most committed to civil discourse.”

That the idea has taken root in Augusta is obvious in the words that House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, spoke to colleagues back in December.

She told them to “believe in each other’s goodness and intentions” and to keep in mind that even when they disagree, their positions are grounded in “values, family, religion, life experience.”

She warned that listening to other points of view “can be extremely uncomfortable,” but working through differences “is ultimately the way we have achieved anything and everything with lasting significance in this country.”

Gideon told legislators to “argue fair” and not get caught up in the heat of the moment.

She told lawmakers that how they argue with each other matters so they can “leave this chamber and continue friendship and camaraderie.”

Breen said that people of good faith can make “genuine progress” if they try.

He said Maine “has less tolerance for shenanigans” and political games, in part because state lawmakers hail from small districts where they can be easily confronted by constituents, and in part because Mainers generally want to see government operate well.

“Expectation is everything,” Breen said. “At the end of the day, we still expect to get something done.”

Legislators can never forget, he said, that like the New England Patriots, “we do expect you to do your job.”

TRYING TO ENTRENCH GRASS-ROOTS CIVILITY

When the civility institute in Tucson decided a couple of years ago to establish pilot programs in four states to try to foster more civility at the grass-roots level, it picked Maine, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona.

Hews said Maine was probably chosen because of the ongoing program aimed at state legislators.

The idea of the extended initiative, Hews said, is to help many more people “have more productive” conversations, ones that could address their disagreements without having the talk dissolve into something unproductive.

The institute hired Hews, who hails from Aroostook County and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 32 years, because of his experience working in rural areas to help create sustainable development.

He’s been traveling the state ever since, trying to teach people how to engage with one another more productively.

What he’s seeking, Hews said, is “the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.”

That kind of approach, a truism for older generations, is “well-worth bringing out” again, he said.

The hope, Hews said, is that with effort people can “get back to a place where we know how to conduct ourselves in public spaces.”

“It’s just in the way you do it — with respect,” Hews said.

Maine Revives Civility is working closely with a couple of major organizations that have embraced its call: the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine AARP.

Eric Conrad, editor of Maine Town & City, a monthly MMA magazine, wrote in its January issue that “one of the hottest topics in local governance these days is civility.”

One reason is because Mainers seem both angrier and more skeptical when dealing with municipal officials than they did in the past, Conrad said.

Lori Parham, director of the Maine AARP, said the senior-focused group got involved because as a nonpartisan organization, it has a responsibility to “try to be a voice of reason” in a political landscape suffering such ‘big, divided extremes.”

“There’s so much noise,” she said, that people think their voices can’t be heard.

“It’s an interesting time to try to work in the middle space,” she said.

To try to make things better, Parham said, Maine’s AARP is offering workshops and talks to help people find a path to more useful conversations, to boost those who want to be engaged.

“It’s all about building relationships and respect,” Parham said.

It helps to be in Maine, she added, because it has a Legislature that tries to work together.

Parham said that seeing how Maine operates after living in Florida was eye-opening.

Maine has a much greater level of civility “not just among elected leaders, but also among Maine people,” she said

CIVILITY ISN’T JUST FOR POLITICIANS

It’s easy to settle into an us-versus-them way of looking at the world, Pouliot said, where people just dig in, determined to hold their ground.

That is a tough thing to overcome, the lawmaker said.

To combat it, Pouliot said, it’s important for people to demand that their political leaders show respect both for opposing ideas and for colleagues who don’t share the same agenda.

But it goes beyond that, he added.

They also have to demand that same greater civility of themselves, Pouliot said.

For many Mainers, the vitriol that is flung around by commentators and candidates isn’t really the worst of it.

It’s when the problem doesn’t just hit home, but actually comes home.

Civility advocates aren’t the only ones who worry that politics has become so heated that parents can’t talk to their own children, that holiday meals require something of a truce and that social media posts are as likely to contain potshots as pictures.

“It has gotten uncomfortable or not very nice,” Parham said.

Hews said he’s been asking people to make a personal commitment to civility in their own lives, to do more to engage others, and to lead the effort to “start rebuilding the experience of having a dialogue.”

A productive conversation, he said, is “meaningful to you and leads somewhere.”

Hews hopes all the talk of civility leads back to something long embraced in the roots of the very word itself.

The Latin word civicus, he said, “means good citizenship.”

What that entails, he said, is that all of us are citizens and that what goes on, for good or ill,  is about “more than just us personally.”

“We have a larger responsibility to make this work,” Hews said.

[email protected]

Former Gov. Paul LePage, who left office after eight years earlier this month, was known for his partisan clashes with the Legislature, contributing to a bipartisan push by some lawmakers to bring more civility to the way they treated one another. (Portland Press Herald file photo by Gregory Rec)

Civility and coffee on tap in Lewiston this week

LEWISTON — The Maine AARP is sponsoring a Lewiston-Auburn Coffee Klatsch from 8 to 10 a.m. Wednesday at E. Claire & Pastries in the Bates Mill building at 35 Canal St. to hear from Mark Hews of Maine Revives Civility.

Open to all, those in attendance will hear from Hews about restoring civility to public discourse.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

State Sen. Matthew Pouliot, who represents a district in the Augusta area, is among the politicians in the forefront of a years-long effort to encourage greater civility in Maine.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport has embraced much of the agenda pushed by civility advocates in Maine, though as leader of the Democrats and a potential candidate against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020, she is also fiercely partisan.

Americans concerned civility is scarce

One sure thing is that Americans ache for something better than what they’re seeing these days.

A 2018 AARP Maine survey released in September found that three-quarters of Mainers worry very often or somewhat often about how divided the nation has become.

That’s more than they fret about terrorism, inflation, retirement security, health care or anything else.

“This divisiveness is really concerning people,” said Lori Parham, director of AARP Maine.

That sense that people are pitting themselves against one another instead of uniting as fellow citizens to deal with the country’s problems is directly related to the way issues are addressed, officials said.

The better angels of our nature, as President Abraham Lincoln once put it, seem to be hiding these days as people clash viciously everywhere from Facebook to the dinner table, and in front of the ever-present cameras in the nation’s capital.

A Quinnipiac University poll last summer found that 91 percent of Americans call the lack of civility in politics a serious problem.

“Voters say civility has gone out the window,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the poll.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, was the keynote speaker at a symposium at Colby College in September. She has spoken to gatherings of Mainers about the need for greater civility at least a couple of times since 2017. (Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming)

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.