Maine’s local civic culture still survives in the age of Trump and LePage

Maine’s local civic culture still survives in the age of Trump and LePage

This week, as Mainers went to the polls to vote for a statewide bond referendum, local school budgets, and countless local council, selectboard, and school board seats around the state, I had the chance to sit down with fellow under-35 city councilors Sarah Nichols and Ben Sprague of Bangor and Spencer Thibodeau of Portland at a panel discussion at the Maine Democratic Party’s first annual Lead Local conference, where we were asked to talk about our experiences as young local elected officials in the age of LePage and Trump.

There are a lot of reasons why those answers could have been pretty depressing.

With the Legislature still in the throes of budget negotiations, whether or not the will of voters to fully fund our schools by ensuring that the wealthiest among us pay their fair will be preserved remains an open question. The proposed elimination of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program from federal budget would rob Maine communities of tens of millions of dollars aimed at lifting vulnerable families out of poverty in the coming years. State and federal infrastructure dollars continue to dry up, forcing municipalities to pick up the difference or to defer essential maintenance. Revenue sharing continues to fall under attack. These are not trivial issues.

Despite a shared recognition around the table that the challenges local officials are facing right now are immense, the overriding tone of the conversation was one of optimism and determination. That upbeat mood seemed to be attributed to one fact: a shared belief among us that the work of local government has the real power to be transformational for our citizens and institutions.

In discussing the work that each of us were most proud of, we all pointed to projects that were undertaken in collaborations with elected officials, city employees, concerned citizens, local businesses and nonprofits, and surrounding communities; partnerships based on mutual respect and shared desires to improve lives and living conditions. The centrality of good faith actors, civic virtue, and human compassion to our proudest achievements for our towns provided an increasingly rare affirmation that there is a resilience in the institutions of government that are forced by design to maintain constant contact with their citizens. While members of our federal delegation like Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Sen. Susan Collins refuse to hold town hall meetings, city councilors hold them every week: every meeting is a direct dialogue with our citizens.

That is not to say that local institutions are immune from corruption or petty personal politics, or that the resilience of our local political institutions is inevitable — social injustices can be and are carried out on political stages both large and small. But as progressive resistance movements work to shape our political systems into more responsive and equitable structures, it’s important to remember that towns and cities are where policy and people have the most natural points of contact, and a place where a few optimistic and determined people can make a lot of difference for a lot of people.

Photo of Biddeford City Hall via Flickr/Joseph.

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 36 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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