Portland lawmaker’s mission: ‘Abolition of structural racism’

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The rising tide of the Black Lives Matter movement has reached the Maine Legislature, in the form of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

Despite the lengthy name, the Permanent Commission, as it’s already become known, has an urgent mission, embarking on weeks of intensive meetings in preparation for an anticipated legislative special session in August.

Its chair, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the mission is no less than “the abolition of structural racism” in all its forms.

As politicians throughout the country scramble to keep up with dramatic shifts in public opinion, most anticipate a lengthy process. In a letter from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, asking the commission to review all pending legislation to identify bills that could become vehicles for change, Jackson added, “It’s not something we can fix overnight … we need a thoughtful long-term strategy led by people of color.”

Maine state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, chairs the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

Talbot Ross wants lawmakers to move more quickly. In a June 18 letter to Gov. Janet Mills, the commission identified a wide range of substantive steps, including emergency CARES Act assistance to people of color during the pandemic, adoption of sweeping recommendations from the Indian Land Claims task force, and a “Truth and Reconciliation” process led by the Maine Human Rights Commission.

There’s also broad support for criminal justice reform, including ending cash bail and most pre-trial incarceration, addressing sentencing disparities, and closing the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

A few months ago, those proposed reforms seemed visionary, and unlikely to be enacted. Now, things may have changed.

The 15-member commission held its first major meeting, by Zoom, on July 10 and a bumper crop of 55 legislators attended, including Jackson and House Majority Leader Matt Moonen, D-Portland. At the invitation of the Appropriations co-chair, Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, commission members briefed the budget-writing panel, whose other chair is Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook.

The powerful lineup suggests that, at the very least, the Permanent Commission has leadership’s full attention.

Unique structure

It wasn’t always that way. Talbot Ross was first elected in 2016 and served her first two years at the end of the LePage administration. She had already decided on a highly structured approach.

“I sponsored a lot of bills on subjects vital to people of color, on the wage gap, economic insecurity, and the criminal justice system,” she said in an interview. “But I decided that would only lead to piecemeal change. We needed something more structural.”

Talbot Ross settled on two approaches. The first was a joint rules change that would have required all legislative proposals to be analyzed for racial disparities, similar to environmental impact statements for development projects under state and federal laws.

Connecticut has adopted such rules, as have several large cities, including Seattle. In Maine, it went nowhere.

“I couldn’t even get my own party to support it,” Talbot Ross said, so she dropped it – for now.

The second idea was what has now become the Permanent Commission, though not as Talbot Ross proposed it.

“To get the bill through, I had to agree it would get no money, no staffing,” she said – and no legislators.

Though Talbot Ross is the chair, she’s serving not as a lawmaker, but as a representative of the NAACP’s Portland Chapter – a pioneering group founded by her father, Gerald Talbot, who was also Maine’s first black legislator from 1972-1978. She still considers him her most important adviser.

Progressive posture

What it lacks in staff and budget, the Permanent Commission more than makes up for in scope.

It’s independent, advising all three branches of government. And, while it’s modeled on the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, enacted in the wake of the historic federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it looks like no commission Maine has seen before.

Most task forces have one Native American representative. This one has four: one for each of Maine’s federally recognized tribes, including a chief, two vice chiefs, and a tribal ambassador. Most other members, representing faith communities, labor, and justice organizations, are also people of color.

Unlike most commissions that rely on mainstream economic advice, this one has a progressive look: a representative from Coastal Enterprises, and James Myall, a respected analyst from the Maine Center for Economic Policy. It was Myall’s research that produced the finding that Maine’s people of color are 20 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than whites, one of the largest disparities in the nation.

How much gets done this year may depend on how great a change in attitude and consciousness Black Lives Matter has managed to achieve.

Talbot Ross sees the obstacles. “We have limited time, and limited capacity to pull things together,” she said, “and no guaranteed outcome.”

Nevertheless, she added, “If we don’t move the needle toward structural change this year, I don’t know when we ever will. This could be a historic moment.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

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