Gov. Janet Mills speaks during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BANGOR — Gov. Janet Mills used her speech at the 2022 Democratic State Convention on Saturday to remind the party faithful of the progress made to help Maine people over the last three and a half years and repeatedly compared her record with that of former Gov. Paul LePage, the Republican challenging her this fall.

Mills noted that she moved forward policies blocked by LePage and rebuilt state services cut during his two terms. She said she expanded health care, signed a bill outlawing conversion therapy for LGBTQ people, released senior housing bonds, restored an elderly prescription drug program, rebuilt the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and fully funded Maine schools, among other things.

Mills’ speech was cut short by a fire alarm apparently triggered by a monster truck show nearby, but her message was clear.

“I don’t know who Paul LePage was thinking about, but it wasn’t Maine people,” Mills said repeatedly. “We won’t go back.”

Gov. Janet Mills speaks during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mills’ speech wrapped up a convention at the Cross Insurance Center that focused on the threat to democracy – both here and abroad – and the need to protect a women’s right to choose an abortion, which is under threat from the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats positioned themselves as the political party fighting for working people and described Republicans as more of a cult serving corporate interests.

The hybrid convention drew about 1,000 people, half in person and half online, and featured some technical difficulties with people addressing the convention by video. By contrast, the Maine Republican Convention last month drew about 1,800 people and was held in person at the Augusta Civic Center.

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Republican Party leaders gathered Saturday in the hot sun in front of the Paul Bunyan statue outside the Cross Insurance Center to accuse Democrats of exploiting hot-button political issues such as abortion to distract from the average Mainer’s desperate pocketbook woes. But they were shouted down by Democrats, who chanted “bans off our bodies” and “won’t go back” and urged LePage to “go back to Florida.”

The Republican news conference broke up within minutes, but party leaders – who seemed to almost enjoy the spectacle of the showdown, saying they knew this would likely happen if they held the event outside the Cross facility – lingered to speak individually.

“They can’t stand to hear us say it, but all these emotional issues they’re bringing up, abortion included, doesn’t mean anything if we can’t afford to buy groceries, heat our home, gas up our cars,” said Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas. “The economy is all that matters.”

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. issued a statement later criticizing the governor. “Mills kept repeating that ‘we won’t go back’ – won’t go back to what?” he said in part. “The low gas, grocery, and electricity prices we had before she came into office? We think that Mainers are quite ready to go back to a time when a healthy cart of groceries didn’t break the family budget.”

People hold signs for Gov. Janet Mills during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mills took on Republican criticisms over inflation, framing it as a global problem beyond the control of governors and one caused by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She drew another contrast with LePage, saying that he opposed the $850 inflation relief checks approved by Mills, other Democrats and Republicans.

“While no governor can control the international forces that contribute to inflation, what this governor can do is provide relief directly to the Maine people, and that’s exactly what I am doing,” Mills said. “My opponent called it a gimmick to send money back to the people of Maine.”

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Suspending the state gasoline tax and phasing out the income tax would help all Mainers, Kouzounas said when pressed for Republican solutions to inflation, citing two of LePage’s campaign promises. Electing Republicans to state and federal office is the best safeguard against inflation, she said.

But Mills noted that eliminating the income tax would only result in increases in property and sales taxes.

On abortion, Kouzounas said Republicans had no plans to try to repeal the 1993 state law that codifies the Roe v. Wade protections. When pressed, she said Republicans would like to repeal the law that expanded MaineCare coverage to include abortion.

“I don’t see the Maine law changing,” Kouzounas said. “I mean, they are making this an issue in the state of Maine when we know the Maine law is probably not going to change. But I shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s abortion. That’s too much. That we would change.”

State Senator Troy Jackson speaks during the Democratic State Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In the last legislative session, Republicans sponsored six anti-abortion bills, all of which were defeated.

Mills defended her record, ranging from measures taken to protect Mainers early in the pandemic to having one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, plus an economic recovery that has resulted in a $1.2 million surplus, investments in vital programs like education and health care, and a record high rainy day fund, approaching $500 million.

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Democrats in Maine are looking to soothe divisions among progressive party members and Mills, a centrist governor, ahead of the fall elections, which are expected to be difficult for the party. While the threat to abortion rights may motivate disaffected Democrats this fall, there are signs that Mills’ continued opposition to full tribal sovereignty could haunt her.

Attendees at the convention in Bangor were greeted Saturday morning by a demonstration by about two dozen people in support of tribal sovereignty, which is limited by a part of unique settlement agreements signed in 1980 that allow the state to treat tribes more like municipalities than sovereign nations.

Deb Paredes-Martinez a 23-year-old climate activist from Orono, said she was demonstrating because tribal sovereignty is in the party platform, yet Mills threatened to veto a bill passed by both chambers of the Legislature that would have granted Maine tribes the same rights as the 570 other federally recognized tribes in the United States. 

“We’re here calling out Democrats and Janet Mills for not supporting tribal sovereignty,” Paredes-Martinez said. “Right now, we, as youth leaders, are out here letting the Dems know, and Janet Mills, before this election year that we’re watching and we are the future leaders of tomorrow and we know tribal sovereignty is inherent and a key part of mitigating the climate crisis.”

The demonstration came a day after a group of nearly two dozen youth leaders issued a statement calling out Mills for not supporting tribal sovereignty.

“The Democrats had the power to see this bill through, but Mills did everything in her power to ensure that L.D. 1626 did not reach her desk, and many legislative leaders fell in line,” the group said.

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Mills said she would continue to work with the Wabanaki leaders on issues of concern.

“We will continue to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue with the people of the Wabanaki nations to build the progress we made, knowing that everything we have achieved so far – and it’s a lot – is just the beginning,” Mills said, referring to bills to give tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting and to give the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point more control of their drinking water.

A modest crowd listens as U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree speaks at the Maine Democratic Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Paul Davis, 59-year-old retiree from Brewer, said he was attending the convention to show support for Mills and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, who spoke Friday night. Davis said he is confident that the party will unite around Mills and turn out at the polls this fall, because in his opinion the alternative – LePage in the Blaine House and a Republican-controlled Legislature – is worse. 

“I am progressive and I support Janet Mills,” Davis said. “It’s a scary time and I think Gov. Mills is the person with civility, which is something we never had under Paul LePage. And leadership when it comes to reproductive rights and climate change and those things – we need a leader, and Janet is the leader.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree speaks during the Maine Democratic Convention at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

U.S Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, urged the convention on Saturday to support Mills and Golden and didn’t mention her race against Republican Ed Thelander.

But Pingree said the stakes are high this fall, with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and Republicans looking to roll back other rights. She acknowledged frustration that Democrats haven’t been able to accomplish more in Congress over the last 18 months, but stressed the importance of Democrats maintaining control.

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“Everything is at stake,” Pingree said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

Mills is expected to need the support of progressives, who have been disappointed by policy setbacks under the Democratic governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But she’ll need to energize progressives without alienating independents, who make up a third of all Maine registered voters.

On Friday, the Maine Democratic Party released its new platform, which sets the vision and direction of the party. But all of the debate about proposed amendments – roughly 30 of them seeking to add specific progressive policies – was done virtually and out of public view. That’s in contrast to the Maine Republican Party, which amended and debated its platform on the floor of its convention.

Of the two legislative chambers, the Senate is perhaps the Republicans’ best chance at earning a majority.

Senate leaders promoted their slate of candidates, which they said was 60 percent women and the most diverse slate ever.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the special election in District 7, featuring Democrat Nicole Grohoski vs. Republican Brian Langley, was a must win for the party.

“We have to have it,” Jackson said. “If we win that race, it demoralizes (Republicans) and it sets the tone for November.”

Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this report.

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