Departure of term-limited conservative Dems leaves opening for progressive candidates

The Maine State House. | Beacon

If Democrats are able to hold their majorities in the Maine State Legislature after the Nov. 8 election, there may be a greater opportunity to advance more progressive policies. 

A bloc of conservative Maine Senate Democrats — who have been a hurdle to efforts to expand workers’ rights, pass criminal justice reforms, fund affordable housing development and address the climate crisis — are now termed out and could possibly be replaced by candidates who seem more likely to support those issues.

Of the 35 members of the Maine Senate, 10 were unable to run for re-election this year due to term limits. Among those are Sens. Bill Diamond of Cumberland County, Jim Dill of Penobscot County and Susan Deschambault of York County, who compiled a more conservative voting record than most other Democrats in the upper chamber in recent years.

During their last two-year term, Diamond, Dill and Deschambault all voted against bills that would have allowed farmworkers to unionize, closed Long Creek youth prison, banned solitary confinement, decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, prevented discrimination in the state’s rental voucher program, assessed a fee on vacant properties to fund affordable housing, and allowed a consumer-owned utility to replace Central Maine Power and Versant to go to a statewide referendum.

Democratic Rep. Thom Harnett of Gardiner, a lawmaker who is also leaving the legislature after serving two terms, sees an opening to pass progressive policies — though he insists those policies should be seen as at the center of the Democratic Party, not its fringe.

“When I grew up, Bobby Kennedy stood next to Cesar Chavez. Democrats got it back then,” said Harnett, who led the unsuccessful fight to grant full employment rights to exploited immigrant farmworkers. “I think that during the Clinton years the party shifted to ‘Republican Light’ on occasion.”

He hopes the party can be reorientated now. “I think people just have to keep working for what they believe in,” Harnett said, “those who truly adhere to what the policies of the Democratic Party have been and should continue to be.”

Tipping running in Penobscot County 

In Senate District 8 — which includes Orono and Old Town — Democrat Mike Tipping is running against Republican Eric Rojo to replace Dill, an entomology professor who, after four terms in the Senate, is running again for the Maine House where he served from 2010 to 2014.

Tipping is a senior strategist at the Maine People’s Alliance and the founder of Beacon.

While Dill has received low grades on legislative scorecards from labor advocates like the Maine AFL-CIO for, among other stances, opposing teachers’ right to strike in 2019 and stronger labor standards on renewable energy projects in 2021, Tipping has been involved in several pro-worker battles. 

Those include the 2016 ballot initiative to raise Maine’s minimum wage and legislative campaigns for paid sick days and for a bill that would have restored access to the courts for workers who have signed forced-arbitration contracts and forfeited their right to sue an employer for workplace violations. Dill opposed allowing workers out of forced-arbitration agreements.

Grohoski running in Hancock County

In Senate District 7 — which includes Mount Desert Island and parts of Hancock County — Democrat Nicole Grohoski is vying with Republican Brian Langley for a seat vacated earlier this year by another conservative Democrat, Louis Luchini, who left the Senate for a role with the U.S. Small Business Association. 

Like Diamond, Dill and Deschambault, Luchini often voted to the right of his caucus, having similarly opposed a 2021 law requiring the state to divest from fossil fuel investments, collective bargaining rights for farmworkers, several criminal justice reform bills, while supporting anti-democratic measures such as making it more difficult to place a citizen initiative on the ballot.

In contrast, Grohoski — who was first elected to the Maine House in 2018 and won a special election in June to finish out Luchini’s term — has received several perfect scores from progressive groups like Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine AFL-CIO on their legislative scorecards.

Ingwersen running in York County

In Senate District 32 — which includes parts of York County — Democrat Henry Ingwersen is running against Republican David Corbett to replace Deschambault, a former social worker in the Maine Department of Corrections and police commissioner for Biddeford. Ingwersen told Beacon that Deschambault has endorsed his campaign.

Earlier this year, Deschambault led the effort to stop a bill that would have restricted solitary confinement in the state’s prison system and to water down a Good Samaritan bill that sought to increase protections from prosecution for people responding to a drug overdose. Despite her opposition, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills this spring and is considered one of the strongest Good Samaritan laws in the country.

Ingwersen, a retired teacher and former state representative, led the effort to hold the manufacturers of so-called “forever chemicals” accountable. He submitted a bill in 2020 to expand the ability of farmers and other property owners to seek legal recourse for PFAS contamination from wastewater sludge.

Ingwersen’s voting record on other issues while in the Maine House is mixed. While supporting measures in 2019 to restore state services to new Mainers and establish protections for renters and opposing an attempt to curtail the citizen initiative process, he also voted against establishing overdose prevention sites and rolling back former Gov. Paul LePage’s estate tax cuts

That year, Ingwersen also supported a teacher’s right to strike and changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, both of which Deschambault opposed. 

Nangle running in Cumberland County

In Senate District 26 — which includes Casco, Raymond, Windham and Fyre Island — Democrat Tim Nangle, a former medic and Windham town councilor, is competing with Republican Gary Plummer to replace Diamond. 

Diamond is a businessman and former educator and school superintendent who has served in the legislature off and on since the late 1970s. He also served a stint as Secretary of State from 1989 to 1996. 

Since being re-elected in 2020, Diamond has also voted against allowing wronged workers out of forced-arbitration agreements. He opposed fossil fuel divestment by the state and he voted against a bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) and later signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, aimed at addressing the housing shortage by allowing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units on their property. 

If he wins, it is unclear if Nangle will be markedly more progressive than his predecessor. Nangle did not respond when Beacon asked him to comment on Diamond’s voting record, although on his website he says he supports prioritizing preventative healthcare, raising teachers’ salaries to improve retention, and creating incentives for land trusts and the preservation of open space.

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