As protests against racial injustice continue around the country, candidates in Maine’s U.S. Senate race are responding with different plans to address racial inequities and police violence against people of color.

The three Democratic candidates and one unenrolled candidate to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins in November all expressed solidarity with protesters. Two of the four have attended some of the protests that have been held in Maine in the wake of the death of George Floyd of Minneapolis in police custody.

Their plans for how the Senate should take action differ, including everything from decreasing funding for and access to military equipment for police departments and examining the nation’s criminal justice and prison systems to improving data collection on police actions and funding racial justice education in schools.

Collins, who has not attended any of the protests, has said she supports them as long as they are peaceful, saying in a speech on the Senate floor this week that the legacy of Floyd should be focused on “progress, not deepening division and hatred.”

She is co-sponsoring legislation that would establish a commission devoted to uplifting black communities, and she outlined five areas where Congress could work to reduce racial inequities.

“The horrific killing of George Floyd has shocked America’s conscience and forced our country to assess the struggle that we still face with race,” Collins said in a statement. “This discussion is long overdue, and making rapid progress is a national imperative.”

While addressing racial disparities will take more than action from the federal government, Collins said areas where the Senate could immediately take action include working to expand educational opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, criminal justice reform and efforts to publicly acknowledge the country’s history with race and raise awareness.

Sen. Susan Collins Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Collins also said now is a time to “listen, learn and then lead,” and pointed to legislation she is co-sponsoring with a bipartisan group of senators to establish a Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.

The commission, which would be housed within the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ Office would recommend policies to improve current government programs and would be composed of members of Congress, federal agency experts and appointed subject area experts.

It would investigate potential civil rights violations affecting black men and study the disparities they experience in education, criminal justice and other areas as well as produce an annual report to address the current conditions affecting black men and boys.

Collins also said that because poverty can be one of the strongest forces of oppression, she has also introduced a bill with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, that aims to break the cycle of poverty by taking a two-generation approach to increasing economic security and the health and well-being of parents and children.

Collins, who has faced pressure from opponents to be more critical of President Trump, said Monday that she didn’t think Trump should have used military force and tear gas to clear protesters near the White House for a photo-op at a nearby church.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-FreeportDerek Davis/Portland Press Herald

Democrat Sara Gideon of Freeport, Maine’s speaker of the House, also criticized Trump’s response in an interview Wednesday, saying that “right now we’re seeing actions from this president that are not going to help us move forward at all.”

Gideon, who said she participated in a peaceful protest in Freeport on Sunday, said the protests are about people coming together in the wake of Floyd’s death to acknowledge that disparities need to be addressed.

“The reality is we have allowed systemic racism to continue through all these years,” Gideon said. “It has, at its least offensive, left communities of color in greater poverty and also in disproportionate numbers of incarcerated with lack of access to education and health care, but at its worst, it’s put people of color in danger and we have seen people over and over again be murdered because of their race or color of their skin.”

Gideon said the tools to address systemic racism can be found at both the local and federal level. She said she would like to see zero tolerance policies for racial and religious profiling and the killing of unarmed people of color by law enforcement, expanded opportunities for racial bias training, and better data collection regarding police brutality.

Maine passed a law in 2019 to eliminate racial profiling by law enforcement, and Gideon said something similar could be considered at the national level.

Fellow Democrat Bre Kidman, a Saco attorney, has not been participating in protests but is working with a coalition of other lawyers to offer pro bono legal services to those who are arrested.

“As a senator I would like to see the country overall move towards community policing and towards community systems of accountability and restorative justice,” Kidman said. “I think policing is built on a foundation of protection of property over human life and I think there are better ways to do criminal justice.”

Democratic Senate candidate Bre Kidman Submitted photo

Kidman, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns they and them, said they would look to reduce funding for law enforcement access to military equipment, fight against mass incarceration by barring for-profit prions and look to communities of color for guidance on what the best ways are to reduce disparities.

Kidman would also work to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and push for legislation to expunge convictions for conduct that would be legal if marijuana wasn’t criminalized.

“The number of black Americans in jail serving long sentences for conduct that business owners in many states – including Maine – commit every day is staggering,” Kidman said. “I believe it’s an injustice that is an important piece in the larger puzzle of dealing with the racist impact of law enforcement in this country.”

Lisa Savage, who is not enrolled in any party and identifies as an Independent Green, released a statement Monday outlining actions Congress should take including considering reparations to black Americans and national legislation making it illegal to hire police officers who have been removed from their positions for excessive force or discriminatory practices.

In an interview, she said the biggest racial inequity facing the country is the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and she has also called for Congress to convene a commission to look at reducing the number of people incarcerated in the United States.

Savage, who was active in the recent fight against the use of the Indians mascot at Skowhegan Area High School, said she would also like to see Maine strengthen its funding and mandates for racial justice education in schools.

Independent candidate Lisa Savage Photo courtesy of Lisa Savage

She said the protests have highlighted how much taxpayer money is spent on outfitting police departments with military equipment, and has called for an end to “senseless programs” that funnel such equipment to local police departments.

Maine police departments have received a wide range of surplus military equipment. A 2014 study by the nonprofit Marshal Project, based on inventories released by the Pentagon, showed that Maine police obtained $2 million worth of equipment, including rifles, night-vision equipment and mine-resistant ambush vehicles used to protect soldiers from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That display of where hard-working taxpayers’ money goes — into turning the police into a military force — is shocking to me,” Savage said. “Little children go to bed hungry every night in this country. Since the pandemic hit that has only gotten worse. Why would we think we have enough money to do that?”

Senate candidate Betsy Sweet Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Democrat Betsy Sweet, who co-founded the Maine Civil Rights Team Project, which works to end bias and harassment in schools, said she too is supportive of the protests and has been heartened by the leadership of young people in the movement.

Sweet has attended a protest in Portland and has plans to also attend protests in Augusta and Guilford, where the president is scheduled to visit Puritan Medical Products on Friday.

She said she would work to end qualified immunity, which offers broad legal protection to law enforcement accused of violating civil rights, demilitarize equipment for police forces, and work to collect better data on racial profiling and arrests.

“Those are three things I would work to make sure are enacted,” Sweet said. “But we can also look at every policy for systemic racism. We can’t take our eye off this issue. One thing I think happens is we get concerned when an egregious action is publicized. These things happen all the time. When it’s over people go back and don’t pay attention. That is not what I will do.”

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