Statehouse Report: Maine commission presents landmark ‘anti-racist agenda’

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For the first time in six months, a half dozen cameras rolled and a dozen reporters listened outside the Statehouse Sept. 14 as the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations released its final report.

Once routine, such news conferences vanished along with much of the rest of public life when the pandemic hit home in March. 

The Statehouse has been closed to the public since then; the only people inside the building have been lawmakers and selected staff. The House staffer who organized the in-person gathering mentioned that for a colleague, hired in June, it was the first time she’d seen the inside of the Capitol.

Yet it was not only the “live” news conference that was unusual but the subject of the report: a response to the Black Lives Matter protests that have enveloped the nation and dramatically changed the debate about racism in America.

As the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Portland’s Green Memorial AME Church, put it, “Race-neutral policies are not going to get us where we need to go. We need an anti-racist agenda.” An appointee of Gov. Janet Mills, Lewis was among several speakers who said that more financial resources and “human capital” will need to be invested if Maine is to overcome the historic and enduring disadvantages endured by people of color.

Also sharing the stage were representatives of each of Maine’s four federally recognized American Indian tribes, among 15 Permanent Commission members.

Maulian Dana, ambassador for the Penobscot Tribe, recalled watching in 2015 on the same steps as the Legislature’s tribal representatives left in protest. At the time, the tribes were engaged in a bitter battle with former Gov. Paul LePage but, in truth, the event could have occurred under almost any administration.

“The system wasn’t working for us,” Dana said. “It isn’t working now.” The “government-to-government” relation that tribes envisioned after signing the Indian Lands Claims Settlement Act of 1980 simply hasn’t come to pass, she said after the event.

Instead, the state views tribal governments as municipalities – an inherently unequal relationship that differs markedly from other states, where tribes deal directly with governors and legislatures, Dana said.

One of the bills the commission recommends – LD 2094, based on recommendations of a legislative task force – would fundamentally rewrite the Settlement Act in numerous areas, from tribal courts to gaming. It’s one of 26 “Tier One” bills commissioners think should be enacted – if, in fact, there’s a long-anticipated special session, possibly after the Nov. 3 general election.

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

There are also a half dozen criminal justice reform measures sponsored by the commission chair, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, that would reform bail procedures, seal criminal records for some offenses, and change juvenile court procedures.

Talbot Ross, flanked by Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop – the only other black legislator among 186 members of the Legislature – noted that she and Hickman were often alone in presenting bills before committees. Gesturing to the gathering, she said “a whole community is now behind us.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Joby Thoyalil of the Maine Equal Justice Foundation said there are no bills addressing police training or conduct because none had been introduced before the Legislature shut down. A recommendation for the 2021 session, with a new Legislature, does propose reducing spending on the Maine State Police and directing more funding to housing and health care, he said.

Winnowing some 454 bills into the 26 of “Tier One,” with another 20 in “Tier Two,” which would have to be amended to serve the goals of racial justice, has created solidarity among the commission members, who had never served together before.

Although none were chosen as legislators – Talbot Ross is representing the NAACP – when they were given their charge by the presiding officers, some 55 lawmakers stepped forward to participate. She said she sees this as a hopeful sign for next year. 

While many of the same concepts may re-emerge, Talbot Ross expects a wider range of bills specifically targeting “structural racism.”

Lewis told the gathering, “If the Legislature is going to lead, it must also listen” to marginalized voices, “to heed their lived experience.” He said this “is the only way to counter unconscious bias,” adding, “Awareness is not enough. There must be a long and deliberate process if we are going to change.” 

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