Last November, Maine voted on several citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives. Among these were Question 4, on whether to raise Maine’s
minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $12 an hour by 2020 and to end employer exemptions for tipped workers, the so called “tip credit.” Another initiative, Question 5, was on whether to change most Maine elections from a “winner take all” plurality system to ranked choice voting. The impetus and campaign for both of these measures came, not from the Democrats, but from grassroots organizing and progressive organizations such as the Maine People’s Alliance and Rank Choice Voting.
Although both ballot initiatives passed, Maine Democrats have since been cooperating with Republicans in multiple efforts to block or weaken them.
On May 10 this year, a legislative committee shockingly voted to restore the tip credit by an 11-2 vote, overturning the strong popular vote which passed Question 4 just six months before. In a May 10 article on the Press Herald website, author Kevin Miller called it “a major victory for restaurant owners.” Many Democrats joined in this vote, siding with big business to attack the wages of tipped workers.
Since rank choice voting was approved in November with Question 5, it too has been challenged by both Republicans and Democrats, and recently by the courts. The rank choice voting measure was unanimously ruled by the state Supreme Court to be in violation of the State Constitution, saying that the State Legislature can either repeal the measure or can amend the State Constitution. But with Maine Democratic leaders overwhelmingly opposed to ranked choice voting, this change to the state constitution will require mass grassroots pressure to force action.
In 2016, there was also a grassroots campaign to impeach Maine’s far right wing, racist, and increasingly unbalanced Governor Paul LePage, who has closely associated himself with Donald Trump. This movement was ultimately blocked by Democrats in the state legislature.
On the other side of these developments, two Maine state legislators, Denise Harlow of Portland, and Ralph Chapman of Brooksville publicly announced they had dropped out of the Democratic Party in May. According to a May 29 article on the US News and World Report website, the final straw for these two Democratic legislators was party support for business-backed opposition to an overhaul of Maine’s metallic mining regulations. This overhaul, which has been approved by a legislative committee, has raised serious concerns with environmentalists for not doing enough to protect groundwater or provide financial assurance in the case of an environmental catastrophe. The pro-corporate compromise measure was supported by state Democrats.
Ranked Choice Voting
In the November referendum Maine became the first state in the US to adopt rank choice voting for gubernatorial, legislative, and congressional races. Rank choice voting is a system that allows voters to vote for more than one candidate in order of preference. In a three-way race this would minimize the argument that a third party candidate would necessarily be a “spoiler.” The spoiler argument has provided a powerful impetus in support of voting for Democrats over third party socialists and Greens, saying that, as bad as a Democratic candidate may be, they represent the lesser evil whom we must always vote for to block the Republicans.
The campaign for rank choice voting in Maine began in 2014 but, as a New York Times article of December 2016 pointed out, the 2016 ballot initiative coincided with the growing unpopularity of far right-wing Governor Paul LePage. LePage has become infamous over the past few years for making incendiary racist, anti-worker, and misogynist statements as well as working to block LGBTQ protections and worker’s rights. LePage was twice elected in three-way races with less than a majority of the vote. According to the Maine political blog State & Capital, plurality elections of more than two major candidates running have decided 9 out of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Maine, including LePage’s wins in 2010 and 2014. According to a Bangor Daily News simulation, with rank choice voting LePage would have lost the 2010 gubernatorial race to independent Eliot Cutler. Ironically, LePage’s election is used by opponents of independent politics as proof of why people have to work within the two-party system.
State & Capital describes how Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, has been working with Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlop, also a Democrat, the Republican-controlled state senate, and the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center to overturn rank choice voting in the state.
Socialist Alternative fully supports ranked choice voting as a step forward and a blow to the undemocratic, corporate-controlled two party system in the US. But it is not a panacea and it is sometimes even used to counter support for independent left candidates. For example, a common argument is that, rather than running independent and third-party electoral campaigns at present, working people and the left should focus their efforts first on electoral reform initiatives like ranked choice voting. Then, once the electoral reform has passed, people can build independent politics without worrying about being a “spoiler”. This approach, however, assumes that the Democratic and Republican parties would voluntarily allow such electoral reforms that would threaten the two-party system that helps keep them in power. The experience of the Maine initiative shows the major obstacles the Democrats will put in the way of any electoral reform, even after it has been passed by voters. And even where ranked choice voting systems have been won or in races where no Republicans are running, the Democratic Party leadership and corporate establishment still go all out against independent left candidates as “spoilers,” “divisive,” and as counterproductive to the Democratic Party agenda. This was seen in Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore’s city council campaign in Minneapolis in 2013 (where ranked choice voting exists) and in Kshama Sawant’s re-election campaign in 2015 (where no Republican was running).
Impeaching Governor LePage
A movement to impeach Governor LePage developed in 2015. This was triggered, amongst other things, by LePage’s alleged misuse of state funds to block a political rival, Democratic Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves, from getting a job as president of a state-funded charter school serving at risk youth, Goodwill-Hinckley. Moreover, a near constitutional crisis was triggered by LePage saying he would refuse to enforce 70 new laws passed by the state legislature. Beyond that, people were angered by LePage’s incendiary racist and misogynist statements and his increasingly unbalanced behavior. An Economist article in October 2016, “LePage: Trumpism in office” said the LePage experience prefigured what a Trump presidential administration would be like.
Moves to impeach LePage however were blocked by Democrats in the state legislature in early 2016. As explained in a January 6 article on Centralmaine.com, “Democrats delay face-off with LePage, defer impeachment vote”, the opening day of the 2016 legislative session was expected to be stormy, with the Democrats ready to introduce both a censure resolution and an order for investigating impeachment charges against LePage. Instead, on the first day of the session, tensions were diffused with Democratic leaders promising to work with LePage and the Republicans. The Maine State House, controlled by the Democrats, voted 96-52 not to pursue impeachment investigation. Of the 76 Democrats who voted, 27 voted to kill the impeachment measure while 49 voted to allow further debate. As the House voted against an impeachment investigation, stormy protests broke out in the viewer’s gallery, The Portland Press Herald quoted protesters as shouting: “Shameful!”, “Dereliction of duty!” and “Do your job!”
According to an article on MSN.com last year, all that was needed for an impeachment investigation would have been a simple majority vote in the Democratic-controlled House. However Democrats explained away the potential for impeachment as a long shot and a futile gesture, given that the Republicans control the Maine Senate.
A censure motion against LePage was also defeated. Instead, a House resolution was passed, largely mirroring the Legislature’s code of ethics, calling for civility and cooperation but without mentioning LePage, 81-55, largely on party lines.
This unwillingness to take a firm stand against a right wing, racist governor in Maine served as a foreshadowing of the inconsistency of Democratic Party leaders in standing up against Trump’s dangerous agenda since his rise to the White House.
Raising the Minimum Wage
Ever since Maine’s minimum wage ballot initiative passed in November 2016, state Democrats have been working to soft peddle and minimize it. According to Greg Kasich in a January 25 article in the Portland Press Herald, “Hey Maine Democrats, try not to turn a victory at the polls into a defeat”, before then end of January already 16 bills had been drafted scaling back the increase in the minimum wage. Kasich points out that the minimum wage hike was not a product of the Democratic Party or pushed by the Democrats in the Legislature. Instead the ballot initiative, Question 4, was the result of grassroots activism and lobbying, primarily by the Maine Progressive Alliance. The ballot measure also eliminates the so-called “tip credit”, really a tip penalty against workers. The “tip credit” in Maine, as well as elsewhere, has allowed employers to pay a sub-minimum wage as low as $3.75.
Many Democratic legislators, however, began saying they agreed with restaurant industry lobbyists and started defending the “tip credit.” In a foreshadowing of the May vote to restore the tip credit, a March 1 article in the Bangor Daily News, eight Democrats in the Maine state legislature had decided to side with LePage and Republicans to support proposals to restore the “tipped” sub-minimum wage for restaurant and service workers.
Tipped workers in Maine earn on the average only $9.00 an hour including tips, and food service workers are disproportionately women who face the highest levels of sexual harassment in the country. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission targets the restaurant industry as the single largest source of sexual harassment charges. While 7% of American women work in restaurants, 37% of all sexual harassment charges filed with the EOCC come from restaurant workers. These low wage workers are going against the politically powerful National Restaurant Association and its Maine affiliate, the Maine Restaurant Association, which has been working to keep tipped workers at a sub-minimum wage for decades. The MRA was been noted for lobbying Maine Senator Susan Collins to support Andrew Puzder, Trump’s viciously anti-worker nominee for Secretary of Labor, even after Puzder’s political disgrace for numerous workplace violations and misconduct as CEO of CKE Restaurants.
In January, the Maine People’s Alliance, which worked to get a minimum wage raise on the ballot, published the names and contact information of the eight Democrats who co-sponsored Republican bills to restore the “tip credit” on their website. These Democrats are Senators Bill Diamond of Windham, James Dill of Old Town, and Representatives Martin Grohman of Biddeford, Louis Luchini of Ellsworth, Brian Hubell of Bar Harbor, Robert Alley of Beals, Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford, and Catherine Nadeau of Winslow. The MPA quoted a worker as calling these legislators’ position a “betrayal of the voters” and “absolutely unacceptable”.
The actions of the Maine Democratic Party in stifling progressive initiatives are of course not unique to the state. The Democratic Party has also stifled moves towards a $15/hour minimum wage in places like Cleveland and Minneapolis. Socialist Alternative spearheaded the historic campaign in Seattle that made it the first major U.S. city to adopt a $15/hour minimum wage. In Seattle, Democrats first opposed and then later helped water down the $15 minimum wage ordinance, including helping push through a temporary “tip credit.”
Instead of relying on the Democratic Party to pursue policies and initiatives that are in the interest of working people, progressive activists need to run independent left and socialist candidates, refusing money from big business and running clear anti-corporate and pro-worker campaigns. In Minneapolis this year, Socialist Alternative is running Ginger Jentzen for city council on just such a platform, leading on the way on the fight for a $15 minimum wage and campaigning for bold affordable housing policies. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative is supporting the left independent campaigns of Jon Grant and Nikkita Oliver, in their challenge to the pro-corporate city establishment. The Democratic Socialists of America, which Socialist Alternative has called on to join us in running independent socialist candidates around the country, have also recently endorsed Grant and Oliver. Strong independent left campaigns such as Jentzen’s, Oliver’s and Grant’s can begin to lay a foundation for what will really be needed to challenge pro-corporate, pro-capitalist politics in the United States: a new mass party of, by and for working people.