Why the attempt to delegitimize the Maine People’s Alliance?

Amelia Mitter-Burke and Jim Devine of the Maine People's Alliance hand out fliers on tax day 2013 outside the post office on Forest Avenue in Portland. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Amelia Mitter-Burke and Jim Devine of the Maine People’s Alliance hand out fliers on tax day 2013 outside the post office on Forest Avenue in Portland. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

In the last few weeks, in newspaper columns and press releases, pundits and Republican Party staffers have been harshly critical of the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), calling it “extremist” and a “radical liberal organization.”

Yet 10 months ago, a Republican strategist offered the group a sort of admiration. Writing about the lack of organization on the right in Maine, former Bangor Daily News columnist and Republican Governors’ Association employee Matt Gagnon pointed to MPA’s unique place in Maine politics.

Wrote Gagnon, “The right has absolutely no answer for the Maine People’s Alliance, or an organization that even comprehends what MPA does. Certainly no one has even attempted to duplicate it.”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, Gagnon contended, has been effective “for developing the media narrative,” but neither it nor the Maine Republican Party has done well in “organizing people and winning elections.” As for the Maine GOP, it was so moribund that, in Gagnon’s view, “The party apparatus has so atrophied over the years that it barely operates.”

Gagnon’s acknowledgement of MPA’s ability to connect with and mobilize citizens and voters tells you a lot about why Maine conservatives have gone after the organization.

In contrast to groups on the right, MPA, which has existed for over 30 years, has focused on grassroots activity, year in and year out. People in the organization spend a good deal of time speaking with citizens, building a membership base, mobilizing them on issues, and encouraging them to vote.

Thousands of Mainers, many with chronic illnesses, lost their health insurance coverage this year. MPA organized some so they could express their concerns to state legislators.

MPA’s emphasis on democratic engagement and its large number of members cannot be created easily or quickly. While today’s Maine GOP party chairman, Rick Bennett, is a savvy leader, no one can build that political infrastructure overnight.

But what of the characterization of the Maine People’s Alliance as a “radical left-wing group?” MPA’s policy views and ways of behaving show that it’s neither radical nor extreme.

In 2011, Maine People’s Alliance helped restore Election Day registration, an effort backed by 60 percent of Maine voters.

MPA worked for years on HoltraChem’s mercury contamination of the Penobscot; the group’s federal lawsuit yielded a decade long scientific study finding that mercury was “still high enough to be hazardous” to plants, animals and people.

This year, MPA supported expanding Medicaid, a policy supported by many governors, including Republican governors in Arizona, Ohio, Nevada and New Jersey.

None of these is a radical or extremist position.

MPA’s detractors proffer examples of what they call radical behavior, but these pale when compared to true extremism. Unlike the militias supporting Cliven Bundy in Nevada, no MPA’ers are setting up checkpoints in rural areas. No one’s kidnapping, like the 1970s Symbionese Liberation Army, or even destroying property (by tossing tea into Boston Harbor) like the American revolutionaries.

Instead, critics of the MPA express distress that a common figure of speech was used regarding legislators’ voting records. Rep. Dale Crafts (who is in a wheelchair) was criticized as having “failed to stand up to Gov. LePage’s bullying” — wording in poor taste in his case. MPA quickly acknowledged its error, apologized and had its apology accepted.

Extremity isn’t shown in the other actions MPA opponents proffer: rudeness by a single volunteer at a bus station; many calls from citizens to a state legislator who was waiting for a doctor’s call (circumstances the group didn’t know); one person stealing; noisiness when a group entered a hallway where another organization was holding an event; and a short protest at a bank with chants and prayers.

Calling MPA extreme takes a normal political strategy — defining differences – and pushes it beyond our norms by casting a political opponent as a scary “other” who is out of the mainstream.

Not all purportedly sharp differences are real. Gov. Paul LePage’s rhetoric, for example, pretends bipartisanship didn’t exist when Democrats and Republicans voted together in support of revenue sharing and nursing homes funding and welfare fraud enforcement.

Trying to delegitimize the effective Maine People’s Alliance by falsely claiming it is extreme undermines democratic politics, based as it is on the competition of ideas by engaged citizens and organizations.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.