HAMPDEN, Maine — The people who most needed to hear what members of the Constitution Coalition of Maine had to teach them did not show up Saturday afternoon for a seminar on the Maine Constitution held at the Hampden municipal building on Western Avenue, according to organizers.
Instead of the elected officials and candidates for public office invited to attend the three-hour session, nine people, excluding the three speakers, attended. Half a dozen of them were members of the Maine Militia, according to state coordinator Mack C. Page of Belfast, who was in attendance.
“If we are successful with the summer symposiums, we will have created a new breed of legislator, a new breed who will enter the Maine Capitol building already knowing the Maine Constitution and knowing that they must make law under the mandates of the Maine Constitution,” said Phil Merletti, one of three men who presented material during the session. “If a bill enters a committee without being constitutional, they will have the knowledge and constitutional power to send it back to where it came from.”
State Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said after the seminar in an email that he had been invited to attend the seminar but had a long planned, prior family commitment. He said that he had not received nor read information from the coalition.
“I have read through the Maine Constitution and do substantial reading on the history of Maine and its elected leaders to better understand the reason why many of the decisions where made previously in regards to our state and its policies,” Cushing said. “While I believe deeply in the oath I took each time I became a member of the Maine Legislature — to support and defend the Constitution of the State of Maine and the United States — and I strive to maintain this commitment when dealing with policy issues that come before us, I also do not believe the members of this organization are the sole source for promoting or defending the principles of the Constitution.”
Merletti and his coalition colleagues adhere to a strict interpretation of the original U.S. Constitution and the unamended version of Maine’s Constitution from 1820, according to previously published reports. The coalition has asked legislative leaders without success to take the necessary steps to reinstate some provisions and remove others from the Maine Constitution.
Last month, Merletti told the Bangor Daily News that the coalition is less of a formal organization than it is a group of like-minded constitutionalists who are operating mostly independently of each other, though toward similar goals. Members also feel lawmakers routinely pass laws in Augusta that violate provisions of the state constitution.
As an example, Jack McCarthy of Woodland pointed to how public schools are funded — a combination of federal, state and local taxes. Article VIII, Section 1 states that the “Legislature shall require towns to support public schools,” he pointed out Saturday.
“I read that section every time I go to a town meeting to discuss the school budget and all I get is a blank stare,” McCarthy said. “You can’t demand that a man on Congress Street in Portland pay for schools in Hampden. A proper amendment, passed through the proper process would be the way to change it. If it’s not changed, it’s a crime [to fund public schools the way they now are funded].”
The little-known coalition that has been labeled anti-government extremists was thrust into the state and national spotlight on June 30 when Mike Tipping, a Maine liberal activist, detailed the group’s numerous meetings with Gov. Paul LePage last year and allegedly has been linked with the Sovereign Citizens, described as a terrorist movement by both the federal government and the Maine Department of Public Safety, according to previously published reports.
Merletti, McCarthy and Wayne Leach of Winslow, who also was a presenter at Saturday’s session, have denied those allegations but have said they met eight times with LePage in 2013. The three men on Saturday protested being labeled “domestic terrorists.”
None of the people who attended the Saturday symposium appeared to be concerned about the company they were keeping.
“I came to be educated,” Maine militiaman Page said during a break. “I know most of this but it’s always nice to have a refresher. I’d like to have seen some of the representatives here. How can you be in the Legislature and know what you’re there for?”
Saturday’s event was the fifth seminar the group has held, according to Merletti of Lee. Previous sessions were held in Auburn, Ellsworth, Presque Isle and Houlton. The next session will be held from 1 to 4 p.m., Aug. 9, at the Kennebec Valley Assembly of God Church, 44 Hallowell Road, in Chelsea.