RICHMOND, Maine — Some were scared. Most were concerned. And more than a few were downright angry.
But on Saturday, more than 50 political activists with a distinctly Democratic or progressive lean packed into the Old Goat Pub in this town south of Augusta to remind themselves that, thanks to the “people’s veto” in Maine, being out of power doesn’t mean they’re powerless.
The gathering was the first official meeting of a fledgling group unofficially called the Maine People’s Veto Alliance, a reference to the petition process that allows Mainers statewide to cast their own votes on new laws.
Organized by longtime Democrat Ed Schlick, the MPVA is intended to create a network of people to help gather the 50,000 to 60,000 signatures needed to trigger a ballot box challenge of policy changes coming from Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“In extreme times, you want to be able to have a people’s veto, and these are extreme times,” John Carr, president of the Maine Council of Senior Citizens, told the group.
Of course in politics, one person’s extreme is another’s preference.
LePage and a wave of new Republican lawmakers were ushered into the power seats in Augusta just three months ago by Maine voters, many of whom were similarly motivated by concern or anger.
That was also the trend nationally, but Maine was one of only two states where control of both the governor’s mansion and the legislature flipped.
After years in the minority, Republicans are hoping to push through a huge slate of changes they say Maine citizens demand to improve Maine’s economy and business climate.
So the upstart Maine People’s Veto Alliance doesn’t overly concern Charlie Webster who as chairman of the Maine Republican Party was a key architect of the GOP victories last fall.
Webster said the Maine Democratic Party “has been hijacked by the far left-wing” and no longer represents the interests of the truck drivers, mill workers, small-business owners and other working people.
“If they believe that the regular people of Maine support this left-wing agenda they promote, they are about to get an education,” Webster said. “They are not going to accept change easily, and we are glad to have a public debate about the direction that Maine people want to go.”
Among the most worrisome for those gathered in Richmond on Saturday are LePage’s proposed changes to Maine’s environmental regulations. The governor has proposed adopting less-stringent federal pollution standards, loosening site restrictions on developers, eliminating the Board of Environmental Protection and rewriting key review standards for projects proposed within the Unorganized Territory.
“The thing we have to remember is when LePage attacks the environmental policies in our state, he is attacking the very foundation of our economy,” said Gordon Glover, a former board member of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Speakers also expressed concerns about the looming fight over a proposal to make Maine a “right to work” state, meaning that workers at unionized businesses who opt out of a union do not have to pay union dues.
Labor groups view such legislation as an attempt to weaken organized labor while supporters say it is about fairness for workers who prefer not to join a union.
The frustration among the attendees was palpable. But several audience members also cautioned against attempting to take on too many issues.
Stan Mozden, chairman of Saco Bay Democrats, also urged his fellow activists to tone down the talk about “progressive issues” if they want to succeed.
“We are talking about issues that are universal to all Mainers, and we need to broaden our thinking to apply this to all people,” Mozden said.
One of the credits often given to Webster, the Maine GOP chairman, is his decision to adopt and promote the slogan “Working People Vote Republican.”
According to Democrat Craig Hickman, that GOP strategy seemed to work.
Hickman ran and lost a race last November for House District 82 in the Winthrop area. And the key to his and other Democrats’ loss, Hickman told the crowd on Saturday, appears to have been the wave of blue-collar men who voted Republican.
Hickman said if Democrats want to win back those voters, they need to do more than wage people’s veto campaigns. They need to start talking the language of those blue-collar men and small-business owners concerned about regulations.
“We need to stop talking to the choir,” Hickman said. “We have to start talking to the 30- to 40-year-old men who are working and get them on board.”
At the end of Saturday’s meeting, Schlick told the group to read a six-page draft document outlining the MPVA’s principles and organization in advance of the next meeting, slated for Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Old Goat Pub in Richmond. Several other audience members pledged to help spread word of the group online through Facebook or other websites.