BANGOR, Maine — Mainers marched Tuesday on five state offices of Sen. Susan Collins to protest her introduction of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, at the confirmation hearing on his nomination to be attorney general.
“Whether it is women’s rights, minority rights, gay rights or marijuana legalization, Maine has led the way,” former state Rep. Diane Russell, who organized protests in Bangor, Augusta, Biddeford, Lewiston and Portland, said in an email. “Sessions has been a long-time staunch opponent of Maine values. Make no mistake, if confirmed as AG, his interpretation of the law will harm Maine people here at home.”
Local teacher James Cook served as Bangor’s protest captain, leading a dozen residents from a downtown coffee shop to Collins’ office at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building with a letter asking Collins to clarify various policy positions in light of her support for Sessions and President-elect Donald Trump, who nominated Sessions for the job.
“The idea of this strategy is to get Senator Collins on the record,” Cook told those who participated in the Bangor march.
Close to 50 protesters stormed Collins’ office in downtown Portland around 10 a.m. Tuesday, saying they wanted her to know they weren’t happy with her support of Sessions.
Many of those protesters were asked to leave the building not long after they arrived because of a violation of the building’s fire code. Portland police were also called in to escort people out and make sure the protest stayed peaceful.
Some of the protesters were allowed back in a short time later in smaller numbers to voice their concerns with members of the senator’s staff.
“This is an intolerable act and we do not support her. We expect her to stand with us and she is standing with Sessions. She is standing with Trump and she is standing for white supremacy,” said Marie Follagttar Smith of Mainers for Accountable Leadership.
Collins decided in August that she wasn’t voting for Trump and on Election Day wrote in House Speaker Paul Ryan for president.
Collins said during her remarks introducing Sessions that while she doesn’t always agree with the senator from Alabama, she believes that he is honest and has strong moral principles.
“Jeff Sessions and I were first sworn into the United States Senate on the very same day. In the 20 years since, we have worked closely on some issues and on opposite sides on others. In fact, it would be fair to say that we have had our share of vigorous debates and policy disagreements,” Collins said Tuesday, according to a press release from her office. “Through these experiences, I have come to know Senator Sessions professionally as a trusted colleague and personally as a good friend. I can vouch confidently for the fact that Jeff Sessions is a person of integrity, a principled leader and a dedicated public servant.”
Collins said in an interview with The Washington Post that she felt the criticism of her colleague was misplaced.
“He’s a decent individual with a strong commitment to the rule of law. He’s a leader of integrity,” Collins said. “I think the attacks against him are not well founded and are unfair.”
Her spokesperson Annie Clark said Tuesday evening that Collins’ comments during her introduction of Sessions speak for themselves as a reaction to the protesters.
“I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Senator Sessions is anyone other than a dedicated public servant and a decent man,” Collins said. “In 1980, long before he ran for the Senate or even dreamed of being Attorney General, Jeff Sessions sponsored the first African-American member of the Mobile Lions Club. As U.S. Attorney, he provided leadership in the successful convictions of two Klan members who had murdered an African-American teenager. As Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009, he appointed the first African-American to serve as Chief Counsel to the Republican members. My friends, these are not the actions of an individual who is motivated by racial animus.”
Cook said it was his opinion that Sessions is too controversial to be the attorney general and Collins should not support him.
“Her behavior is not in alignment with Maine values,” Cook said of Collins.
The Maine Republican Party issued a Tuesday afternoon statement in support of Collins’ actions.
“It is our responsibility as Republicans to not only support our President-elect, but to also support his judgment when it comes to his administration,” Republican party spokeswoman Nina McLaughlin said in the statement. “Senator Collins didn’t have to voice her support for Senator Sessions, but she did. In doing so she opened herself up to attacks from left-wing groups and individuals who are still stuck in a pre-election mindset.”
McLaughlin described organizer Russell as “ethically challenged.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986 amid allegations of racially insensitive remarks after he quipped that he once respected the Ku Klux Klan, “but if they smoke pot, I sure can’t.” Sessions also once unsuccessfully tried to prosecute civil rights activists for what he alleged was voting fraud.
Even though civil rights advocates and others have mounted a vigorous campaign to deny him the attorney general post, Sessions is expected to win confirmation.
Winterport resident Donna Gilbert said she questions Collins’ actions, given Sessions’ history.
“Why are you doing this?” Gilbert said, adding later that “it’s the racism” from Sessions that she doesn’t like.
Sessions’ two-day confirmation hearing began at around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and will likely be among the most hotly contested of Trump’s nominees. Sessions has taken controversial positions on immigration and the rights of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual.
The group of Bangor protesters included local social activist Ilze Petersons, who was wearing a sign that read “Freeze Sessions’ Nomination,” and Bangor resident Karen Marysdaughter, who works at Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine and was wearing a poster that read “We say no to hatred, fear, violence!”
Cook said Sessions is not equipped to be attorney general.
“The attorney general has to have empathy for the people who need it most, and he doesn’t have it,” Cook said.
Washington Post writers Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horwitz and Portland’s CBS 13 WGME contributed to this report.