Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford addresses Maine Democrats on the opening day of their annual convention Friday in Bangor. The gathering is a hybrid affair this year, with some participating remotely. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

BANGOR — Maine Democrats kicked off their annual convention Friday by unveiling a party platform that embraces abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and immigration, and seeks to project unity ahead of what are expected to be difficult races for the Blaine House and Legislature this fall.

The party activists gathered as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills faces a tough re-election fight against former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican seeking an unprecedented third, nonconsecutive term. Mills, a centrist, will need to find a way to motivate progressives, who have been disappointed by policy setbacks, without alienating independents.

All 35 seats in the Maine Senate and 151 seats in the House also are up for grabs, with Democrats looking to maintain control of both chambers.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic platform introduced Friday is starkly different than the Republican platform approved two weeks ago that opposes sex education, teaching about systemic racism and LGBTQ rights.

The Democratic platform calls for protecting access to legal abortion, defending LGBTQ rights, and welcoming and supporting immigrants. It also included language that appears to be a direct response to conservative attacks and the Republican state platform. “Our students deserve an honest treatment of all subjects, with a curriculum guided by educators, not corrupted by political agendas rooted in prejudice or unhinged from reality,” the platform says.

It mentions the Jan. 6 insurrection and describes democracy itself as being under threat from political extremists.

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“The Maine Democratic Party rejects the use and acceptance of violence and intimidation as legitimate political discourse,” the platform states. “We disavow the ideologies these fringe political factions promote. We pledge to act in truth and good faith to preserve our democracy against the attacks of violent extremists.”

But Democrats did not publicly debate proposals to change the platform and help shape the statement of party values and priorities.

Unlike the Republicans, who debated and amended their party’s platform in public and on the convention floor, Democrats have been working out their differences behind the scenes. And party officials would only provide copies of the amendments after the platform had been finalized.

Officials say the platform debate took place virtually because they are holding a hybrid convention, with many delegates participating remotely because of the increase in COVID-19 across the state. But the move also allows the party to avoid exacerbating tensions between the centrist Mills and progressives.

“We opted for an online discussion and voting process this year so that delegates who were not able to make it to Bangor would be able to participate fully,” said Jacob Stern, the party’s communications director.

About 500 people are expected to attend the two-day convention in person, while another 500 or so are expected to attend online, according to a party spokesperson. Masks and proof of vaccination were required to be admitted.

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By contrast, the Republican convention drew 1,800 to the Augusta Civic Center, party officials said.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, cited the lower attendance in Bangor as an indication of a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats, whom he blames for inflation.

“The Democrats’ convention today made clear that the Democrats are not focused on what matters to Mainers right now – inflation and out of control costs,” Savage said in an email Friday night.

ONE AMENDMENT ADOPTED

According to draft amendments obtained by the Press Herald ahead of the convention and the formal release, Democrats debated roughly 30 amendments to the party platform. Most were aimed at adding specific progressive policy positions to what is more of a general statement of values. Only a minor amendment was adopted.

Several of the proposed amendments would have contradicted policy positions held by Mills.

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One proposed amendment would have called on Democrats to support full sovereignty for Maine tribes. Mills threatened to veto a bill last session that would have done exactly that, although she did sign bills to give Maine tribes exclusive access to online sports betting and give the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point more control over its drinking water.

Other proposals would have advanced a series of criminal justice reforms, including decriminalizing drugs and sex work, as well as ending mass incarceration and cash bail. Mills, a former attorney general, has been cautious about criminal justice reforms.

Another failed proposal would have backed a consumer-owned electricity utility. Mills vetoed a bill last year that would have forced a buyout of Central Maine Power and Versant, the state’s two largest, private electric utility companies.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, shares the stage with his wife, Isobel, and year-old daughter, Rosemary, as Maine Democrats open their annual convention in Bangor on Friday. Penelope Overton/Staff Writer

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Drew Gattine said the platform discussion was held virtually so more people could participate. He said the platform committee consisted of 80 people and the platform was approved by 60 percent of the 530 people who cast ballots.

Gattine said only one amendment was made to the platform, which was not discussed in detail. He said Democrats are thinking of continuing the virtual format for drafting and debating the platform.

“COVID had a big impact, but we were committed to having an open and democratic process, and having honest conversations and difficult conversations when those conversations were necessary,” Gattine said. “I’m really proud of our platform.”

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Friday’s session was short, with the party handling routine business. Outside the Cross Center, the Maine Republican Party had put up signs reading “Biden Mills gas hike,” part of the party’s efforts to tie Mills to global and national inflation.

Those addressing the convention Friday included House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden and Gattine.

‘WE ARE NOT GOING BACK’

Fecteau, the youngest presiding officer in the country and the state’s first openly gay speaker, contrasted the records of Mills and LePage, saying repeatedly that, “we are not going back,” especially when it comes to LGBTQ and abortion rights. He noted how Paul “Florida man” LePage vetoed a bill to ban conversion therapy – a bill later signed by Mills.

“I believe LGBTQ youth are perfect just the way they are,” Fecteau said. “We are the party of LGBTQ rights. We fought like hell to get them and we are not going back.”

Fecteau even worked in a jab at Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who called police after someone wrote an abortion rights message on the sidewalk outside her Bangor home.

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“We’re going to raise our voices for reproductive rights and we’re armed with too much chalk to let us go back to the days before Roe,” he said.

Golden, who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, focused on his working-class roots, support for unions and his willingness to stand up to powerful forces, whether it’s President Trump or President Biden. He described his likely opponent, Republican Bruce Poliquin, who faces a primary challenger, as a wealthy, suit-wearing, career politician, while recounting his own efforts to stand with picketing workers and blue-collar Mainers.

“I’ve put a premium on showing up and listening,” Golden said.

Golden also mentioned his bill to expand the rights of Maine tribes, saying that he “strongly and proudly supports recognizing their sovereignty.”

The convention will resume Saturday. Scheduled speakers include Mills, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Sen. President Troy Jackson and former Gov. John Baldacci. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff also will address the convention via video.

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