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Iraqi woman stranded by immigrant order will attend Trump address with Pingree

Press Herald Politics -

A 20-year-old Iraqi woman who was temporarily separated from her family in Maine because of President Trump’s immigrant order will attend his first address to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Banah Al-Hanfy takes a selfie with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree at the Portland International Jetport after Pingree got off a flight from Washington, D.C. Pingree’s office and others worked together to help get Al-Hanfy reunited with her family. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Banah Al-Hanfy, who was reunited with her parents and sisters in Portland in early February, will attend with Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District. Pingree’s office helped bring the young woman from Baghdad to Boston.

“Banah’s father, Labed, helped to keep our service members safe in Iraq by acting as an interpreter, and in doing so he risked his own family’s safety,” Pingree said. “We owe Labed a debt of gratitude and an earnest welcome for his selfless service to our nation. I am appalled that one of President Trump’s first actions resulted in so much stress and fear for Banah and her family.”

Labed Al-Hanfy, 48, and his family hold a special immigrant visa because of his work for the U.S. He and his wife, Soso, and two daughters, Jumana, 19, and Omaima, 13, arrived in New Jersey from Baghdad on Jan. 24. They flew to Portland the next day to stay with family members. Banah, who was a student at the American University in Iraq, was supposed to follow her family within days. Then Trump issued his order Jan. 27 barring immigrants traveling to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Banah was not permitted to board her flight.

Afraid for his daughter, Labed contacted the Portland Press Herald to share her story. After hearing about Banah’s experiences, Pingree’s staff and a group of volunteers found an airline that would allow Banah to come to the United States. After an 18-hour journey, she was reunited with her family Feb. 3. The order has been temporarily halted by the courts, but the president is expected to issue another similar order soon.

Trump is scheduled to deliver his address at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Politico has reported Banah will be seated in the House gallery with other guests who were negatively impacted by Trump’s travel ban.

“There was simply no excuse for what happened to Banah – she had the correct paperwork and legal status,” Pingree said in her written statement. “I hope the President will make clear tomorrow evening that his new immigration orders will not attack people who are coming to our nation legally simply because of their religion or country of origin. I also hope Banah will hear President Trump express gratitude for those who’ve served our military as her father did.”

This story will be updated.

Supreme Court upholds disclosure requirement for issue ads

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has upheld a requirement that forces groups to say who is paying for issue advertising directed at candidates in an approaching election.

The justices on Monday affirmed a lower court decision in a case involving ads that mention candidates but don’t call for the election or defeat of one.

The case involved a Colorado think tank called the Independence Institute and ads that it wanted to run in 2014 that mentioned Colorado Democratic senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet. Udall lost his 2014 re-election bid, while Bennet won a second term in 2016. The Independence Institute said it wanted to run a similar spot in 2016.

The group objected to revealing the names of its largest contributors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supported the group’s Supreme Court bid.

The Supreme Court has generally upheld disclosure requirements even as it has struck down limits on raising and spending money in political campaigns.

Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the importance of disclosure in his majority opinion in the Citizens United case in 2010 that freed corporations and labor unions to spend freely in elections, as long as they did so independently of candidates.

Kennedy wrote that “the public has an interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate shortly before an election.”

The case is Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission, 16-743.

LePage repeats disputed claim about Medicare funding on Fox News

Press Herald Politics -

During a morning interview with Fox News’ television talk show Fox and Friends, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said the federal government should return $800 billion that he claimed it “stole” to make the federal Affordable Care Act work.

When asked about President Trump’s federal budget proposals that would not cut defense spending, Social Security or Medicare, LePage said he was concerned about the stance on Medicare.

“I’m a little concerned that they are not going to touch Medicare,” LePage said. “I think what they should be doing with Medicare is return the $800 billion that they stole to put into Obamacare. And I really do believe it was stealing from the American people.”

LePage said Americans have been paying into Medicare with payroll taxes, and former President Barack Obama “went in and took $800 billion out to make his program work and I really don’t think that’s appropriate. I think they should at least return that money.”

The governor’s claim is similar to one made by former Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, who have said $700 billion was stolen from the federal medical insurance program that covers health care for those 65 and older. But according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit and nonpartisan Washington-D.C. based think tank on the federal budget, the enactment of the ACA did not reduce the amount of money going to pay for Medicare but reduced the amount Medicare spends.

“In fact, Medicare payroll tax revenues increased, increasing the amount that could be spent,” a report by the committee notes.”Partially as a result of these changes, the Medicare Trust Fund is expected to be solvent through 2030, 13 years longer than projected before the (ACA) was passed.”

Later in the short interview, LePage repeated Trump’s point that Congress should “repeal and replace” the ACA. He said that instead of having to follow strict federal rules for health care funds under Medicaid, states should be given block grants to design their own health care benefit programs for people with low incomes.

“Get rid of it,” LePage said. “One size does not fit all, every state has their unique dynamics.”

LePage noted that Maine has the oldest population in the U.S., “so we need to have our own program that we can design to fit our state,” he said.

Other topics LePage discussed included the state’s budget cash flow balance of $1 billion and his attendance at a ball for U.S. governors Sunday night that was hosted by Trump.

This report will be updated.

LePage on Fox News: Obamacare has been ‘stealing from the American people’

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta. Gov. Paul LePage started today in the national media spotlight with an appearance on Fox & Friends.

LePage has been in Washington for several days meeting with President Donald Trump and Republican governors and leading a discussion about welfare reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.

LePage’s national television appearance was brief and for the most part, the hosts fed him statements with which he could agree. For starters, he was asked if he supports Trump’s executive order — both the one he’s already issued and the revised one he is expected to issue Wednesday — that bans travel or immigration from certain countries.

“I support it very, very strongly,” said LePage. “We have recently had a terrorist in our state. It’s about safety in my mind. We all want immigration to continue but we want to make sure it’s done safely. I just want people to be vetted properly.”

LePage was presumably referring to a Freeport man, Adnan Fazeli, who traveled to Syria in 2014 to fight for Muslim extremists on behalf of the Islamic State. Fazeli, who died in 2015 while fighting in Lebanon, did not take part in any terrorist activity in Maine and his family alerted authorities about their concerns that he had become radicalized.

The governor and the show’s hosts did not mention that neither Trump ban would target people coming to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, which is where most of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists who traveled through Maine held citizenship.

LePage was then asked about Trump’s upcoming budget proposal, which reportedly will boost defense department spending and not touch Medicare or Social Security. LePage said Congress should act to return Social Security funds that were appropriated to the Affordable Care Act.

“What they should be doing with Medicare is return the $800 billion they stole to put into Obamacare,” he said. “I really do believe that it was stealing from the American people. The American people have been paying into this program.”

LePage was then asked about his fiscal management of Maine in a question bred from an analysis posted by the Bangor Daily News on Sunday about the fact that the Maine treasurer’s cash pool has topped a monthly average of $1 billion for the first time in history.

However, the Fox hosts said inaccurately that the $1 billion sits in Maine’s rainy day fund. LePage appeared to be surprised by the question and its premise.

“I don’t spend a whole lot,” he said of the state budget. “I only spend what I need to.”

Finally, LePage said he supports a repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act and suggested that Trump’s preference for block grants and letting states use the money to create their own health care programs.

“One size does not fit all,” he said. “Every state has their unique dynamics. The state of Maine is the oldest state in the country and so we need to have our own program that we can design to fit our state.” — Christopher Cousins

King ‘deeply disturbed’ by reported Trump administration actions on Russia

Earlier this month, Maine’s U.S. senators had been united on the thought that their Senate Intelligence Committee was the proper venue for an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. But weekend events may have made that more tenuous

That’s after a Washington Post report that said the administration tried to enlist intelligence officials and the Republican chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees to push back on news reports on that issue, which has been under review by intelligence agencies.

On Sunday, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he was “deeply troubled” by the reports and said he’ll speak to Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, “to better understand what happened.”

King said the committee “must have credibility not only with our colleagues, but also with the American people” and “I will have serious concerns if it seems that we are no longer able to proceed in this manner.”

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, praised the committee’s staff and structure in a statement, but said the committee must “work in a completely bipartisan fashion” to maintain trust in its work. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits
  • There won’t be a House Ethics Committee investigation of Ryan Tipping. Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport decided on Friday that she will not authorize an investigation into Democratic Rep. Ryan Tipping of Orono and his role working for the Stand Up for Students referendum campaign last year. Republican Rep. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough requested the investigation last week, suggesting that Tipping’s involvement in the campaign, which successfully passed a referendum to put a tax on income over $200,000 to benefit public school, and his later appointment to the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, amounted to an ethical breach. “Your letter contains no information that leads me to change my opinion about this matter,” wrote Gideon in a Feb. 24 letter to Sirocki. “As such I will not exercise my authority as speaker to convene the House Ethics Committee.” — Christopher Cousins
  • Advocates are mounting another legislative effort to ban sales of furniture with harmful flame-retardant chemicals. A bill from Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, that would the sale of furniture with virtually any flame-retardant chemicals faces a public hearing before a legislative committee on Monday. Those chemicals have been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption and Maine banned one of them in 2007. Most companies have phased them out, but Prevent Harm, a group that fights toxic chemicals, says some companies still use them. They’re pushing for this year’s bill alongside the Professional Firefighters of Maine and former state Sen. Linda Baker, R-Topsham, whose husband, Skip, was a firefighter who died from cancer. Baker sponsored a similar bill unsuccessfully last year. — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine Democrats are still denouncing their 2012 U.S. Senate candidate. Former state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, was a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2012. Now, she is the object of scorn from many on Maine’s left over a column in the Portland Press Herald, in which she has denounced “Bernie bros” — a segment of rabid fans of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. On Sunday, she blamed them on the rise of Trump, saying they “hated Clinton and her supporters with such ferocity that it became impossible for the party to put its hate back in the bottle after she won the primary.” This is off-message to the Maine Democratic Party, whose caucuses were dominated by Sanders in 2016 and Chairman Phil Bartlett, who tweeted Sunday that Dill “does not speak” for the party and “This divisiveness must stop.” He spoke out against her after other columns with a Press Herald op-ed in December. — Michael Shepherd
Reading list Cerebral sabbatical

Today is No Brainer Day, according to multiple online sources that don’t require much brain power to find. We are all supposed to give our brain a rest today. We’ll sidestep the opportunity to note that the Legislature and Congress return to work today after week-long recesses.

Cinephiles who stayed awake into the wee small hours of this morning got to see Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway start No Brainer Day early with their Best Picture flub at the Academy Awards.

The observance, which originated in 1995, was the brainchild of Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith, who was dubbed “premier eventologist of America” by Insight Magazine. How do you apply for that job? Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Doctors picket Sen. Collins’ office in support of Affordable Care Act

Mike Tipping - Bangor Daily News -

A group of about fifty protestors stood outside the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on Saturday, the home of Maine Senator Susan Collins’ Bangor office, in order to call for the protection of the Affordable Care Act.

The size of the crowd isn’t particularly notable, given the frequency and fervency of  of rallies in Maine in recent weeks (another pro-ACA event that day in Augusta, for instance, drew 200 participants), but its composition certainly is: most of the protestors were local physicians and other health care professionals.

Trading their white coats for parkas, the group spent an hour on the side of Harlow Street holding pro-ACA signs and telling anyone who would listen about what a repeal of the health care law would mean for their patients, often in very specific and personal terms:

How loosing your health can lead to loosing your job #HealthProfessionalsProtest #DoNoHarm #KeepAmericaCovered pic.twitter.com/opbVTfl6sH

— LB (@AsilKcub) February 26, 2017

Here's why preventive care is important #HealthProfessionalsProtest #DoNoHarm #KeepAmericaCovered pic.twitter.com/oKgciSKBxc

— LB (@AsilKcub) February 26, 2017

Lots of heart wrenching stories if no health insurance #HealthProfessionalsProtest #DoNoHarm #KeepAmericaCovered pic.twitter.com/QMZcFbd1jK

— LB (@AsilKcub) February 26, 2017

“I believe everyone has a right to health care and having affordable, comprehensive health insurance is necessary to keep Mainers healthy. It is part of my job as a physician to stand up for and advocate for my patients in this way,” said Lisa Buck, a family physician in Bangor who helped to organize the rally.

An estimated 95,000 Mainers would lost coverage if the Act were repealed without a comparable replacement.

Other health care professionals across the state are also taking a leading role in advocating for safeguarding the ACA. Earlier this month, more than 300 nurses, counselors, therapists, doctors, and dentists banded together to place an ad in four Maine newspapers with an open letter to Sen. Collins supporting the Act.

“I know firsthand what the ACA does for families,” said Sam Zager, a family medicine doctor in Portland who signed the letter. “We found a decent plan through the insurance exchange, and then my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the worst time of our lives, absolutely agonizing. But amidst all the grimness we were facing, at least we had some measure of security knowing that we had health insurance to largely cover her operations and chemotherapy. She got diagnosed and cured here in Maine, thanks to many terrific people, and the ACA.”

How would LePage’s plan to outsource park jobs affect visitors?

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — Conservation advocates are raising concerns about Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to outsource two dozen jobs at Maine’s state parks and to eliminate management positions involved in overseeing historic sites or public lands.

But LePage administration officials say the changes – including the shift to seasonal contract laborers – are aimed at improving efficiency and refocusing resources at a time when the state parks are adding programs and setting visitation records.

“It’s not just the weather that is responsible for higher attendance,” said Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Lawmakers are expecting a spirited discussion next month when they begin diving into LePage’s budget proposals related to Whitcomb’s department. In many ways, the debate highlights ongoing tensions between the LePage administration and Maine’s outdoor recreation and environmental communities over the decision to merge the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation nearly five years ago.

“The state parks system always had been Maine’s brand … and now it is an increasingly minor sub-bureau within the Department of Agriculture,” said Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust and a former deputy director at the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands during the Baldacci administration.

One of the major changes proposed by LePage in his two-year, $6.8 billion budget is to hire contractors to fill 24 seasonal positions within the parks bureau: 14 full-time assistant park rangers, one part-time assistant park ranger and nine full-time laborers. The potential shift to contractors is not expected to save the department money – the $410,000 in payroll for the state employees is transferred to a contractor fund. Instead, Whitcomb said he believes jobs such as lawn maintenance can be done faster and more efficiently by contractors, especially considering the “antiquated” equipment owned by the state.

Popham Beach littered with downed trees after a storm. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

 

“(Current workers) are good people, but I don’t think we have kept up with the equipment,” Whitcomb said.

Stearns and others warn, however, that the move would hurt the visitor experience because the assistant park rangers and laborers are often the public face of the department during the summer tourism season. Many seasonal workers return year after year, so they know the parks well enough to quickly direct a visitor to a destination or help guide an ambulance through a jam-packed park to an injury scene. Seasonal workers are also a traditional recruiting pool for full-time workers.

“You’ll hear that they’re not laying anybody off, but (seasonal workers) are the meat and potatoes of park labor during the summer,” Stearns said. “The administration will say they are replacing them with contractors. But the reality is … they are doing everything from parking management to crisis (response) and cleaning the toilets.”

LARGER BUDGET, INCREASED FEES

Maine’s more than 50 state parks and historic sites reported nearly 2.9 million visitors in 2016, setting an attendance record for the second straight year. The properties range from historic forts and historic sites, such as Colonial Pemaquid, to the immensely popular sandy beaches offered at Popham, Scarborough and Crescent Beach state parks.

The “general operations” budget for Maine’s parks increased 18 percent, from $6.7 million to $7.9 million, between fiscal years 2012 and 2017. But Mainers are also paying more to use their state parks. The price of an annual park pass rose 50 percent this year, from $70 to $105, the first increase since 2002. Single-day entrance fees rose by about $2 at most parks in 2015, and camping fees went up in 2016, increasing from $2 to $5 for a reservation and from $3 to $10 for the actual camping fee.

A worker installs a thatched roof on this replica building at Colonial Pemaquid. Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

 

Since the consolidation of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Conservation in 2012, the LePage administration has trimmed the number of managers throughout the new, larger agency. And LePage’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget proposes additional cuts to what are largely vacant positions.

For instance, the governor has proposed eliminating one vacant managerial position – technically described as a “public service manager III” – that oversaw much of the field staff and management of Maine’s hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. The LePage administration also has steadily transferred more oversight of the management of Maine’s 600,000 acres of public lands – for recreational access, wildlife habitat and timber harvesting – to the Maine Forest Service. And in 2015, the Legislature rejected a LePage proposal to dissolve the Bureau of Parks and Lands and disperse its responsibilities among other agencies, including the forest service.

Eliza Donoghue, forests and wildlife policy advocate at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and other conservation advocates have raised alarms that the mission of the forest service is different from that of the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Donoghue said she is hearing significant concerns about the department’s ability to oversee the large number of conservation easements on lands. Far from “making do” with fewer managers, Donoghue said she is hearing concerns from bureau staffers about their ability to carry out the agency’s obligations.

“Just because there is nobody currently filling these positions doesn’t mean they are not very important positions,” Donoghue said. “The stories I am hearing about floundering at the department and the bureau are staggering.”

STREAMLINING GONE TOO FAR?

Stearns oversaw conservation land acquisition as well as planning for four years as deputy director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands under LePage’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. That deputy director position also was proposed for elimination in a previous budget, and Stearns said he fears that the quality of the bureau’s services are being eroded because there are simply fewer people to administer the agency’s many complicated obligations.

Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth attracts about 110,000 people a year. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

“It’s not a question of the fox guarding the henhouse. It’s a situation that even the fox has been laid off,” Stearns said.

Whitcomb, not surprisingly, sees the situation differently. The department has “absolutely” streamlined in recent years, but also has invested heavily in improving handicap access to the parks and addressing the backlog of maintenance projects.

“It’s fair to say that we have looked at middle management, and I think we have tried to keep boots on the ground” by supporting park-level employees rather than those based in Augusta, Whitcomb said. “We are learning to do some of those functions with different folks.”

LePage’s budget also would eliminate the position of historic site specialist, which was essentially the bureau’s chief historian responsible for management, interpretation and restoration of dozens of state-owned historic properties. The position is currently vacant but was previously held by the current director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, Tom Desjardin, an author and historian who has held several positions in the LePage administration.

While Stearns described Desjardin as “both the primary champion and primary expert” on those historic sites, he worries that trying to balance both the bureau director and chief historian roles simultaneously will be difficult. But Whitcomb said eliminating the historian position makes sense given Desjardin’s experience.

“He is in a position now where he can really focus on that,” Whitcomb said of the state’s historical sites. “I think it’s a model that can work very, very well.”

Democratic chairman pledges to unite party

Press Herald Politics -

ATLANTA — Newly elected Democratic national chairman Tom Perez pledged Sunday to unite a fractured party, rebuild at all levels from “school board to the Senate” and reach out to chunks of rural America left feeling forgotten in the 2016 election.

Speaking in television interviews, Perez indicated that an important first step was joining with vanquished rival Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who agreed at Perez’s invitation to serve as the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chairman. Perez said the two would work hard to put out an affirmative party message while opposing President Trump’s policies, adding that he and Ellison were already getting a “good kick” that Trump was stirred to tweet that the DNC election was “rigged.”

“We lead with our values and we lead with our actions,” Perez said, describing a party focus that will emphasize protecting Social Security, Medicare and “growing good jobs in this economy.”

“You know, our unity as a party is our greatest strength. And it’s his worst nightmare,” he said. “And, frankly, what we need to be looking at is whether this election was rigged by Donald Trump and his buddy Vladimir Putin.”

The former labor secretary in the Obama administration acknowledged that swaths of the U.S. had felt neglected, saying he had heard from rural America that “Democrats haven’t been there for us recently.”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Perez said, stressing grass-roots efforts in all 50 states. He pointed to Democrats’ success Saturday in one of their strongholds, Delaware, where they found themselves in an unexpectedly competitive race. Stephanie Hansen won a special election for a state Senate seat after vigorous party campaigning that helped preserve Democrats’ control of the chamber.

As DNC chair, Perez must now rebuild a party that in the last decade has lost about 1,000 elected posts from the White House to Congress to the 50 statehouses, a power deficit Democrats have not seen nationally in 90 years.

On Saturday, the DNC elected Perez as its chair in a race that took two rounds of voting. They picked Perez, who was backed by former President Obama, over Ellison, backed by liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Trump’s pick for Navy secretary withdraws

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of the Navy, businessman Philip Bilden, said Sunday he was withdrawing from consideration for the post, citing concerns about privacy and separating himself from his business interests.

Bilden’s withdrawal raises similar issues to that of Vincent Viola, Trump’s nominee for Army secretary who stepped aside earlier this month. Just last week, the Pentagon sought to tamp down reports that Bilden might pull out.

Bilden was an intelligence officer in the Army Reserve from 1986-1996. He relocated to Hong Kong to set up an Asian presence for HarbourVest Partners LLC, a global private equity management firm. Bilden recently retired from HarbourVest Partners after 25 years.

Sen. King ‘deeply troubled’ by White House influence on Trump-Russia investigations

Press Herald Politics -

U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine said Sunday he is “deeply troubled” by reports that the chairman of the Intelligence Committee he serves on was enlisted by the White House to spin reporters on alleged ties between Russian intelligence operatives and the Trump presidential campaign.

King, who has previously championed having the Senate Intelligence Committee spearhead investigations into alleged Russian influence in the 2016 election, said he would “have serious concerns if it seems we are no longer able to proceed in this matter” because of lost credibility.

Numerous Democrats and at least one Republican in Congress have called for the formation of an independent committee or the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russian involvement, but Maine’s senators have not been among them. Thus far the Republican leadership in both chambers has left the task with the respective chambers’ intelligence committees.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the White House had the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees – Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. – place calls to reporters challenging stories by CNN and The New York Times alleging regular contact between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.

Both legislators acknowledged to the Post that they had made the calls.

“I’ve had those conversations,” Burr told the Post. “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation.”

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a written statement Sunday afternoon that he intends “to speak with Chairman Burr to better understand what happened. This committee must have credibility not only with our colleagues, but also with the American people – to whom we owe nothing less than a thorough, fair and nonpartisan investigation – and I will have serious concerns if it seems that we are no longer able to proceed in this matter.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – who also sits on the Intelligence Committee – issued a statement Sunday night reiterating the committee’s competence and “bipartisan determination” to carry out the investigation and emphasizing the importance of its members working in an uncompromised fashion.

“For the public to have confidence in our findings, it is important that the committee work in a completely bipartisan fashion and that we avoid any actions that might be perceived as compromising the integrity of our work,” Collins said in the statement, adding that the panel should issue a public report on its findings.

Like King, Collins has previously rejected the need for an independent committee, telling the Portland Press Herald that the intelligence committees had “the oversight authority, appropriately cleared staff, and responsibility” to do a thorough investigation.

She reiterated this position in a radio interview Wednesday, saying the Senate Intelligence Committee would “get to the bottom of this” and pledging to hold public hearings and to call on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to testify. Flynn resigned after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his pre-inaugural conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Maine’s 1st Congressional District representative, Chellie Pingree, is one of 195 House Democrats who have signed on to a bill to create an independent, bicameral commission to investigate the alleged Russia contacts, and in January asked outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the matter.

Pingree also expressed concern over the reports about Burr and Nunes countering news reports at the White House’s request.

“This raises serious red flags and multiplies the existing questions about the ability of Congress to do an independent investigation,” she said in a written statement Sunday night.

Pingree also praised Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California – a Trump supporter – for calling for the creation of a special prosecutor on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday night. Issa had said it would be improper for Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to lead the investigation because he had served in the Trump campaign and was a presidential appointee.

A spokesman for Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, did not directly respond to questions about whether he had concerns that the latest developments might have compromised the House and Senate intelligence committees’ ability to do a thorough and independent investigation.

“The congressman will continue to follow the (Senate Intelligence) Committee’s efforts on this matter,” spokesman Brendan Conley said in a written statement.

Trump to order more effort to help black colleges

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — President Trump is expected to provide historically black colleges and universities a long-awaited boost as he looks to outdo his predecessors – including the nation’s first African-American president – on the issue.

Trump will sign an executive order as soon as Monday, when the schools’ presidents arrive in Washington for a visit. It’s expected to strengthen the office that pushes the federal government to do business with the colleges by moving it to the White House and providing it specific goals, according to those who are helping to write the order.

The potential is huge. Federal agencies have thousands of contracts with colleges, universities and think tanks worth billions of dollars, primarily for research.

“It would be truly, truly historic,” said Leonard Haynes, a longtime educator who ran the office and is helping to write the executive order. “It’s part of a longtime dream … none of (the other presidents) had the courage to do it.”

Though African-Americans overwhelmingly support Democrats in elections, many education experts credit Republican leaders for helping to improve HBCUs, the common abbreviation for historically black schools.

Some black college administrators say they were disappointed in President Obama for not making the schools a priority and, in some cases, hurting their financial health and contributing to declining enrollment with changes he made to loan programs. The schools receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and student aid.

In today’s world, no voice is too small to protest

Press Herald Politics -

Chris Teret found it surprisingly easy to explain to his 4-year-old daughter, Phoenix, why people want to march and protest the words and actions of President Trump.

“She’s in preschool and they talk a lot about respectful behavior, not bullying, not calling people names. So we told her some of the things (Trump) had done and said,” said Teret, 39, of Portland. “She said (Trump) would do well to learn the things she learned in preschool.”

When Phoenix marched with her family in the Women’s Walk Portland on Jan. 21, where the estimated crowd of more than 10,000 included many children, she carried a small sign that read “Send Trump to Preschool.” She carried it again on Feb. 1 at a rally at Portland City Hall to protest Trump’s banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. That rally attracted about 1,500 people, including dozens of children.

Since Trump’s election and inauguration, protests in Maine and nationally have become family affairs, with children and teens as visible at rallies as pink pussycat hats and “Love Trumps Hate” signs. Experts say this is one of the few times in recent American history when children have been such a large part of protests, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the immigrants’ rights rallies of 2006 being other examples.

Six-year-old Caleb Eng and Melanie Maudlin, 5, attend a demonstration against President Trump’s immigration ban recently at Portland City Hall with their parents. Caleb’s mother, Renee Bourgeois of Portland, said this issue in particular “is so much a part of our family’s story.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The influx of young protesters, say parents and activists, can be linked to the fact that people are protesting such a broad range of topics, most of them directly affecting families, including Trump’s personal remarks about women, his efforts to ban people from Muslim-majority countries and his administration’s efforts to roll back protection for transgender people. Past protest movements often were focused on one topic. Parents also say that, in this time of bitterly divided politics, it’s important to show children firsthand the power of peaceful protest and resistance.

Some political scientists have already begun studying the current wave of protests, including surveying participants of the massive Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January. But most of the people surveyed there were of voting age, so experts say it’s hard to quantify the number of children involved. Still, the photographic and anecdotal evidence suggests that the ongoing protests are multigenerational, the kinds of protests that historically get the attention of politicians and the public. Images of children facing off with police dogs during the civil rights movement, for example, helped build support for the cause.

“It’s an interesting moment because so many people, across generations, seem to be turning out in solidarity with so many different communities. (Multigenerational efforts) are the movements more likely to get a hold on the public consciousness,” said Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’ll probably see the impact of this for many years. This involvement (by children and teens) will create lots of opportunities for mobility on so many issues.”

MAKING SIGNS, PACKING FOR PROTEST

Some of the children going to rallies, like Phoenix, come from families where activism is frequent and they’ve seen it all their lives. Phoenix’s father is an electrician and union member, and she has stood on picket lines with him and heard political talk since she was a baby.

But many young protesters are the children of people who had never participated in a protest before, but who now feel called to act and to get their children involved.

Chris Teret, 39, of Portland is joined by his 4-year-old daughter, Phoenix, at a recent rally outside City Hall. “She said (President Trump) would do well to learn the things she learned in preschool.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Though she has always voted, Renee Bourgeois, a 44-year-old veterinarian from Portland, had not been politically active before attending the Portland rally in support of immigrants. She brought her 6-year-old son, Caleb Eng, to the rally because his great-grandparents had immigrated from China and faced harsh anti-Chinese laws and bias.

“This is so much a part of our family’s story. To me it seems less about political things and more about how to be kind to people. That’s how my husband and I talk to Caleb about it,” she said.

Ellen Okolita, a maker of children’s costumes from Gray, had not been to a political rally since college before attending the Portland rally for immigrants with her two daughters, Olive, 5, and Ivy, 7. Both girls worked hard on their signs beforehand. One said “Meow for Peace” over the image of a winged cat and another said “Howl for Peace” near the image of a wolf. Okolita had arranged to meet four other parents at the rally, and together they had a total of eight children with them.

The rally started at 4 p.m., with temperatures around 30 degrees. From the top of the City Hall steps, a half-dozen immigrants gave passionate speeches, their words sometimes hard to hear through loudspeakers, and led chants like “This is what democracy looks like.” Some children stood on snowbanks to see better, and many joined the chants. About a half-hour into the rally, Olive and Ivy said their hands were cold and someone in the crowd passed them hand warmers.

Okolita, 35, said the administration’s attempt to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries pushed her to act. And she knew immediately she wanted to involve her children. She and her husband have talked to the children about how Trump’s immigration policy might affect families like one they know from Syria. The discussion turned to the idea of equality, and that it’s important to stand up for equal rights for all people. When they were considering going last month to the Women’s March on Maine in Augusta, Okolita asked her daughters if they thought women should have equal rights. “Of course, Mom” was their answer.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer they’d come with me, as long as they want to. We give them the option,” said Okolita. “It’s their country, and these are big times right now.”

Okolita said Ivy was especially excited to attend the Portland rally on immigration and chose it over rehearsal for a play she’s in. Afterward, Okolita said, she talked with her daughters about what to put in the backpack for the next rally, to stave off cold, hunger or thirst.

Ellen Okolita is joined by one of her daughters, Ivy, 7. “To me, it’s a no-brainer they’d come with me,” Okolita said of her kids. “It’s their country, and these are big times right now.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

FAMILY-FRIENDLY PROTESTS

Young people have long been involved in protest movements, said Costanza-Chock, but often they’ve been at least high-school-age, if not in college. Dating back to the Vietnam War, “student protest” has been a familiar term. Recent movements that have included teens and young adults include Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.

Both of those movements embraced millennials, people born roughly between 1980 and 2000, a generation that has been active in a variety of social causes. (The 2016 Millennial Impact Report by the Case Foundation, based on surveys of 75,000 people, found that more than half of millennials identify as conservative, and only 43 percent as liberal, and the political areas of most interest to the group as a whole are education, health care and the economy.) While there are certainly millennials involved in the current wave of protests, it also involves younger children, brought by parents.

“This is entire families, like during civil rights, with mothers and fathers bringing their young kids,” said Costanza-Chock. “That, I think, makes this period (of protests) different than many others.”

Civil rights leaders in the 1960s were sometimes criticized for having children attend rallies and marches, said Erica Chenoweth, a professor of international relations at the University of Denver who has researched the history of civil resistance. But bringing children to a march or rally helps designate the events as “family-friendly” and might deter violent outbursts, Chenoweth said. From a practical standpoint, sometimes bringing children is the only way for parents to participate. And much of the protesting now involves women who may be primary caregivers for their children, said Chenoweth.

“It was so eye-opening,” said 13-year-old protester Hannah Elizabeth Little, “to be in the midst of so many people who are trying to make this country better.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

While many younger children attended the Maine women’s marches and the Portland rally for immigrants with their families, some tweens and teenagers have decided on their own to protest. Hannah Elizabeth Little, 13, asked her father to drive her to the Portland rally for immigrants. He was sick, or he would have stood with her, she said. The immigration issues being raised felt “very personal” to her, since she has friends at Lincoln Middle School in Portland from Somalia and other countries.

“It’s hard to hear all this, to hear such hate toward (her friends) from our government. They were being demonized, and it made me furious,” said Hannah, who is in the eighth grade.

Even before the rally for immigrants, Hannah had become moved to act by what she’d heard about Trump. She considers herself an “intersectional feminist,” a term that relates to how women’s race, class, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation can affect their experiences with and treatment by society. She and her father went to the women’s march in Washington, D.C., in January, and the two of them stood for hours among hundreds of thousands of like-minded people.

“It was so eye-opening, to be in the midst of so many people who are trying to make this country better,” Hannah said. “But it was a little mournful, because of the things that brought us out.”

Hannah’s mother, Jenna Little-Armstrong, said that her daughter has always been interested in helping others. She’s distributed blankets to homeless people and as a Girl Scout volunteered at a teen shelter. Plus, she knows many immigrant families who have less than hers.

“Hannah’s always been interested in the bigger picture of what’s going on, and we’ve tried to help her act on that. Instead of simply feeling badly about somebody, give of yourself to them,” said Little-Armstrong, 50.

“I’m planning to do a lot more (than protest),” said Hannah. “I want to get on the ground and start helping people.”

At left, Hannah Johnson, 13, of Cape Elizabeth traveled in January to the Women’s March on Washington with her mother, Jessica Johnson, second from left, and both grandmothers, Cindy Guertin of Yarmouth and Therese Johnson of Bridgton. Children like Hannah “are the next generation,” her mother said. Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

PASSING ON INFLUENCE

All children learn from their parents, pick up habits and ideas, including ideas of right and wrong. That’s why many activists and scholars think these multigenerational protests could be powerful.

When Hannah Johnson of Cape Elizabeth, 13, traveled to the Washington, D.C., women’s march in January, she drove down with her mother and both her grandmothers. Her mother, Jessica Johnson, persuaded her to come and see democracy in action.

Children like Hannah “are the next generation,” said Jessica Johnson, 45, an architect. “I think it’s important they understand this country is what it is because we are allowed to protest things peacefully.” Johnson had never been to a rally or march before, though she grew up with parents who had. Johnson’s mother, Cindy Guertin, said that in her Jewish-Catholic household politics and social justice were discussed and her children always knew she was strongly in favor of civil rights.

Guertin, 74, of Yarmouth, protested against the war in Vietnam in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Going to the women’s march in January was very different.

The Vietnam protest “was scary,” she said. “There were troops everywhere making sure we didn’t get together in large groups.” But the march in January was peaceful, with no troops in sight. It had a different feel, too, since it was more about a resistance to the perceived rollback of civil rights for millions of people, not focused on one military action.

Guertin, a retired art teacher, is glad her granddaughter participated. She thinks young people need to learn about the power of protest and resistance and its place in our democracy.

“Protests have been a part of life in this country for a long time, and I don’t know if young people know that, or that there was a time here when women couldn’t vote,” Guertin said. “I think young people need to know that.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

Twitter: RayRouthier

Republican sees need for independent probe of 2016 election

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A senior Republican lawmaker on Friday agreed that a special prosecutor should investigate Russia’s alleged interference with the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., became one of the few Republican representatives to publicly state the need for an independent investigation into Russia’s reported election meddling. This comes as Democrats have increasingly pushed for an investigation into Trump associates’ ties to Russia.

In an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Issa, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, first told the liberal show host that House and Senate intelligence committees would look into Russia’s activities “within the special areas they oversee.”

That was not sufficient for Maher, who pressed Issa – formerly the head of the House Oversight Committee – on whether he would have “let that slide” had similar suspicions arose involving the Democrats. Maher has been a vocal critic of Trump.

Shortly after the election, a CIA assessment concluded that hackers with connections to the Russian government targeted the Democratic National Committee and leaked thousands of emails to WikiLeaks in an effort to sway the outcome in Donald Trump’s favor. United States intelligence agencies have said they agree with the assessment, and a broad investigation is underway.

Russia has denied the accusations, and Trump – who has a history of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin – has vehemently denounced the findings and continued to blast the intelligence community.

“Let’s go back to 2012,” Maher asked Issa on the show Friday. “Say, the Russians hacked only Mitt Romney and there was a lot of contact between the Obama administration and Russia. You’d have let that slide?”

“No,” Issa replied.

“So you’re not gonna let this slide?” Maher asked.

“No,” Issa said.

Issa then replied that lawmakers would ask the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate.

Maher protested, saying there needed to be a special prosecutor – and that now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself “the same way former Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself” from an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

SENATE IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Spokesmen for Maine’s U.S. senators – Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King – did not respond to requests for comment from the Maine Sunday Telegram. Both senators sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee and have previously said no special prosecutor or independent probe is necessary because their committee would be thoroughly investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration tried to enlist intelligence officials to counter news stories about Russia’s ties with Trump’s associates. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned earlier this month over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and misleading senior officials.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., echoing other Democrats, has said that “the appearance of bias is unavoidable” if Sessions does not recuse himself in an independent investigation. Sessions indicated during the confirmation process that he would not recuse himself during any investigations involving Trump.

“If merely being a supporter of the President’s during the campaign warranted recusal from involvement in any matter involving (Trump), then most typical presidential appointees would be unable to conduct their duties,” Sessions told Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., in written responses to the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to Politico.

On Friday, however, Issa seemed to agree with Maher that Sessions should not be involved in an investigation.

“You’re right, you cannot have somebody, a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who was an appointee,” he said. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office.”

Issa added that it would also be inappropriate for Sessions to pass the investigation on to the deputy attorney general. He then explained, in a lengthy tangent, that Russia needed to be investigated “because they are bad people.”

“Here’s the reason we’re going to have to do it, Bill. There may or may not be fault, but the American people who are beginning to understand that Putin murders his enemies – sometimes right in front of the Kremlin, and then suddenly the cameras don’t work there – he’s murdered people and taken down (sic) using cyberwarfare in Georgia and Ukraine. This is a bad guy who murders people, who runs a gas station with an economy the size of Italy but is screwing up things all over the world that we’ve been doing – ‘working with.’ Now, we have to work with them. We don’t have to trust them. And we need to investigate their activities and we need to do it because they are bad people.”

FACING PROTESTERS AT HOME

Issa is serving his ninth term in Congress but is likely to face a grueling midterm election in 2018. After a lengthy re-election campaign last year, Issa narrowly defeated Democrat Doug Applegate in November to hold onto his seat in California’s 49th Congressional District.

Most of Issa’s appearance on Maher’s show Friday focused on efforts to reform the health-care system. Issa has long been a vocal advocate of repealing and replacing Obamacare and last week released a draft bill titled the “Access to Insurance for All Americans Act.”

On Tuesday, Issa was accused of skipping out on his constituents when he did not attend, as expected, an “emergency town hall” on health care in the San Diego area. Video from the event showed the crowd chanting “Where is Darrell?” and “Where is Issa?” repeatedly.

In response, tweets with the hashtag WhereIsDarrell began appearing.

Another video from the event showed Issa’s face attached to a large cardboard cutout of Waldo, the purposely hard-to-spot cartoon character that was the star of a children’s book series.

When Maher brought up the lawmaker’s absence from the town hall, Issa defended himself by saying that he had “over 14 separate events open to the public in the last two weeks” and that he had spoken to several hundred people who showed up outside his office to protest recently.

“The reality is, is there are not enough town-hall meetings,” Issa told Maher. “We’ve gone to tele-town hall.”

Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Colin Woodard contributed to this report.

Lawmaker: Reports threaten integrity of Russia probe

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The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat warned the panel’s chairman over reports that the Republican worked with the White House to try to quash negative stories about Russian interference in last year’s U.S. elections, calling it a threat to the integrity of the top congressional probe into the issue.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said he expressed his concerns to Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, warning that he could pull the plug on what has been the one major congressional probe with bipartisan support.

“I have seen the press reports suggesting that the White House enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress to counter allegations regarding issues that are currently under SSCI investigation,” Warner said in a statement posted on his website late Friday. “I have called Director Pompeo and Chairman Burr to express my grave concerns about what this means for the independence of this investigation and a bipartisan commitment to follow the facts, and to reinforce that I will not accept any process that is undermined by political interference.”

The Washington Post reported Friday that Burr told them he had talked to reporters about reports of contacts between Russians and Trump associates.

“I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation,” Sen. Burr told The Post.

Warner said he will consult with the other Democrats on the panel to determine what to do next “so we can ensure that the American people get the thorough, impartial investigation that they deserve, free from White House interference.”

Warner last week said he had confidence in Burr, but that now appears to have been shaken.

“I have said from the very beginning of this matter that if SSCI cannot properly conduct an independent investigation, I will support empowering whoever can do it right,” he said.

Voters target Sen. Collins with pressure to hold town hall

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Sen. Susan Collins was expecting to see dozens of protesters when she stepped out of a Bangor radio studio Wednesday, as they’d been there chanting “Town hall!” when she arrived, a call for her to hold an open public forum. What she may not have been expecting was that they’d be just standing silently, watching her as she and her aides walked the gantlet back to her car.

“The thinking was that we wanted to show what it’s like to walk by people who are silent, and I’d have to say it was eerie,” said Jeanne Curran of Bangor, one of the organizers of the protest outside Maine Public’s studio. “Mainers have wanted a town hall for her to listen to all of us en masse so she gets the feeling of how extensive our fear and our anger is.”

Like many other Republicans in Washington, Collins has been feeling the heat from opponents of President Trump while home for the February recess. From Salt Lake City to rural Arkansas, members of Congress have been confronted by angry, overflow crowds of constituents upset about the slow pace of investigations into the Russian influence in the 2016 election and Trump’s Cabinet picks, or fearful that they will lose their health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

Collins hasn’t held town hall-style meetings since her first years in the Senate, preferring instead to schedule private meetings with constituents. She says she finds them more effective than a big open forum, as does her Senate colleague, Angus King.

“What happens is usually a few people dominate the discussion, and those who are more reserved or less comfortable with speaking in public don’t get to talk to the officeholder directly,” she said in a written statement. “I think that’s why Maine senators have had a tradition of meeting with groups of constituents or having staff meet with them rather than holding these huge town halls where very few people get to speak and the level of civility is not that high.”

Sen. Susan Collins says large town hall forums are less effective than private meetings with constituents.

‘SHE IS A LITTLE BIT OUT OF STEP’

Throughout the past week, protesters have targeted Collins in cities across Maine, including a pro-ACA demonstration in Biddeford, “open-air town halls” in Lewiston, Bangor and Portland, and the “silent protest” outside Maine Public.

“I’m sure you will also be doing other protests for all the other members of the delegation,” Collins said outside the radio station, just before closing her car’s door, a reference to the fact that independent King, Democratic 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin have not faced similar protests.

Protest organizers say there’s a reason for that. “All my protest activities are based on my principles of tolerance and inclusiveness, and to the extent a member of Congress does not adhere to those principles, I protest them,” said Tracy Jalbuena of Camden, who attended the Maine Public protest and co-founded Midcoast Indivisible, an anti-Trump resistance group. “At this point, Susan Collins is disregarding those principles the most.”

That’s true, says Bryan Duff, head of the political science department at the University of New England in Biddeford.

“They’re not pressuring Angus King and Chellie Pingree because they are doing what they want and Susan Collins is not and that’s the simplest thing,” he said. “Bruce Poliquin, he’s doing what everyone expects him to do and represents the most conservative part of the state. Collins is a statewide rep, and this is a state that went for Clinton and for Obama, so every time she votes with Trump she is a little bit out of step with the state.”

Unlike Poliquin, Collins said before the election that Trump was unsuited to be president, describing him in a Washington Post opinion column as a cruel, disrespectful and ill-informed figure who lacked “the temperament, self-discipline and judgment required to be president.”

A crowd participates in a demonstration supportive of the Affordable Care Act last week outside Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Biddeford. While in Maine during Congress’ February recess, Collins has faced protesters at “open-air town halls” in Lewiston, Bangor and Portland, as well as a “silent protest” outside Maine Public’s studios in Bangor. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

AMONG CONSTITUENTS, ‘SENSE OF ALARM’

In interviews and chants, and on the signs they carry, protesters frequently cite Collins’ strong and early support of the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general – who last week persuaded Trump to overturn an Obama administration executive order protecting transgender students – and her not trying to block education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’ nomination from being let out of a Senate committee (though she voted against her in the full vote). Concern that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, won’t be replaced with a comparable alternative and anxiety about the president’s behavior are also top concerns.

“To us on the ground, there is a sense of alarm that Trump is taking some really extreme positions and creating this chaos and diplomacy disasters and we don’t want our elected officials going along with this as if this is business as usual and politics as usual,” said April Humphrey, a co-founder of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a group created on Facebook that’s been organizing many of the protests. “A town hall meeting or something like it would provide an opportunity for some real back-and-forth conversations with Collins, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

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Collins, like King, doesn’t hold town hall meetings, and Reps. Pingree and Poliquin only hold issue-specific meetings or, in Poliquin’s case, telephone call-in “town halls,” according to their respective spokespeople.

“What I have found works best, and this has been the tradition of Maine Senators – it goes back to George Mitchell, Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, Angus King – is that it is more productive and more constructive to have meetings with constituents rather than assembling a large group in an auditorium where very few people get to actually speak,” Collins said in a written statement.

King spokesman Scott Ogden said the senator concurs: “Sen. King has found – as Sen. Collins has and as is in the tradition of former Maine Senators – that these one-on-one meetings are often the most effective way to hear and understand constituents’ thoughts because they allow everyone, and not just the loudest in the room, to express their views.”

REPUBLICAN LEAST LOYAL TO TRUMP

Collins’ office has been frustrated by the protesters’ assertion that she is unavailable to constituents, pointing out that she meets with thousands of them every year in scheduled meetings with groups small and large.

While in Maine last week for the congressional recess, Collins did 15 meetings and interviews, including the hourlong call-in interview at Maine Public and five local television interviews; meetings with six Maine Muslim-American leaders, a small group of Mount Desert Island residents, and a delegation of Maine family physicians; and a 40-minute meeting with eight members of Mainers for Accountable Leadership that was live-streamed on Facebook.

Despite the criticism from Trump opponents, Collins is the Senate Republican who has been the least loyal to the new president. As of Friday afternoon, 84.2 percent of Collins’ votes have been in accord with Trump’s and her party leadership’s wishes since Trump took office, according to a tracker set up by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism outlet led by Nate Silver.

Forty-eight of her 51 Republican Senate colleagues have perfect 100 percent voting loyalty. (King had a 52.6 percent loyalty rating, making him the fourth most “Trump friendly” member of the Democratic caucus.)

“She’s voted against Trump more than any other Republican in the Senate, but it’s still not enough for people,” Duff observes. “But if you’re a critic of Trump, you get your hopes up, and she doesn’t always fulfill them.”

How Maine’s members of Congress voted last week

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Along with roll call votes last week, the Senate also passed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act (S. 442), to authorize NASA’s programs.

There were no key votes in the House this week.

SENATE VOTES

EPA ADMINISTRATOR: The Senate has confirmed the nomination of Scott Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma’s attorney general, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

A supporter, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said that in Oklahoma, Pruitt had succeeded in protecting the environment and punishing polluters, and at the EPA, Pruitt would reverse the agency’s trend of advancing expensive and ineffective regulations.

An opponent, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Pruitt would seek to cripple the EPA and was “hostile to the basic protections to keep Americans and our environment safe.” The vote, on Feb. 17, was 52 yeas to 46 nays.

NAYS: Susan Collins R-Maine, Angus King, I-Maine

DEBATING COMMERCE SECRETARY: The Senate has passed a cloture motion to end debate on the nomination of Wilbur L. Ross Jr. to serve as commerce secretary.

A supporter, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., although praising Ross as “a really good person,” cautioned that as commerce secretary, he would need to maintain scientific standards to support the agency’s work of monitoring the weather, climate trends and potential security hazards. The vote to end debate, on Feb. 17, was 66 yeas to 31 nays.

YEAS: Collins, King

Augusta rally draws 200 in support of health care law

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AUGUSTA — Phil and Sarah Groman traveled from Union to the capital Saturday to stand with about 200 supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

While they don’t get their health insurance through the program, they have a 27-year-old son with a pre-existing condition who does.

Without the Affordable Care Act, Phil Groman said, his son likely wouldn’t have insurance.

The Gromans weren’t among those carrying signs, but they were among the people across the country who were expected to turn out at rallies Saturday in a show of support for former President Obama’s law that expanded by millions the number of those insured in the United States.

President Trump campaigned on a promise to immediately repeal and replace the law known as Obamacare. Shortly after he took office, Trump signed an executive order intended to ease the path for repealing the act. The Republican-led Congress is considering options to replace the program. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has collaborated on a plan that would let individual states keep the health insurance exchanges created under the law if they wish.

In Maine, about 80,000 have gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act. About 20 million are covered nationwide.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins and Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett also attended the rally.

Tom Perez elected as first Latino leader of Democratic Party

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ATLANTA — Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as the first Latino chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, defeating Rep. Keith Ellison at a contentious party meeting in Atlanta.

“With hard work and a hell of a lot of organizing, we will turn this party around,” said Perez, his voice hoarse after a week that took him to 10 states, locking up the final votes he needed from the 447-member DNC.

“We’ve got to come out of here hand in hand, brothers and sisters, because Trump is right outside of that door,” said Ellison before the final vote, which came on a second ballot.

Ellison’s defeat was a blow to the party’s liberal wing, personified by activists, labor leaders, and organizers who had come to Atlanta to cheer him on. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who had lobbied hard for Ellison, worried that the party was alienating the growing “resistance” that has organized against President Trump.

“If you polled Democrats outside of this room, Keith would win,” said Jeff Weaver, “Keith’s support is from the people on the street.”

The vote itself was tense. On Friday night, Democrats gathered at a downtown Westin to meet, drink, and lobby for votes, and the Ellison campaign – along with allies of South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a third candidate – battled rumors that Perez might have locked up the needed votes.

But by Saturday morning, it was clear that the race was up for grabs. Buttigieg used his nomination speech to quit the race, endorsing no candidate. As the 439 present DNC members cast their votes – eight eligible members did not attend – several DNC members got a text from the Ellison camp, saying the congressman was “grateful to have the support of Mayor Buttigieg.”

After the mayor denied the text, Perez won 213.5 votes to 200 for Ellison, 12 for Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, 0.5 for Democratic strategist Jehmu Greene and 1 for Buttigieg. Greene endorsed Perez, while two fringe candidates who had won no votes backed Ellison.

Perez’s victory did not represent a Democratic shift to right. On key issues, Perez’s platform mostly resembled Ellison’s. Perez promised to refocus on small donors and online fundraising; Ellison set a goal for “low-dollar contributions from everyday Americans (to) account for 33 percent of revenue.” Ellison called for an “Innovation Hub” in Silicon Valley; Perez promoted DNC fellowships to “encourage developers, programmers, data scientists, (and) engineers.”

While Perez and Ellison praised each other personally, the race was defined for outsiders by Ellison’s backing by Sanders. Ellison was one of very few members of Congress who had backed Sanders for president. He billed himself as the “unity candidate” who would keep Sanders’ restive supporters in the party while embracing supporters of Hillary Clinton.

In the first weeks after Ellison declared his candidacy, the strategy seemed to be working, despite hiccups. Labor unions that had endorsed Clinton, like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, got behind Ellison.

Howard Dean, the most successful chair in modern party history, dropped his plans to run again when Ellison said he’d resign from Congress if elected to the full-time job. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who had frequently clashed with Dean over strategy and investments, endorsed Ellison and defended the first Muslim member of Congress against charges of anti-Semitism.

But veterans of the Obama administration, where Perez had been a popular, progressive force, encouraged him to run – and starting on Dec. 15, he did. In progressive media, the race was frequently covered as a clash between “the establishment” and the “revolution” that had been proven right by the 2016 election.

That wasn’t how most DNC members chose to see it. Over a series of public forums, the final one broadcast on CNN this week, Ellison and Perez declined to criticize each other. While progressive media accused Perez of protecting the party’s consultant class,

DNC members who broke for Perez said that he’d convinced them that he knew what state parties needed.

“Tom seemed to have a better handle on the job,” said Kathy Sullivan, the former chair of New Hampshire’s Democratic Party, who endorsed Perez after current state chair Ray Buckley quit the race.

Perez was also helped by a string of endorsements from Obama administration veterans – though, as Ellison backers noticed, he did not win any high-profile supporters of Sanders to compete with Ellison’s endorsements from Clintonites. The Feb. 1 endorsement of Perez by former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the party’s most beloved figures, prompted Sanders to criticize Perez for the first time.

“Do we stay with a failed status-quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party?” Sanders said in a statement after Biden’s endorsement. “I say we go forward and create a grassroots party which speaks for working people and is prepared to stand up to the top one percent.”

Most of the DNC’s membership – just 39 of whom had backed Sanders for president in 2016 – disagreed that the choice was that stark. Sanders supporters, including Ellison, had largely succeeded in moving the party’s platform left. In interviews, some acknowledged that there would be walk-outs by Sanders diehards in their states, but that the daily outrages around Trump might bring them back into the process.

That confidence was displayed before the vote on the chair, as DNC members debated whether to strike language from California’s Christine Pelosi that would have restored a ban on corporate donations to the DNC that was quietly rolled back under the controversial tenure of former DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.

“This resolution has nothing to do with non-profit organizations,” said Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communication Workers of America who had backed Sanders in 2016. “This is to send a message, loud and clear, that the DNC itself – not candidates, not state parties – will restore the ban that President Obama put into effect.”

When the language was struck, a few of the activists who had come to cheer Ellison – from members of National Nursed United, to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to Democratic Socialists of America – started a brief chant.

“Money out of politics! Money out of politics!”

White House defends contact between chief of staff, FBI

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday defended chief of staff Reince Priebus against accusations he breached a government firewall when he asked FBI Director James Comey to publicly dispute media reports that Trump campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.

President Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, argued Priebus had little choice but to seek Comey’s assistance in rebutting what Spicer said were inaccurate reports about contacts during last year’s presidential campaign. The FBI did not issue the statement requested by Priebus and has given no sign one is forthcoming.

“I don’t know what else we were supposed to do,” Spicer said.

The Justice Department has policies in place to limit communications between the White House and the FBI about pending investigations. Trump officials on Friday not only confirmed contacts between Priebus and the FBI, but engaged in an extraordinary public airing of those private conversations.

Spicer said it was the FBI that first approached the White House about the veracity of a New York Times story asserting that Trump advisers had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign. Spicer said Priebus then asked both FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe if they would condemn the story publicly, which they declined to do.

“The chief of staff said, well, you’ve put us in a very difficult situation,” Spicer said. “You’ve told us that a story that made some fairly significant accusations was not true. And now you want us to just sit out there.”

FBI WON’T COMMENT

The FBI would not comment on the matter or verify the White House account. The CIA also declined to comment.

The White House also enlisted the help of Republicans on Capitol Hill to talk to reporters about the New York Times story. Jack Langer, a spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the White House asked Nunes to speak with one reporter. He said the chairman told the journalist the same thing that he has said publicly many times before – that he had asked but not received any information from intelligence officials that would warrant a committee investigation of any American citizens’ contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

Langer acknowledged that this could make it harder to convince people that the House investigation into the matter will be independent and free of political bias, but he said the White House did not tell Nunes what to tell the reporter, or give him “talking points.”

The ranking Democrat on the committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said if the White House indeed contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavorable news reports, it threatens the independence of the intelligence community.

“Intelligence professionals are not there to serve as the president’s PR firm,” Schiff said, adding, “For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the administration to politicize its role.”

WHITE HOUSE ENLISTED COMMITTEE CHAIR

The Washington Post reported Friday that the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee also was enlisted by the White House. The newspaper quoted Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., saying he had conversations about Russia-related news reports with the White House and engaged with news organizations to dispute articles by The New York Times and CNN.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, said Friday night that he had called CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Burr to express his “grave concerns about what this means for the independence” of the congressional investigation already underway.

Warner said he emphasized to the two that he would “not accept any process that is undermined by political interference.” He said if the Senate intelligence committee cannot conduct a proper probe, he will support whomever can do it.

Friday’s revelations were the latest wrinkle in Trump’s already complicated relationship with the FBI and other intelligence agencies. He’s accused intelligence officials of releasing classified information about him to the media, declaring in a tweet Friday morning that the FBI was “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Priebus of “an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence” and called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into all conversations Priebus and other White House officials have held with the FBI on ongoing investigations.

“The rule of law depends on the FBI’s complete independence, free from political pressure from the targets of its investigations,” Pelosi said.

‘IT’S A VERY SLIPPERY SLOPE’

A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is to advise the White House on pending criminal or civil investigations “only when it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”

Ron Hosko, a retired FBI assistant director who oversaw criminal investigations, said the discussions between the FBI and the Trump White House were inadvisable.

“It is a very slippery slope,” Hosko said. “Do I get in the position of where I’m updating the White House on my priority criminal cases? The answer is no, I should not be doing that.”

Other FBI veterans said the interactions between Priebus and the FBI were not unprecedented. Robert Anderson, a retired executive assistant director who served under Comey and oversaw counterintelligence investigations, said contacts between the bureau and White House are “usually very-well documented” in order to avoid the perception of inappropriate contacts.

CNN first reported that Priebus had asked the FBI for help, and a White House official confirmed the matter to The Associated Press Thursday night. On Friday morning, two other senior White House officials summoned reporters to a briefing to expand on the timeline of events.

The White House officials would only discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity. Two hours later, Trump panned news stories that rely on anonymous sources, telling a conservative conference that reporters “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.”

Spicer later briefed some reporters on the record. The Associated Press declined to participate in that briefing because some major news organizations were not invited, but audio of the briefing was later circulated by reporters who attended.

Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign in an effort to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

On Feb. 14, The New York Times reported that intelligence agencies had collected phone records and call intercepts showing frequent communication between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence agents during the campaign. Trump has said he is not aware of such contacts.

The White House says Priebus was holding a previously scheduled meeting with McCabe the morning after the Times story was published. According to Spicer, McCabe told Priebus in “very colorful terms” that the report was inaccurate, prompting the chief of staff to ask if the FBI would make its view known publicly.

Spicer said McCabe told the White House the bureau did not want to be in the practice of rebutting news stories. A similar message was conveyed to Priebus later in the day by Comey, according to the White House spokesman.

The White House said McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI has not confirmed.

PRIEBUS SAYS HE GOT GO-AHEAD

Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that “the top levels of the intelligence community” had assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were “not only grossly overstated but also wrong.”

During the campaign, Trump and other Republicans strongly criticized a meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, husband of Trump’s general election opponent. The meeting came as the FBI – which is overseen by the Justice Department – was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and personal internet server.

Spicer said he was not aware of an FBI investigation into Trump campaign advisers’ contacts with Russia. Administration officials have acknowledged that the FBI interviewed ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn about his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the transition.

Flynn was fired after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about the content of those conversations.

Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Eric Tucker, Vivian Salama, Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

Jodie Foster, Michael J. Fox call for unity at rally for immigration rights

Press Herald Politics -

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – As most of Hollywood gears up for the Oscars on Sunday and the whirlwind of events and parties this weekend, celebrities and top talent agents gathered in Beverly Hills to do something a little different: rally for immigration rights.

Jodie Foster, Michael J. Fox and Keegan-Michael Key were among the speakers at Friday’s rally, organized by the United Talent Agency outside their Beverly Hills headquarters. The talent agency, better known as UTA, planned the nearly two-hour United Voices rally in lieu of holding its annual Oscars party. Security officials estimated there were 1,200 people in attendance.

Key, who kicked things off, said the event was intended to “support the creative community’s growing concern with anti-immigration sentiment in the United States of America and its potential chilling effect on the global exchange of ideas, not to mention freedom of expression.”

Jodie Foster speaks at the “United Voices” Rally at United Talent Agency headquarters on Friday in Beverly Hills. As most of Hollywood gears up for the Oscars on Sunday and the whirlwind of events and parties this weekend, celebrities and top talent agents gathered in Beverly Hills Friday to do something to do something a little different: rally for immigration rights. Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/Associated Press

He welcomed all, including a handful of Trump supporters, because “this is America, where you get to believe what you want.”

One Trump supporter walked through the crowd in a Make America Great Again hat early on saying, “You’re not going to block me.”

For the most part, however, the crowd was subdued, civil and attentive to the celebrity speakers.

Michael J. Fox speaks at the “United Voices” Rally. Fox, who became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago, said turning immigrants away is an ‘assault on human dignity.’ Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/Associated Press

Michael J. Fox, who became a United States citizen some 20 years ago, remembered being annoyed at the eight-year process to citizenship and now wonders what he was complaining about.

Turning immigrants away, Fox said, is an “assault on human dignity.”

One of the best-received was Jodie Foster, who enthusiastically yelled, “This is a great idea! Why didn’t I think of this?”

Foster said she’s never been comfortable using her public face for activism and has always found the small ways to serve, but that this year is different.

“It’s time to show up,” she said. “It’s a singular time in history. It’s time to engage. And as the very, very dead Frederick Douglass once said, ‘Any time is a good time for illumination.”‘

The Oscar-nominated Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi spoke via video from Tehran to praise the show of unity among the cinema community. Farhadi previously said he would boycott Sunday’s ceremony as a result of President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“It is comforting to know that at a time when some politicians are trying to promote hate by creating divisions between cultures, religions and nationalities, the cinema community has joined the people in a common show of unity to announce its opposition,” Farhadi said. “I hope this unity will continue and spread to fight other injustices.”

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, UTA CEO Jeremy Zimmer and Reza Aslan were among the others who took the podium during the event, which also included a DJ set and live performances from the X Ambassadors and Ben Harper.

UTA previously announced that it was donating $250,000 to the ACLU and the International Rescue Committee and has set up a crowd funding page to solicit more donations. It has raised over $320,000.

Democratic senators greeted by friendly audience in New Hampshire

Press Herald Politics -

CONCORD, N.H. — Democratic U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen received mixed reactions Friday for their stance that President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee deserves a hearing.

“It is not in our interest to deny a hearing to Neil Gorsuch,” Shaheen said during a public town hall, prompting boos from some members of the audience.

But others applauded when the senators said they didn’t want to mimic Republicans, who denied a hearing to President Barack Obama’s high court nominee last year.

“I’m not going to go out and say it was wrong for them but right for us,” Shaheen said.

The exchange marked one of the few challenges Shaheen or Hassan received from the crowd at the joint town hall event, where they spoke with a friendly audience of more than 400 people. Members of Congress have been holding town halls across the country during a break from Washington.

Republicans have faced throngs of constituents, including protesters, who want to talk about Trump’s policies. But the New Hampshire Democrats’ event drew no protesters and few tough questions.

Most audience members wanted advice on how to fight Trump on everything from health care to climate change to civil rights policies. Shaheen pushed back against one man who suggested the Democratic Party has lost its way.

“I actually don’t subscribe to the theory that Democrats don’t know what we believe anymore,” Shaheen said, adding she believes in making sure everyone has a good education, a good job and good health care.

Both she and Hassan were highly critical of Trump’s international agenda and views on Russia. And as former governors, they said it’s just as important to engage on state and local issues as it is on federal ones. Republicans now control the governorship and New Hampshire legislature.

They told the audience to urge Gov. Chris Sununu to stand up for the federal Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, not to tighten election laws and to hold true to his word that he supports abortion rights.

“It’s really important that people speak up about what’s happening here in the state as well as what’s happening nationally,” Hassan said.

Despite their pledge to fight for LGBTQ rights, preserve international institutions like NATO, and protect public schools, Shaheen offered a somewhat dark assessment of the political climate.

“I’m seeing our democracy challenged in a way I didn’t ever expect to be seeing,” she said.

The town hall came a day after Concord and other parts of New England saw record high temperatures for February, prompting an audience member to yell out a climate-related question as the event was wrapping up.

One audience member pointed out that the senators were using plastic, non-reusable water bottles despite their pledge to fight climate change.

But the audience largely applauded as both senators addressed the issue. Shaheen pointed out that New Hampshire’s moose population has been declining partly due to warmer temperatures.

“You know that this is a huge threat and that we need to act on it,” she said.

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