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Mike Sylvester on landmark bills and Mills’s veto machine in the Maine Legislature

by | Jul 24, 2021 | Featured, Politics

Pine and Roses’ Todd Chretien sat down with Maine State Representative Mike Sylvester (District 39, Portland) who serves as House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Labor and Housing to review the good, the bad, and ugly of the 130th Legislature.

Mike grew up in Lewiston and now lives on Peaks Island with his wife, three boys and their dogs Buttercup and Sweets. He worked as a labor organizer and representative for nearly twenty years with the state workers’ union, the teachers’ union, the Newspaper Guild and, most recently, with the Justice for Janitors local in Boston. Sylvester is a founding member of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America and in 2016 was the first nationally endorsed DSA candidate to win state office.

Mike Sylvester represents District 39 in the Maine House of Representatives, which includes the East End of Portland, Upper Bayside and many of the islands of Casco Bay.

***

Todd Chretien: Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Mike. I’d like to start off by asking you about the relationship between the reform-minded Democratic majority in the Maine Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills.

Mike Sylvester: Happy to to talk! First off, for folks to understand the dynamics between the Legislature and Gov. Mills in the 130th, you have to understand the 129th. When she was inaugurated in January 2019, we were thinking, “We’ve got the House, we’ve got the Senate, we’ve got the governorship. We’re going to pass a bunch of great stuff.” We all think we’re going to be working in collaboration with the governor, but the very first time we met, the governor comes in and tells us that we’re stupid if we don’t agree with the CMP corridor, there’s plenty of trees in the state, we cut them down every day.

TC: When you say “we”? 

MS: The House Democratic caucus in the 129th Legislature. And, honestly, the session doesn’t get much better. There are liaisons for each of the areas that we get to talk to, but they don’t say much. So, you might have a bill and you’ll hear, “Aw, the governor doesn’t care for that bill much. The governor has concerns about that bill.” And that’s all you get.

TC: How did legislators react? 

MS: Many of the bills that motivated people to run for office in the first place just got killed. And the ones that did get to committee were met with “Well, we need to talk about that, so will you carry that over until the next session?” So there was a lot of built up energy when the second session of the 129th convened in January 2020.

Photo credit Robert F. Bukay, AP

TC: But Covid stopped a lot of progressive bills in their tracks.

MS: Even before that, Gov. Mills vetoed a ton of bills in the first session of the 129th in 2019. Dozens of them. Anything increasing local control, labor bills, anything judicial… because that’s her area as the former Attorney General. So that’s the history of the freshman, sophomore legislators coming through the 129th. And then that crew of legislators with their bevy of bills was re-elected into the 130th, which convened last winter and really got underway in the spring of 2021. That set up a very different dynamic where people were not saying “We’re all on the same team!” 

TC: So, for the first year of the Mills administration, the progressive wing was stymied and then, when you started to get back on your feet in the spring of 2020, Covid knocked you out again.

MS: As it turned out, all of us having to work through Zoom in the Legislature meant there was more communication than there would have been if we were all in our separate rooms in the building. We were all texting all the time! 

I have to say in all honesty that this is the best group of bills that have passed the Legislature, whether or not they were vetoed. And it’s the best budget that I’ve had the chance to vote on. Lots of very important things made it through because there was a very coordinated effort on the left. Along with that, we spent a lot of time teaching people how to organize in their districts and within the legislature. 

TC: Can you give me a few specific examples of important legislation passed by the 130th? 

MS: Obviously, shutting down Long Creek youth prison, getting money in the budget to provide healthcare for immigrants, regardless of status, and reestablishing parole for prisoners. Many of the bills that came out of the Judicial Committee were landmark bills. And Rep. Grayson Lookner’s ban on law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology is the strictest in the nation and it got through unsigned.

Rally for LD 718 to restore funding for New Mainers. Photo credit Maine Equal Justice FB.

TC: Now those four bills you just mentioned–Long Creek, immigrant healthcare, parole, and facial recognition–all relate to racial justice. Was there a relationship between those bills and the Black Lives Matter protests last summer? 

MS: Absolutely. Anybody who is in the group I’m talking about had a very cognitive shift in terms of thinking about what their role as legislators is. What Black Lives Matter did was to break the dynamic in the Democratic Party between the people who are only worried about elections and the people who are concerned about policy. For example, last year, the “election” people were whipping votes against my bill to levy a 3% tax on the wealthy to go directly to the lowest income workers through an earned income tax credit. They argued, “You shouldn’t vote for it, you’ll never get reelected.” But what are those voices doing today? Nothing. In the 128th, it was 90-10 elections versus policy. How do we find a safe place to land? What’s the spin? Now I would say it’s 70-30 the other way. Now, people are willing to live and die on policy. 

TC: And is that because a new group has been elected or because incumbents saw or felt something they had to react to Black Lives Matter? Or to Trump? Or both? 

MS: It’s both. But it’s also a very conscious effort to educate people about issues they didn’t know about. To look to people like Rachel Talbot Ross and elect them to leadership. Her election to Assistant House Majority Leader (the first African American to serve in that position) brought the left legislators together for the first time to make sure that happened. Previously, there was a large group that worried about what that would mean. You know, the code word was “Portland.” An argument that “those” weren’t the issues in northern Maine. We didn’t shy away from what electing Rachel meant and that broke open a lot of other things.

Maine State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, District 40

If we hadn’t drawn a line in the sand to fund the Permanent Commission on Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Maine Tribal Populations in the First Supplemental Budget, it wouldn’t have been funded at all. Now, it hasn’t been fully funded, so the promise has not been kept, but it wouldn’t have gotten any funding if we hadn’t fought for it. 

TC: Was that on the strength of the more urban, more progressive areas or has there also been a shift you can see in rural parts of Maine? 

MS: There are a lot of folks who ran left of center in rural areas, but they might not have viewed themselves that way before last summer, until they did a deep policy dive. Without naming names, I can think of a couple members who came into the Legislature very leery, but are now like, “Burn it down!” And that’s based on a very conscious effort by a group about what policy hills are we going to live and die on. Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong. Sometimes we were too conservative, sometimes we went too far.

TC: Before we get into Gov. Mills’s vetoes, it sounds like there’s a number of things to applaud from this session, despite the governor’s lack of communication.  

MS: It’s my job to criticize figures who stop people from bringing their voices forward, from bringing their power forward. But I do want to add that the job that was done to keep our state safe from Covid and the job of bringing our economy back were very important. Many of the ideas that come out of the Mills administration are good ideas, like family leave, like rent relief, like the emergency shelters set up during the pandemic with full support from the administration. Most of the departments are trying to pull the sled in the right direction. And if they were just allowed to work in the same way that Dr. Shah was allowed to work, then Mills would go down as the greatest governor the state has ever had because the commissioners are fantastic for the most part. But it’s my job to push.

TC: At the same time, Long Creek, arbitration, Pine Tree Power, binding arbitration, and Tribal sovereignty have all been vetoed, along with many other bills. Let’s talk about what died on Gov. Mills’s desk, starting with Tribal sovereignty and LD 554.

MS: What I said in the caucus was that this isn’t about gaming, it’s about the first step in recognizing sovereignty. And there were Republican votes in favor of it too. So it didn’t have anything to do with gaming. Gov. Mills has always had an adversarial relationship with the tribes. The bill didn’t even promise gaming, but it’s a point where you can say “I respect the process in place between us and we’re going to move forward.” But it didn’t happen. And there was no conversation from the governor beforehand. Just whispers, “she’s going to veto it.”

TC: What about Gov. Mills’s veto of the bill to close down Long Creek juvenile prison?

MS: Long Creek is a good example of the relationship between the 129th and the 130th. We had a bill to do something serious in the 129th, but it turned into a study group with Michael Brennan, Victoria Morales, Charlotte Warren, a bunch of folks. Brennan developed his own bill which carried out the recommendations of that commission. Usually, what comes out of those commissions ends up somewhere in the middle or to the right of what really needs to get done, but they did a really good job and came up with Brennan’s legislation to reform the way the state treats youths detained in the system. 

Then Grayson Lookner came in with the 130th with the idea to close it entirely. That’s what it takes. Someone coming in who doesn’t know how hard it will be to pass that kind of bill. The caucus fought incredibly hard on this because they heard all those stories and because we put the voices of the youth themselves up front.

Image courtesy of Maine Youth Justice

TC: So Mills vetoed Lookner’s bill with an eye towards letting Brennan’s pass? 

MS: Exactly. 

TC: Moving on to Pine Tree Power. I was surprised it got through the Senate. In fact, there was a back and forth to get the majority. How did it get through both houses? It seems like an enormous attack on monopoly and private property. 

MS: Anyone who’s been here for a second has had CMP in their ear to defeat every solar or wind proposal, any kind of green power. So, this group of legislators came in very focused on green power, it was one of our main priorities. But you can’t do any of that with CMP standing in the way.

Politically, it was a very tough vote, but I think people understood it. And, CMP being the worst-rated utility and putting their foot in their mouth every time you turn around helped it pass as well. Literally refusing to admit that their customer satisfaction ratings are 50th out of 50th in the U.S. in every category. So how could it get worse? How are the opponents of public power going to say, “Oh! Things could get worse.” It just doesn’t get worse or more expensive than what we have now. 

Seth Berry speaks for LD 1708. Photo courtesy of BDN.

TC: So, it’s a growing recognition of the global climate crisis plus CMP’s long-term local record. Now that the governor has vetoed LD 1708, what do you think will happen now? 

MS: We see our politics shifting somewhere new, but Mills is a 1990s transactional Democrat. She’s had long ties, from the time she was a legislator, to CMP.  She knows CMP. She does not know much of the Democratic legislature. So she backs them and disregards us. Now we go to the people the hard way and gather signatures to put it on the ballot. CMP isn’t going to like the results in November 2022.

TC: And finally, binding arbitration. How did that pass the Legislature and why did Gov. Mills veto it? 

MS: Well, it’s always a debate. I propose giving state workers the right to strike, Troy Jackson (the President of the Maine Senate) puts in binding arbitration. In fact, I’ve always had more support in the Legislature for strike, but the public sector workers–from city workers to state workers to teachers–wanted binding arbitration because that makes a big difference in negotiations. Right now, you can’t go to arbitration for any real decisions on financial matters, it’s non-binding. 

Having negotiated many of these contracts in states that have binding arbitration, in reality, it never goes to binding arbitration. It’s like a strike vote, almost always, if you file for arbitration, you end up settling the contract.

TC: Why wasn’t there support to override her veto? On this bill or any of the others.

MS: We will not override her veto on this, or on any other bill, because the Republicans are going to support her on everything, on all of the bills she’s vetoed. 

TC: You’re not a mind reader, but why do you think Gov. Mills is vetoing all these bills? Is it out of political conviction? Or is she trying to position herself as “independent minded, straight shooter” and “above the partisanship” to triangulate between the left and the right in advance of facing Paul LePage in 2022?

I think it’s more about who Gov. Mills is a person. She always believes she’s the smartest person in the room. There’s two things: the things she “knows” (I’m making air quotes here) and there’s the things she’s pretty sure she knows. When you’re in that second category, you can sort of have a conversation. But when the governor believes she knows something, it’s very difficult to change her opinion. Take judicial reform, she will always give greater latitude to the police versus a citizen’s group. 

But to say that she’s a straight shooter, I guess I’d have to say there would have to be a lot more communication to know. 

Now some of the things that come directly from the governor, or come in collaboration with her departments, can be very good. Things that come from the outside, that are not their idea, have a real struggle. That’s the conundrum of Janet. She knows what she knows. She doesn’t have a lot of communication and doesn’t want it. Unless, that is, you’re the Chamber of Commerce or the Retail Association, then you can get in there.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. Take Covid-19. She is an incredibly intelligent woman and I think that, had she been open to a dialogue back and forth, her opinions might have changed. That’s where the veto machine comes from. It’s not some calculation, it’s just who she is as an individual. 

TC: Given that, how do you think former Gov. Paul LePage’s declaration that he’s running again in 2022 will impact Augusta?

Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage. Photo credit Newsweek

MS: Here’s the real tragedy of Paul LePage coming in. It will absolutely make it impossible to criticize the governor. And, in many ways, that’s the triangulation. The Republicans choosing LePage will close down the space for an independent running or a challenge from a different party and, so far, it has even stopped anyone from announcing a primary challenge to Mills. 

TC: And LePage will win a Republican primary, right? 

MS: Oh, absolutely, they will crush anybody who tries to come against him, just as the Democrats will crush anybody who tries to come against Mills. 

TC: Outside of the legislative realm, can you point to a few groups who are mobilizing people in Maine and having an impact? 

MS: Well, clearly the People First Portland referenda in Portland had a huge impact on the state. Strangely, PFP had a bigger effect on the Republicans than the Democrats because maybe 30% of their legislation was reacting to the referenda, that is, they were trying to pass laws to prevent it from ever happening anywhere else.

The Maine People’s Alliance has had a resurgence as well. In terms of the environment, there were a lot of small, grassroots groups like those working to stop the corridor and for Pine Tree Power. A lot of women’s groups worked hard on family medical leave, and I didn’t even mention that! Then there was a group, just regular people, who came together to help push unemployment reform. It came out of the AFL-CIO, Maine Equal Justice, the Maine Center for Economic Policy. 

But a lot of groups mostly work inside the state capitol and what’s missing now are groups that can organize outside the building. 

TC: Speaking of inside/outside, you spent decades organizing outside the building, but you’ve been inside for the last four years. Given both perspectives, how do you tell the difference between real reforms and political spin? 

MS: Well, take the Commission. We look at it and say, “We got something.” I don’t think folks quite yet appreciate the importance of having a racial impact assessment on every bill. Long term, that’s going to be big and it will give a way to think about how to organize. Traditionally Democrats would have spun that as a total victory even though it wasn’t fully funded. But being more to the left, even if we fill nine holes, we always look to the last one we didn’t get filled and we tear our clothes and fixate on it because that’s just who we are as people. 

When I got elected in 2016 into the 128th, I said to then Speaker of the House Sarah Gideon, I have a whole list of bills and she said, “So you’re going way out on the left so we can govern from the center.” I said, “Exactly.” My job is to push the discussion on the left. So, if you look at the two Long Creek bills, you’ve Lookner’s bill to close it down, then you’ve got Michael Brennan’s bill to make it better. And “make it better” gets through. But if “make it better” is sitting there by itself, maybe they’ll make some small token reform and call it a victory. So that’s the job of the left in the legislature right now. To put out the extreme possibilities and then to make really hard decisions. 

A lot of left-wing bills, for instance, Pine Tree Power, were just sitting there without much support. But by proposing things like my 3% tax on the wealthiest bill, it raised expectations and got people thinking more was possible. And in my committee, I’d say, “OK, vote how you want on the 3% (cause you gotta vote against something), but we really need the vote on Pine Tree Power.” So I let my 3% go but we won Pine Tree Power. And, like I said, even though Gov. Mills vetoed it, we’re going to get it done the hard way.

Todd Chretien is a high school Spanish teacher, translator, and author. He is a member of the Pine and Roses editorial collective and Maine DSA.

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