Politics & Other Mistakes: An offer they couldn’t refuse

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I’m not saying Gov. Janet Mills employs a team of goons who drag her political opponents into a secret chamber in the Statehouse and beat the crap out of them.

I’m not saying that because I don’t want Mills sending her goons after me.

Al DiamonWhat I’m really saying is Mills doesn’t need to enforce her will by employing physical violence. The myth about the governor’s secret goon squad is just a metaphor for her brutal style of political hardball. Nobody is really getting knee-capped.

I hope.

The Guv-mother’s methods are subtler. Although only slightly. Her vanquished opponents don’t have to display sickly smiles with tightly closed lips to hide their missing teeth. They just look that way.

The latest group to get worked through Mills’ wringer is Maine’s Native American tribes. After years of striving to achieve the same measure of control over their lives as every other tribe in the United States, the Wabanaki finally succeeded in convincing the Legislature to pass a bill granting them sovereignty.

Mills opposed that measure, even though there was strong support for it among progressive Democrats the governor can’t afford to alienate if she wants to win a tough reelection fight in November. The Native Americans and their legislative allies thought they had Mills backed into a corner.

Then, the goons showed up.

Not literally. Beating up a bunch of Passamaquoddy and Penobscot elders wouldn’t do Mills’ image any good. It would make her appear as if she were just another in a long line of oppressive, racist, government overseers intent on stamping out tribal culture.

Instead, Mills sent the tribes a message of thinly disguised goonishness: If the Legislature gave final approval to the bill granting full sovereignty, Mills would not only veto that bill, but she’d also veto a compromise bill she had introduced giving the tribes control of most mobile sports gambling, some tax breaks and a few other crumbs of self-governance.

In a letter to the tribes, Mills said her ruthless linking of the two bills was “not personal,” but was “based in policy.” She didn’t want to sign a bill that would lead to a lot of messy court cases. She preferred to settle disputes the old-fashioned way. With brass knuckles.

There was some muted grumbling about this unmitigated arm-twisting. Passamaquoddy Vice Chief Darrell Newell told the Bangor Daily News, “She has an opportunity to change her mind and be a good, decent person and truly live up to her words that tribal-Maine relations be repairable.”

That sort of mild griping was short-lived. The tribes and their backers did what all Mills’ opponents who’d had a vision of goons with baseball bats have always done. They folded.

The sovereignty bill had been sitting in the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee awaiting a routine vote that would have funded it to the tune of less than $45,000. But for some odd reason, that vote never happened. Instead, the Legislature adjourned, leaving the bill standing at the end of a pier with its feet encased in concrete.

Meanwhile, the sports-betting bill somehow miraculously survived, and was sent to Mills for her signature. And suddenly, everything was sweetness and light.

Well, not everything.

Legislative supporters of full sovereignty were notably unavailable for comment or uncharacteristically restrained. Tribal leaders, smiling with tightly closed lips, were effusive in their praise of the Legislature, carefully avoiding mentioning Mills or her goons. Ernie Neptune, another Passamaquoddy vice chief, was quoted in the Portland Press Herald as saying, “This legislative session has been monumental with regards to our sovereignty, online economic development opportunities, and finally sets us on a pathway for clean drinking water, putting us on a pathway to being accepted by the members of the Maine Legislature.”

After several days of silence, the tribes finally issued a carefully worded statement: “Our ancestors made sacrifices so we could be here today, and it is our sacred duty to continue to press for full restoration and recognition of Wabanaki sovereignty. We look forward to continuing this work with all of our partners and allies.”

Translation: Mills mostly ate our lunch. Next time, we’ll bring our own goon squad.

Work me over metaphorically by emailing [email protected].

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