Grayson Lookner is the State Representative for Maine’s House District 37, representing portions of Portland that includes Libbytown, Stroudwater, and Rosemont areas. Before his November 2020 election, Rep. Lookner had gained experience as an EMT, a behavioral health professional, and spent years as a community organizer on Housing reform. Just prior to his State House run, Lookner worked as Regional Field Director for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Campaign efforts in Maine. As a State Representative, Lookner has sponsored bills that would impose a one-time wealth tax on financial assets over $5 million, halt no-cause evictions during the pandemic, and create a plan to close Long Creek. Pine and Roses caught up with Grayson to discuss his experience as a democratic socialist office holder.
Good afternoon Representative Lookner, thank you for your time today. As a way of introduction for the readers, could you tell us a little bit about why you chose to run for the Maine House in 2020?
When I moved back to Maine in 2014, running for public office was not on my radar, but that was the year Paul Lepage was running for reelection and I knew I had to do all in my power to help defeat him, so I started knocking doors for his opponent three days a week – more for my own sanity than anything else. Although we were unsuccessful in defeating Lepage that year, and it was an ominous sign concerning the rise of white nationalism around the country, I did meet a lot of people who would later connect me with the Bernie 2016 campaign. Through that campaign I got inspired to get involved to make real change from the bottom on up, and realized that nobody in state politics seemed really concerned with the housing crisis, or cared much about people who rent their homes. Through my involvement in other statewide campaigns like Ranked Choice Voting and Clean Elections, I knew it was something I could do. In Portland, State House districts actually represent fewer constituents than city council districts, so the State House seemed like a sensible place to start.
In the past you worked in residential homes and as a housing activist for many years. Can you talk a little bit about that work and how the system treats working-class people?
For people with money – the majority of whom are white – it is easy to afford suitable treatment for substance use disorder, and to get around becoming involved in the criminal justice system. For those without money – often young people of color for instance – the choice is usually between jail and the street. We systematically underfund services that help people get into housing and integrate into their communities. The deck is stacked against those who do not come from families or communities who can support them. The system sets them up for failure, then blames them as individuals when they need help. For a fraction of what we spend on punitive policing and jails, we can house people and support them in building lives. Unfortunately, there is tremendous resistance against preventative measures by members of the law enforcement and corrections communities and those loyal to them, because such an approach would undermine the need for their professions.
How do you decide what bills to propose along the spectrum of modest incremental change to radical transformation?
When I first got elected I thought, “what are the bills I can propose that will create the most systemic change, but also have the slightest chance of getting passed?” Some of the bills I introduced I knew would raise eyebrows among Maine’s professional and managerial class – e.g. the Democratic Party establishment – and I’m sure some of those folks have been having quite a chuckle watching those bills get torpedoed one-by-one in various committees. I would not consider any of my bills particularly radical, but it says a lot about the conservative nature of the process when only a few of them have a real chance of getting through the legislative process and enacted by the Governor. As a rookie legislator without an extensive legal background, there is admittedly a lot I don’t know, and it has been a steep learning curve. When I got sworn in, I didn’t realize that there was a literal deadline for introducing legislation, and I’ve had many ideas since then, ideas that I will work on in future sessions if I’m reelected.
Could you tell us a little bit about bills you currently have before the Maine legislature, and how they would benefit Maine’s working class?
I will start with the bills that are in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee to which I’ve been assigned, and thus have much more power over the fate of those specific pieces of legislation than I do over the bills I have that are in other committees. LD 1668, which would close the Long Creek Youth Development Center, would have a profound and immediate impact on the lives of the young people of color currently incarcerated at that facility, and also remove the fear of young people all over the state that if they make a mistake that they will end up in such an environment. It would be a step towards decarceration and ensuring that the state of Maine treats teens living in poverty in a humane way, not as criminals.
LD 1585 would reign in the ability of law enforcement and government agencies all over the state to utilize racist facial surveillance technology, and seems to have a good chance of making it through the committee with a favorable report.
LD 1546 would permanently establish the emergency rental relief fund that was created by the CARES Act within the state of Maine. That bill was turned into a study to come back to in a few years.
LD 1255 would prohibit all evictions until 90 days after the declared state of emergency. It got a divided report out of committee, which is hopeful.
My bill to mandate that all bills before the legislature have a “climate impact note,” in addition to a fiscal impact, seems to be facing steep headwinds, as does my bill around transparency in medical billing. My bill to have more inclusionary zoning in Maine towns that are dominated by NIMBYism was killed in committee. What I didn’t realize when I first got elected is how much it matters who a bill’s sponsor is, I was naive enough to think that the content of what’s actually in a bill was the determining factor as to whether or not a committee or an individual legislator would support it. I was wrong.
What do you think it will take to get to the point of passing more transformative bills into law?
Primarying & defeating conservative Democrats, and defeating Republicans in rural districts. Most of the people who are having these conversations live in Portland, in a few coastal communities, and in Bangor. We need to be having these conversations in Lewiston, Biddeford, and Sanford. We need to be having these conversations in Presque Isle, Farmington, and Fryeburg. Without bringing the dialogue to those communities we will continue to be preaching to the choir. With a sizable minority of Republicans in the legislature, and with the Democratic Party continuing to be controlled by the moderate wing, the prospects of advancing transformative change remain limited.
What role do you think people organizing in the streets play in influencing the legislature’s appetite for change?
A huge role, but again the demonstrations can’t just be happening in Portland. This legislative session has been in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, which continues to be a radical statement to many in the legislature. BLM and racial equity in general are the most salient issues this session, which says a lot considering that we are still in a state of emergency due to the pandemic.
The Maine legislature is interesting because the districts are small enough so that if a particular lawmaker is hearing directly from their constituents around specific bills, that can really have an impact. For all of their faults, most Democrats are at least open and vulnerable to criticisms around racial and social justice shortcomings. Most Republicans reject and are impervious to those critiques, and live in districts that permit them to be. Until we can figure out ways to take these movements to rural areas we will continue to face headwinds in the legislative process.
Who do you look to in history for inspiration? What current or past social movements give you the most hope?
Bernie Sanders inspired me and gave me the experience to run for office. “Real change never takes place from the top down, but from the bottom up,” that is a mantra that has guided me, that sounds nice until you actually get elected and realize the scale of the change that needs to take place. This certainly needs to be a “not me, us” movement. I hope everyone reading this runs for something.
BLM has made a difference, and has exposed how our entire governmental process is steeped in white supremacy. Historically I look to the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and women like Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, and successes that democratic socialists have had in other countries for inspiration.
Having had the opportunity to work in Sweden with the Swedish Left Party was an eye-opener that showed me what was possible. Sweden is not a utopia, but their system is far better for working people than ours. That was accomplished through decades of struggle, both through the legislative process and outside lawmaking bodies in the streets. We can move in that direction, but I don’t believe that we have the luxury of having decades to bring the changes that we need.