Maine GOP leaders launch a grassroots group to punch back at progressives

Good morning from Augusta. The top officials in the Maine Republican Party formed a new nonprofit group last month that looks to be aimed at grassroots work after the chair won re-election in January promising to form an alternative to the liberal Maine People’s Alliance.

Demi Kouzounas, the state party chair, and Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, the controversial vice chair who has emerged as the party’s most visible spokesman, were among a group of three who incorporated a group called Restore Maine’s Future in February.

It has a stated mission of increasing “rural participation” and strengthening “understanding of decision making” in Maine politics. It’s unclear how it will fit into an ecosystem that Democrats have long dominated with a bevy of friendly nonprofits that party officials don’t have to run.

The group looks to be a vehicle for Isgro’s populist, halcyon brand of conservatism, but leaders are mostly playing coy about its role. In a Facebook post on Wednesday that effectively rolled the group out publicly, Isgro was called the group’s executive director and mirrored much of the 2018 speech he gave to announce that he wouldn’t run for governor in which he touted socially conservative stances but also ones not typically advocated by conservatives, such as rail expansion.

Maine’s heritage industries, he said, are “disappearing.” Schools that once taught civics and trades are more focused on “global warming and social justice.” There are “awful metal monuments of junk” — windmills — “scarring our mountains” and killing “beloved” eagles. Mainers should do more than “simply seek to manage or survive decline,” he said.

The face of Maine has no doubt changed amid mill closures. There is heavy grassroots opposition to wind projects. Maine has a robust system of career and technical education in high schools and community colleges, although business interests say it is underused.

Kouzounas, Isgro and Gordon Colby, a party activist from Waldoboro, were the three incorporators of the new group. Kouzounas and Isgro didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. Colby said the group is “trying to work with the grassroots.”

Republican groups have sprung up both as vehicles for individuals and as a response to Democratic domination of outside nonprofits. Nonprofits are valuable for political work, since these entities can raise unlimited amounts of money while not disclosing donors or detailed information about how they spend the money. While parties can raise unlimited funds, they have to disclose donors and detailed accounts of spending.

Former Gov. Paul LePage’s political group, Maine People Before Politics, has been revamped since he left office in January. Former state Sen. Eric Brakey, the libertarian-leaning 2018 Republican U.S. Senate nominee, has started his own group.

Kouzounas was re-elected in 2019 with LePage’s backing while promising to build an alternative to the Maine People’s Alliance, which specializes in canvassing and referendum work. It’s one of the key outside nonprofits — and occasionally pushing — the Maine Democratic Party alongside groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the health care-focused Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

One way that those groups help the Democrats is simply by allowing the state party to focus on electing candidates. With Restore Maine’s Future, it’s hard to see where the mission of the state party ends and where the group’s mission begins, though it may emerge.

Michaud among Mills’ picks to higher ed boards

The governor has begun revamping the boards that oversee the state’s university and community college systems. On Thursday, Mills nominated six people to fill slots on those boards. All of the nominees must be confirmed by the Maine Senate. The most familiar name was that of former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat whom Mills nominated to serve on both boards.

If confirmed for both positions, Michaud would follow in the path of Shawn Moody, the 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate who regularly noted similar double duty during his unsuccessful campaign against Mills.

Other nominees announced Thursday are Sven Bartholomew of Brewer to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees and former Republican state Sen. Joyce Maker of Calais to the Maine Community College System Board of Trustees.

Mills also renominated current trustees James Donnelly, a former Republican legislator from Brewer, and Kelly Martin of Fort Kent to serve new terms on the university system board, and former state Rep. Jean Ginn Marvin of Scarborough for a new term on the community college system board.

Terms on the 16-member university system board run five years. The education commissioner fills one seat, and the governor appoints the remaining members, who are eligible to serve two consecutive terms. The community college system board has 13 appointed voting members, one ex-officio voting member, and one ex-officio non-voting member.

In other news related to higher education in Maine, Mills will be in Orono today to welcome Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who is being inaugurated as the University of Maine’s new president.

Today in A-town

It’s going to be a slow, cloudy Friday at the State House complex. The Committee on Health and Human Services will hear testimony on three bills: two to ensure more transportation options for elderly MaineCare recipients and their families, and one to provide more supplemental food assistance to elderly Mainers with disabilities. Listen here.

— The Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety could vote on two bills that would decriminalize engaging in prostitution and enforce stricter laws for possessing or being under the influence of marijuana while in a vehicle. Listen here.

— The Committee on Environment and Natural Resources will hear public testimony on a bill to prohibit offshore oil and natural gas drilling. Members could also vote on an emergency bill that would spur a review of the state’s oil storage facilities. Listen here.

Reading list

— An annual survey of children’s health in Maine shows some troubling results. Maine Public reports that the Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Maine Children’s Alliance, finds Maine has a higher-than-average infant mortality rate, as well as high rates of anxiety and depression among children. The report also found that the suicide rate among Maine teens is also on the rise — above the national average — but that childhood poverty is down, as is teen pregnancy and juvenile arrests.

— Maine’s U.S. senators both opposed the Green New Deal in a largely symbolic political vote. Maine Public reports that Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, both criticized the loosely delineated progressive agenda on climate change as unrealistic and too broad. But King joined Senate Democrats in harshly criticizing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for forcing a non-binding vote on the Green New Deal as a “cynical act of political theater.”

— Belfast doesn’t just fight about fish farms. The owner of waterfront property that connects two formerly detached parts of the city’s Harbor Walk is squabbling with city officials over his plans for the site. Relations between developer Paul Naron — who made Belfast generally jubilant by opening his property to the Harbor Walk two years ago — and city officials over his plans to develop the former Consumer’s Fuel and French & Webb buildings have soured so much recently that he is contemplating closing his portion of the Harbor Walk once again.

— Four feet make all the difference when you are building near a Maine lake. The Lincoln County News reports that a Newcastle family’s request to amend their original building permit to compensate for the fact that they built their home four feet too close to Damariscotta Lake has been denied. The family now might have to move the house to comply with shoreland setback requirements.

Why the Y

Since I moved to Belfast in October, I’ve joined the Waldo County YMCA. For most of my 20s, I didn’t really prioritize running or concerted exercise. I hiked and swam in lakes in the summer and, in the off months, I was snooty about putting myself in contrived situations just to sweat, refusing to run on a treadmill because it made me feel like a gerbil on a wheel.

Times changed when I moved to Bangor in 2017. I was in a challenging place in life, so I joined Planet Fitness and forced myself to jog because, frankly, I needed as many endorphins as my body could produce. And it wasn’t so bad. There was no community-building mentality that accompanied the membership or interest from other members to dialogue. All the treadmills and cardio equipment faced a row of televisions, and it was easy to spend a half hour there without talking to or making eye contact with anyone. And I didn’t hate watching Chip and Joanna Gaines remodel a house while I did so.

The mentality at the Waldo County Y could not be more different. A close friend and previous member of the Portland Y regularly evangelized about the perks of a Y membership, how it was more than just a place to exercise. Alright. But it’s true.

On my first visit, I bumped into my colleague Abby Curtis, and her partner Jim Clark — he was running on the track, she on the treadmill. We talked and stretched and I noticed a woman on a nearby elliptical machine as one of my local state representatives (the next day, I saw this person in the State House and we lamented about not exercising as often as we should). The following weekend I saw another co-worker wheeling a cart of birthday presents and half-eaten cake out the door — her son had just hosted his 6th birthday party in one of the Y’s party rooms.

The place is teeming with all ages, and there’s no shortage of activities and behaviors to witness. There’s the older woman who strips naked in the locker room each time she walks to and from the shower after she swims in the pool; the children who giggle and scream and bite their mothers; and the guy who wears a Nine Inch Nails sleeveless shirt each time he lifts weights. On a recent Saturday as I was swimming laps, a kid several lanes over pooped in the pool. A lifeguard came to tell me they were closing. But I couldn’t stay angry; at the Y, there’s always an alternative. Instead, I stretched and had a pleasant conversation with a young mother in the hottub about where the best jets are located.

My favorite part is how the treadmills overlook the gymnasium, which means I get to watch low-scoring youth basketball games, field hockey and basketball practice, and the occasional adult rec league indoor soccer game. I have become a full-throated YMCA evangelist. Obviously, here’s your soundtrack. — Alex Acquisto  

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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