The real story: How four Senate Democrats sold out Maine’s asylum seekers

The real story: How four Senate Democrats sold out Maine’s asylum seekers

The fight to make sure Maine continues General Assistance (GA) funding for asylum seekers and prevents more than a thousand families from becoming homeless likely ended on Monday. That’s when LD 369, a bill that would have affirmed the authority of cities and towns to provide assistance, failed to garner enough Republican support in the House to override an expected veto from Governor Paul LePage.

Cities like Portland and Lewiston are now scrambling to come up with their own resources to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

Monday wasn’t when the fight was really lost, however. That happened last week when four Democratic senators joined most of the Republican caucus on a key budget vote. These four senators: Bill Diamond, David Dutremble, Dawn Hill, and Linda Valentino, should be held accountable for their actions.

I can no longer politely disagree behind closed doors.

I have been the political director for Maine People’s Alliance and worked in the State House for five years. Unlike most Mainers, I’ve been able to see the legislative process up close. Often the complexity of the issues and the procedures make it difficult to draw clear moral lines. What has happened this session with asylum seekers and General Assistance, however, is different. It’s a clear example of a morally indefensible position.

Below is my perspective on the how and why of what happened. I don’t expect it will earn me many friends in the hallways of the State House, but it is time to start telling the truth about how exactly regular people are sometimes betrayed by those claiming to represent their interests. I am angry, but these words come from a place of hope. I hope that by shining some light in dark corners we can more clearly understand this struggle and win the battle for the soul of our state.

Bipartisan agreement to protect asylum seekers in Appropriations

This story starts with the bipartisan budget agreement, crafted by a coalition of Democrats and Senate Republicans on the Appropriations Committee—including Senator Valentino. These legislators voted to reject the Governor’s proposed denial of GA eligibility for asylum seekers. The GA program is mostly used for housing and is especially critical for asylum seekers because, although they enter the U.S. lawfully, fleeing violent persecution in their home country, it is illegal for them to work, and they qualify for no other public assistance.

Unfortunately, House Republicans on Appropriations were more interested in scoring political points than protecting the lives and well-being of their neighbors. They continued to parrot election-season lies that had been blasted all over Maine on TV commercials – that asylum seekers were so-called “illegal immigrants” – and voted against the compromise.

Republican hypocrisy

The full hypocrisy and moral cowardice of House Republicans on Appropriations became clear as they repeatedly rejected Democrats’ legal clarifications, which would have spelled out that only lawfully present immigrants could receive General Assistance. They loved the political theater of their lies too much to quit. (Don’t just take my word for it. Most of Maine’s major newspapers editorialized against their “willful distortion” of the truth.)

Because House Republicans opposed the bipartisan compromise, the Appropriations Committee could not come to its typical unanimous agreement on the budget. That is important because in Maine, under most circumstances, it takes a vote of two-thirds in both the House and the Senate to pass a budget. Even though Democrats controlled the House and agreed with the Appropriations Committee budget, they needed House Republicans to vote with them in order to achieve the supermajority required to enact the bill. Thus, as the Appropriations Committee budget headed to the floor, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves began to negotiate for more bipartisan support.

That’s when Republican House Minority Leader Ken Fredette began his threats. He threatened to block the passage of the entire budget, shutting down state government, unless Democrats agreed to income tax cuts and so-called “welfare reform.”

Fredette ignored the fact that legitimate “welfare reform” was already in the agreement, which is why Senate Republicans supported it. Problems with the General Assistance formula were addressed (towns will now be reimbursed a flat 70% of their General Assistance expenses) and the “benefit cliff,” where public assistance recipients suddenly lose benefits after they make just a little more money, was fixed, allowing everyone to say they had properly incentivized work and self-reliance.

Those legitimate improvements to public assistance programs were not enough for House Republicans, however. They needed asylum seekers to lose General Assistance.

An unexpected court ruling

An unexpected turn of events made that possible. Right in the middle of negotiations, after the Appropriations committee vote, a Maine Superior Court Justice ruled that the state needed to explicitly say that lawfully present immigrants were eligible for benefits, or else the LePage administration could deny them. Now it was no longer enough to simply fund the program, as in the bipartisan Appropriations Committee budget compromise. The budget needed to include a law affirmatively stating that asylum seekers qualified.

Surprised by the court decision, Democrats agreed to the demands from House Republicans: income tax cuts (partially offset by some sales tax increases) and de-facto elimination of asylum seeker eligibility. This was discouraging. But at the time, there was no Republican champion willing to step forward and work with Democrats to find a solution for asylum seekers.  With the budget deadline looming, it seemed like they were out of options.

Senator Volk steps up

New hope came when Senator Amy Volk, a conservative Republican from Scarborough, stepped forward to offer an affirmative amendment to stop the crisis. She knows and cares about asylum seekers because many of them attend her Portland church. She and other allies spent the day talking with Republican colleagues and a pathway to a solution emerged.

Democrats in the House attached their own amendment to the budget, clarifying that lawfully present immigrants could receive GA, while unlawfully present immigrants could not. The plan was to have the Senate attach Volk’s bipartisan compromise amendment (it included a 24-month cap on benefits for asylum seekers) and then the House and the Senate could sit down in a conference committee and make sure the budget included the asylum seeker fix.

There would still be more hurdles to overcome, and perhaps more brinksmanship over a shutdown, but there was a real opportunity to save this vital lifeline. Republican House Minority Leader Fredette would be in the position of choosing between getting most of what he wanted and keeping the state open or shutting it down simply in order to make people homeless.

Obviously, nothing guaranteed that this gambit would work.  All of us working on the issue, from conservatives like Sen. Volk and the Christian Civic League, to Democratic leaders and allies like the Maine Equal Justice Partners, knew it was a difficult road, but the well-being of more than a thousand people hung in the balance. We believed legislators could rise to the occasion. At the very least, we needed to create the space for that to occur.

Four Democratic senators smash the plan

Our last hopes unraveled when four Democratic senators came out against the amendment. Even if Sen. Volk could bring along some Republicans, it would now not be enough. When moderate Republicans saw Democratic Senators dropping off, it also became much harder for them to break ranks and support the Volk amendment.

Sen. Valentino, an original architect of the Appropriations Committee’s fix, voted against it, as did Sen. David Dutremble, a Democrat from a very safe Biddeford seat. Sen. Dawn Hill, the assistant Democratic Leader, abandoned Senate Minortity Leader Justin Alfond with her vote against the amendment. And, of course, Senator Bill Diamond, one of the Democrats who gave Governor Paul LePage his first big victory in deregulating Maine’s health insurance industry, also voted it down.

It is, quite frankly, incredible that Republican Senator David Woodsome still voted with Sen. Volk. Other sympathetic Republicans, like Senators Tom Saviello and Roger Katz, just chickened out.

If all the Democrats had joined with Sen. Volk and Sen. Woodsome, we would have only needed one more vote to attach the amendment. Instead, those four Democrats dealt the final blow against the remaining hopes of asylum seekers.

The budget went back to the House and, instead of putting House Republicans in a tight spot, did exactly the opposite. House Democrats, left out on a limb by their Senate colleagues, were in a position of choosing between risking a state shutdown and insisting on a GA fix. Many voted their values and insisted on the House version of the budget. The tide, however, had risen too high against them and most gave in, passing the Senate version of the budget.

Sitting in the gallery, observing the budget’s final passage in the House, it was clear who had won. Happy House Republicans began joking about some kind of bet so loudly that one could barely hear the Speaker adjourn for the night. Speaker Eves did not look happy as he left the rostrum, despite the press releases his office would soon issue celebrating the compromise.

The soul of Maine

Clearly, Governor LePage and House Republicans are the worst actors in this sad saga. I also wish that Speaker Eves had insisted on a GA compromise prior to agreeing to tax cuts with Rep. Fredette.

If I were in the House, I probably would have joined 42 of my colleagues in voting against the budget even if it shut down the state; no amount of funding the earned income tax credit, or resources for schools could convince me to make 1,000 of my neighbors homeless. Yet, I have sympathy for the fact that Speaker Eves and the House Democrats first got surprised by a court case, then ended up isolated as the only people standing between the budget’s passage and a state shutdown.

The truly dangerous behavior, however, the actions which I absolutely cannot understand, were taken by four senate Democrats who sold out asylum seekers for no reason at all.

They might say they wanted to respect the Appropriations committee budget, but legal language clarifying eligibility actually restored the original intent of that compromise after the court ruling. They might say they didn’t want to risk a state shutdown, but they knew they still had a chance to back down in a conference committee if House Republicans really weren’t going to move. They might say they were running out of time, but they actually finished the budget a day early. They might say, if willing to admit some cynicism, that they were concerned about the politics of looking soft on welfare, but all four were easily elected last year in Southern Maine districts. In contrast, Democratic senators Nate Libby and Cathy Breen, who both won by fewer than 100 votes, did the right thing and took a moral stand.

The fact of the matter is that the lives and welfare of their Black neighbors simply did not matter enough for them to vote for the amendment, did not matter enough to pursue every option to the very end. They did the wrong thing without a single, political, policy, or procedurally defensible reason.  None spoke publicly on the floor to explain themselves. The odds may have been long, but that was a reason to try harder, not sabotage their colleagues and neighbors.

Their votes are especially confounding when you consider that three of them (Valentino was absent) voted in favor of LD 369 just a few days later to do the exact same thing – when it no longer mattered.

The bigger issue

This issue is bigger than just GA for asylum seekers. It’s about how we, as Democrats and progressives, deal with the fact that we are losing the public conversation on poverty and race.

In 2014, Republicans in Maine attacked Democrats using racial scapegoating around welfare and immigration with a new intensity. We need to make our own case and tell our own story: that people are often poor because our economy has been rigged against them. The system works for the rich and for giant corporations who profit by paying poverty wages. The only way we can win is by building coalitions across lines of race—not by blaming people of color for every failure of capitalism.

When Democrats go along on votes and policies like these, they give strength and credibility to these racist attacks. They make it harder for progressives to win elections and they make it harder to fix what’s really wrong with our society and our economy.

I am not an idle bystander in this debate.  I am running for mayor of Lewiston, the very epicenter of our statewide argument over race and poverty. I am running against a candidate who talks about this issue as much—if not more—than Governor Paul LePage. If telling the truth causes me to lose my election, so be it, but I don’t think it will. I believe it is possible to nurture the public’s better angels, to overcome fear of difference with hope for a shared future.

To all those who don’t share my optimism, consider this fair warning. A growing number are finished with those who abandon moral principles for the easy way out.  Not only should you worry about attacks from the right, you should worry about us. We are the future. We are young, diverse, optimistic, and fighting with the passion of those struggling for their lives because, often, we are.

In the end, we will win because everyday people, regardless of their politics and ideology, recognize the difference between politicians seeking comfort and power and leaders who embody real principles.

About author

Ben Chin
Ben Chin 8 posts

Ben Chin is the political engagement director for the Maine People's Alliance.

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