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Bill would extend pot moratorium until 2019

Press Herald Politics -

As lawmakers gather Monday to consider regulations and oversight of the state’s impending marijuana industry, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette is sponsoring a bill at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage to extend the moratorium on the implementation of recreational marijuana until Jan. 1, 2019.

The measure appears to signal the governor’s lack of support for the bill, which has been nine months in the making. Lawmakers who crafted the regulatory framework for Maine’s adult-use cannabis industry were unsure of the governor’s support, with some expecting he would veto the bill establishing those rules.

Currently, a moratorium on implementing Maine’s recreational marijuana program is set to expire Feb. 1, 2018. A special legislative committee that has spent months hammering out rules for the legal recreational industry submitted its final version in a bill that will be considered when the Legislature reconvenes Monday. Maine voters approved legal recreational marijuana in a referendum last November, and lawmakers and analysts have been refining the language of that referendum ever since.

Members of the Joint Select Committee on Marijuana Implementation acknowledged that Maine will not be in a position to launch its adult-use cannabis regulations in February because of the time needed to train enforcement agents, to hire inspectors and perform other administrative tasks that will likely delay the launch until the summer.

Fredette said in a statement announcing his bill that he recognizes the hard work of the marijuana committee, but that there have been concerns expressed about passing a 70-page bill without allowing legislators the time to fully read and comprehend it.

“This option provides legislators with the opportunity to deal with this issue during the regular legislative session which starts in January, rather than having a straight up or down vote on the bill put forward by the committee,” he said the statement. “I want to thank the members of (committee) for their hard work and ask that the rest of the Legislature be given the time to understand this entirely new regulatory scheme they are proposing. I cannot support the current marijuana bill as proposed because of the process by which it’s being presented to us.”

This story will be updated.

Maine gets extension to comply with REAL ID Act

Press Herald Politics -

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued an additional one-year waiver for Maine’s REAL ID Act compliance, which will allow federal agencies to continue to accept driver’s licenses and identification cards from Maine through Oct. 10, 2018, state officials said Thursday.

Mainers were in danger of no longer being able to use their driver’s licenses to pass through airport security or to gain access to federal facilities next year because the state’s licenses do not comply with the federal standards, such as digitized photos that can be used with facial recognition technology.

DHS had issued a previous compliance waiver to Maine on June 15, which expired at midnight on Oct. 10. Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap submitted a request for a one-year renewal on Sept. 15, and Maine had been operating on a grace period extension while the waiver renewal was under review by DHS.

Now the state has been granted another year. During the grace period, Maine driver’s licenses and IDs will be accepted as valid identification for federal purposes, such as entrance to federal facilities and boarding commercial aircraft.

DHS is implementing the final phase of the REAL ID Act, a federal law passed in 2005 that seeks to improve the security standards for state-issued identification credentials. On April 28, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law LD 306, which requires Maine to comply with the federal act.

Passage of the state law has allowed the state to request annual compliance waivers while working toward implementation.

Family of Maine Marine captain killed in August did not get call or letter from Trump

Press Herald Politics -

The brother of a U.S. Marine captain from Bethel who died during a training exercise in August said his family never received a phone call or a letter from the White House, another claim that undercuts President Trump’s assertion that he has reached out to all the families of fallen soldiers.

Benjamin Cross, a 2009 graduate of Telstar Regional High School, was one of three Americans killed when a military aircraft crashed into the sea off the east coast of Australia. Also killed were Cpl. Nathaniel Ordway, 21, of Sedgwick, Kansas, and Pfc. Ruben Velasco, 19, of Los Angeles.

Capt. Benjamin Cross

Cross’ older brother, Ryan Cross, who also is a veteran, said he was offended by the president’s assertion this week that he has “called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.”

“I find it sickening that he is using fallen service members to score political points, especially when his claims of reaching out to every Gold Star family are completely false,” the older Cross said in a text message Thursday after the Portland Press Herald sought information about whether his family was called.

The ongoing debate started when Trump was asked during a news conference Monday about his slow response to the death of four Green Berets in Niger. Trump defended himself by saying that he calls or writes letters, often both, and said prior presidents had not done so –– a claim that has since been proven false. He dug himself in deeper Tuesday, when it was alleged he spoke insensitively to the mother of one of the soldiers killed in Niger. Trump has refuted that claim and even said he had proof, although his press secretary acknowledged Wednesday that no tape recording of the call exists.

In addition to the family of Benjamin Cross, the only Mainer to die during the Trump administration, several families of Americans killed in action told the Washington Post this week that they have not heard from the president.

Ryan Cross said his family did receive calls from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, as well as letters from U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but said he has no interest in getting a call from Trump now.

“Personally, I’d rather not hear from him given that I don’t believe he has any clue as to what service and sacrifice really mean, nor does he understand the gravity of what we as members of the armed forces, veterans and their families risk and have risked,” said Ryan Cross, a U.S. Army captain who served in Afghanistan in 2014. He left active duty on August 1, less than a week before his brother died.

Benjamin Cross, 26, had dreamed of being a pilot from a young age, according to friends and family. He attended the Virginia Military Institute on a full scholarship after high school and spent time training and serving in Washington, D.C.; Florida, and Texas before being sent overseas with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, stationed on Okinawa, in 2016.

Cross, a first lieutenant who was promoted posthumously to captain, was one of 26 personnel aboard an Osprey aircraft – a helicopter-airplane hybrid – that crashed while trying to land aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard. All but three of the crew members were rescued.

The crash remains under investigation.

Cross’ death was a shock to the small town of Bethel, particularly for his family and a close-knit group of friends.

He was laid to rest last month with full military honors at Riverside Cemetery.

This week, the local school board voted unanimously to name the Telstar Regional High School baseball and soccer fields in his honor. They will be called the “Captain Benjamin R. Cross Memorial Field.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

Kelly kept tragedy out of politics, but Trump brought it up

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — It’s known as some of the saddest ground in America, a 14-acre plot of Arlington National Cemetery called Section 60 where many U.S. personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are interred. On Memorial Day this year, President Trump and the man who would be his chief of staff visited Grave 9480, the final resting place of Robert Kelly, a Marine killed Nov. 9, 2010, in Afghanistan.

“We grieve with you. We honor you. And we pledge to you that we will always remember Robert and what he did for all of us,” Trump said, singling out the Kelly family during his remarks to the nation that day. Turning to Robert’s father, then the secretary of homeland security, Trump added, “Thank you, John.”

The quiet tribute contrasts with Trump’s messy brawl this week with critics of his handling of condolences to Gold Star families who, like Kelly, have lost people to recent warfare. Trump brought up the loss of Kelly’s son as part of an attack on former President Obama, dragging the family’s searing loss into a political fight over who has consoled grieving families better. Kelly has not commented on the controversy, but it was exactly the sort of public attention to a personal tragedy that the reserved, retired Marine general would abhor.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged Kelly was “disgusted” that the condolence calls had been politicized, but said she was not certain if the chief of staff knew Trump was going to talk about his son publicly.

Trump sparked the controversy during an interview Tuesday with Fox News Radio. Asked whether he’d called the families of Americans killed in Niger nearly two weeks before, Trump replied, “You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”

The remark set many in the military community seething. Kelly is the most senior U.S. military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I would be surprised if he comes in and starts allowing people to use his family as a tool,” said Charles C. Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant who has known John Kelly since the mid-1990s.

There was a sense among some that Trump’s words were not an appropriate part of the national political dialogue.

“If there is one sacred ground in politics it should be the ultimate sacrifices made by our military,” wrote Chuck Hagel, a defense secretary under Obama and before that, a Republican U.S. senator. In an email to The Associated Press, Hagel added: “To use General Kelly and his family in this disgusting political way is sickening and beneath every shred of decency of presidential leadership.”

Trump has had a fraught relationship with grieving Gold Star families since the 2016 campaign, when he feuded with the parents of slain Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.

Now the commander in chief, Trump ranked himself above his predecessors on such matters, insisting this week that he’s “called every family of someone who’s died,” while past presidents didn’t place such calls. But The Associated Press found relatives of soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received calls from him, and more who said they did not receive letters.

As for whether Obama called Kelly, White House officials said later that Obama did not call Kelly, but White House visitor logs show that Kelly and his wife attended the Obamas’ lunch with Gold Star families.

The public controversy has to have been painful for Kelly, whose son had been awarded the Purple Heart. The White House chief of staff is a military veteran of more than four decades who has rarely discussed his son’s death and refused to politicize it.

Robert Kelly, 29, was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan’s remote Helmand province. His father, aware that Robert Kelly accompanied almost every patrol with his men through mine-filled battlefields, had just days before warned the family of the potential danger, according to a report in The Washington Post. When Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. rang the elder Kelly’s doorbell at 6:10 a.m. on November 9, 2010, John Kelly knew Robert was dead, according to the report.

Four days later, the grieving father with the four-decade military career asked a Marine Corps officer not to mention Robert’s death during an event in St. Louis. There, without mentioning Robert, John Kelly delivered an impassioned speech about the disconnect between military personnel and members of American society who do not support their mission.

“Their struggle is your struggle,” Kelly said.

“We are only one of 5,500 American families who have suffered the loss of a child in this war,” Kelly wrote to The Post in an e-mail. “The death of my boy simply cannot be made to seem any more tragic than the others.”

In March 2011, Kelly accompanied his boss, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, on a visit to the Sangin district, in Helmand province — the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war and where Robert Kelly had been killed.

As Gates’ senior military assistant, Kelly stood silently among young Marines gathering under a harsh sun as Gates applauded what they had accomplished.

“Your success, obviously, has come at an extraordinary price,” Gates said without mentioning names.

Ahead of Trump and Kelly’s visit to Robert’s grave on Memorial Day, Kelly’s voice caught when he was asked on Fox & Friends to describe his son.

“He’s the finest man I ever knew,” Kelly said. Asked to elaborate, Kelly struggled at first. “Just is. Finest guy. Wonderful guy. Wonderful husband, wonderful son, wonderful brother. Brave beyond all get out. His men still correspond with us. They still mourn him as we do.”

___

Follow Kellman and Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman and http://www.twitter.com/RobertBurnsAP .

___

Associated Press writer Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

What awaits Maine lawmakers when they return to Augusta on Monday

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where legislators are revving up — as much as they ever do — for Monday’s special session. Here’s their soundtrack.

Lawmakers are returning to Augusta ostensibly to fix two problems. They all seem to agree that one, federal objections to Maine’s first-in-the-nation food sovereignty law passed earlier this year, is pressing. There has been disagreement between some legislators, notably Senate President Mike Thibodeau, and Gov. Paul LePage over the urgency of the other — funding a state data agency. But the Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee has introduced a bill to address LePage’s concerns, and his committee will discuss that proposal today in hopes of having a recommendation for the full Legislature on Monday.

But there will be elephants in the room. And they will not just be Republicans. Perhaps the largest, or most ornery or whatever, is the ranked-choice voting law enacted last year during a statewide referendum. An advisory opinion by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found the law at odds with the Maine Constitution. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree whether to repeal the law or try to fix it. One proposal that has surfaced recently would apply ranked-choice voting to only primaries. Leaving the situation unresolved until the next regular session starts in January pushes Maine closer to chaos and the threat of legal challenges after the June primaries.

And there are people waiting for their legal marijuana. Pot is already legal to possess in Maine but we’re still waiting for the system to tax and regulate it. A special legislative committee has been working on a sweeping bill for most of this year and hopes to see it enacted on Monday so state agencies can begin a rulemaking process that could put marijuana on store shelves sometime next year. There could be problems. Some legalization advocates have already said they oppose the law and lawmakers on the pot committee say they have heard nothing about whether LePage supports the bill or not.

The political tension will be palpable. The last time the Legislature met in early July, it was during a state government shutdown caused by the body’s inability to pass a state budget bill. It wasn’t pretty, with lawmakers of all stripes saying the budget had something in it that “everyone can hate.” That and other largely partisan battles have caused a handful of lawmakers to leave their parties to become independents.

Oh yeah, and there’s the governor’s race. Three of the four Republican floor leaders — Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette — have all declared runs for governor in recent weeks. There will be a lot of eyes on them as they eye strengths and vulnerabilities in each other in the run-up to the June primary.

And, it’s awfully nice outside to be stuck inside legislating. The Legislature does not normally meet this time of year, meaning some lawmakers and legislative staff are upending their normal routines and postponing the consumption of pumpkin-flavored goods to be at the State House. The to-do list is long for just a single day’s work and with the tension this high, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. Expect Monday to be either a marathon or the first of a multi-day session. Here’s your soundtrack.

Poliquin will talk to the media today — surrounded by veterans

From last year when he consistently dodged questions about whether he supported Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to this spring, when he scooted into a bathroom to avoid saying how he would vote on a health care bill, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who represents Maine’s 2nd District, has taken flak for avoiding the media or carefully scripting his interactions with reporters. But he will hold a news conference and media availability today in Lewiston, the district’s largest city, to unveil his veterans advisory committee. Poliquin, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has made veterans issues a core element of his work in Congress. Recent revelations of shoddy care at Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta are likely to be a major topic of discussion. It will also be interesting to note whether Poliquin, a harsh critic of the VA under former President Barack Obama, will ease off on his condemnations now that a Republican administration is in charge.

Pingree’s latest beef with President Donald Trump is over chickens

In a release Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, ripped Trump’s administration for the USDA’s Farmer Fair Practice Rules, which the Democrat from Maine’s 1st District called a safeguard for poultry farmers who contract with large-scale processors. “After nearly 10 years of delay, these rules were finally going to help restore a more level playing field for farmers. It’s terrible that the Trump administration has yanked them back just as farmers could see light at the end of the tunnel,” she wrote in the release.

Reading List
  • Attorney General Janet Mills appears to have won her latest legal skirmish with LePage. Kennebec County Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy dismissed a lawsuit brought by LePage against Mills earlier this year. The suit claimed Mills broke the law in instances when she wouldn’t represent the governor or his administration because she didn’t believe the suits had legal merit. Specifically, LePage said Mills should have represented him when he wanted to join the battle over President Donald Trump’s immigration orders.
  • It’s going to be harder to avoid jury duty in Maine. Exemptions for professionals like doctors, dentists, veterinarians, sheriffs, judges and lawyers will be eliminated in Maine as of Nov. 1. The change is the result of a bill enacted earlier this year by the Legislature. Exemptions for the governor and active duty military personnel will remain.
  • A Democrat who wants to represent Maine’s 2nd District in Congress just bought a house there. Lucas St. Clair, the son of Burt’s Bees maven Roxanne Quimby, announced his candidacy on Oct. 2, when he was still a resident of Portland, which is not in the 2nd District. He and his wife closed on a house in Hampden on Oct. 12. It’s not a requirement that individuals live in the district they represent in Congress, but now St. Clair should be able to vote for himself in the June 2018 Democratic primary, which would be a six-person race if everyone who has declared makes it onto the ballot.
  • What is it with West Coast companies getting testy about the names of Maine firms that make things with yeast? Last week, an Oregon brewer filed a legal challenge against a Brewer brewer over naming rights to its Hipster Apocalypse IPA. They apparently worked it out. More than 20 years ago, a California company got uppity with a Maine bakery about its name. The BDN’s Lauren Abbate explains how the Maine baker got the last laugh. Here is his soundtrack.
Who took the prime minister’s Tupperware?

Answer: Geoffrey Boycott, whose name we swear we are not making up.

Boycott, who plays with crickets or something in England, crossed Prime Minister Theresa May when she baked him some brownies and he didn’t return the Tupperware, according to The Guardian. There was no mention about whether it was the kind that “burp” when you close it.

When May complained — on national television — Boycott produced a new set with gold embossed “Property of Theresa May” stickers on them. Because, everyone knows you return Tupperware or face hellfire.

I have some personal experience here. Virtually every time we visit my mother-in-law she sends us home with leftovers and the conversation always goes the same:

She, looking through the cupboard: “Don’t I have any Tupperware? What happened to all my Tupperware?”

My wife and I, exchanging uncomfortable glances: “Who us? What? No. We don’t have it. We have no idea.”

I looked in my own Tupperware cupboard this morning. Among our heap of mostly mismatched tops and bottoms were several pieces that may or may not belong to my mother-in-law. You won’t find any confessions here; she reads the Daily Brief.

And, I’d rather deal with the British prime minister than her on this front. Here’s your soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

 

COTE–not Collins–for Governor

Dirigo Blue -

 

Senator Susan Collins announced this morning that she intends to remain in the Senate, ending speculation that she’ll be running for Governor.  Collins has been diligent in the Senate–never having missed a vote in twenty years–and certainly deserves respect.  Frankly, she also deserves our thanks for her recent votes against irresponsible, partisan attempts to repeal Obamacare.  However, had she chosen to run for Governor, her voting record–and how it has impacted the people of Maine–would have undergone intense scrutiny.

To her credit, Collins has been willing to oppose a few of the more outrageous proposals advanced by members of her party, and she’s been willing to reach across the aisle on numerous occasions.  On the other hand, Senator Collins has consistently opposed any attempt to establish a living wage.  Furthermore, her votes in the Senate paralleled Governor LePage’s efforts to deny healthcare to tens of thousands of Mainers by vetoing the expansion of Medicaid.

One reason that Collins cited for considering a Gubernatorial bid was her desire to heal a deeply divided state.  Given the fact that she endorsed the most divisive (and least competent) Governor in the state’s history in both 2010 and 2014, that concern rings hollow.

However, no matter what her internal polling may have told her, I believe the Democrats would have had a great opportunity to defeat Collins and capture the Blaine House–particularly if Adam Cote was the nominee.  Of course her absence from the race only strengthens his odds.

Given Cote’s comparative youth and his appeal as a political outsider, he represents a long overdue “changing of the guard” in Maine politics.  His decency, moral character, and calm demeanor would be a breath of fresh air in the Blaine House.

Cote’s  background (life-long Mainer) and obvious empathy make it easy for folks to identify with him, and to share their cares and concerns.  They know they’re being heard.

Adam Cote’s extensive service with the Maine Army National Guard (including tours of duty in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star) and entrepreneurial experience (CEO of Thermal Energy Storage of Maine) make him a formidable candidate under any circumstances.

Now that Senator Collins has made her decision, I am more confident than ever that Adam Cote will serve as Maine’s next Governor.  November 6, 2018 can’t come soon enough!

Food law leaves Maine meat producers squealing for a fix

Press Herald Politics -

Freeport farmer Steve Burger is concerned that his pigs will not be able to make their Nov. 6 slaughter date at Bisson’s in Topsham. Bisson’s is one of Maine’s five state-inspected meat-processing facilities that could be shut down by the federal government unless the Legislature amends a new food sovereignty law before Nov. 1.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said it will override Maine’s ability to run its own meat inspection program unless the state clarifies the law. Maine’s Department of Agriculture is concerned that the law would keep it from inspecting any meat slaughtered and processed in a town that is food sovereign, negating an agreement it has with the USDA to meet federal standards.

The prospect that meat-processing facilities like Bisson’s could close, even temporarily, has sent food producers across Maine into a state of near panic and confusion. The cause of the problem is the food sovereignty bill that Gov. Paul LePage signed into law in June despite opposition from his chief agricultural advisers.

The bill, called “An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems,” endorses the right of Maine communities to declare themselves “food sovereign,” something 20 communities, including several on the Blue Hill Peninsula, already have done.

In practical terms, it means consumers can buy directly from farmers and food producers in those communities who are operating outside of state and federal licensing. The legislation was intended by those who shaped it, including state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, its sponsor, and state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who has put forth numerous similar bills, as a means to encourage local food production and consumption.

“Perhaps with the best intentions,” Walt Whitcomb, Maine’s commissioner of agriculture, said during an appearance on a radio show Wednesday morning.

Problems ensued when the USDA said it would have to take control of inspections unless the law was amended to make it clear that state regulators can continue their work protecting Maine’s meat supply, regardless of whether a municipality is “food sovereign” or not.

VOTE SET ON BILL AMENDMENTS

As a result, the food sovereignty law has prompted confusion and outrage among many of the farmers and food producers whose independence and success it was supposed to bolster. The Maine Farm Bureau hopes to have 50 members show up at a public hearing Friday to oppose the law.

Several amendments have been proposed, and Burger plans to be among those who address the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry when it discusses the law Friday. After the hearing and a work session, the Legislature is scheduled to vote Monday on an amended bill.

Burger will speak out against the law generally, and specifically as it relates to the processing of meat. If he can’t get into Bisson’s on Nov. 6, he’s going to lose a month of hog-related income. That’s 50 percent of the monthly profits at Winter Hill Farm, which sends about 85 percent of its animals to state-inspected facilities.

“One of the legs of the stool is potentially being kicked out from under us,” Burger said.

Last year, state-inspected slaughterhouses in Maine produced nearly a million pounds of red meat, an increase of 42 percent in four years.

The issue to be addressed in the coming days is meat, but the Maine Farm Bureau’s executive director said there is widespread concern about the law’s ramifications for dairy and seafood, and for growers and processors of local foods.

“This kind of thing is so frustrating because basically all agriculture in Maine is so fragile and we are kind of almost at that tipping point,” Julie A. Smith said. “Where we are either going to thrive or get wiped out. This kind of law is just detrimental to our progress.”

WASHINGTON CALLING

The legislative headache began with a flurry of warning letters between the state and federal officials in July. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called LePage to tell him that the USDA would be forced to take control of inspections unless the law was amended.

In August, the governor called for an emergency legislative session to amend the bill. “If the state program is eliminated, small farms will lose the most,” he said in a letter to legislative leaders.

If Burger can’t process his hogs on schedule, he’ll have to keep feeding them. The quality of their meat would go down with time, and who knows when he’d have a chance to get it processed if the state facilities were closed, even temporarily. He doesn’t want to get stuck with them.

“I’d have to sell them for pennies on the dollar,” Burger said.

He and cheesemaker Sarah Wiederkehr built their family business in Freeport based on a few factors, including predictability. The Department of Agriculture provides regulatory advice and licensing for the dairy side of their business, helping Wiederkehr be assured that her raw milk and cheeses are safe.

The department also oversees, as it has for about 15 years, a meat-processing system. That includes five state-licensed facilities that process meat for retail sale, 30 custom facilities that deal directly with customers who bring them animals for personal consumption (like farmers culling their herd or hunters with a moose to break down) and 51 facilities for poultry processing. There is only one USDA-certified meat processor in the state, and the state Department of Agriculture has said it is “unlikely” the USDA would assign staff to Maine to run the former state facilities.

“We have the state slaughterhouses and we couldn’t run this business if we didn’t have them,” Burger said.

Like many in Maine’s agricultural and food community, Burger has been wondering why the governor signed the bill when the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry opposed it.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Burger said. “I have never heard him say why he thought that was a bill worth signing.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, referred all questions to the Department of Agriculture.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Among those who didn’t expect LePage to approve the law? Jackson, the Allagash Democrat who sponsored the food sovereignty bill in the 128th session. “I was surprised as anyone that he did sign,” Jackson said Wednesday.

The issue had come up multiple times since 2013, often sponsored by Hickman, a food sovereignty proponent whose experiences as a farmer in Winthrop motivated him to seek a deregulation of what you might call farm-to-friend sales.

The bill, L.D. 725, originally was assigned to the Committee on State and Local Government in March, instead of the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, as it has been this week.

State Sen. Paul Davis, a Republican who chairs both the agriculture committee and the one on state and local government, said it would have been better if the bill had been assigned to the agriculture committee, which is more knowledgeable about food issues, from the beginning. “It probably then would have had a different outcome,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture was contacted by the federal officials “immediately” after the bill became law, said Ron Dyer, who oversees the department’s inspection program.

Whitcomb, who comes from a farming family, told talk radio show hosts George Hale and Ric Tyler on Wednesday morning that he was in the governor’s office when a call came in from “Dr. Perdue” outlining the federal government’s problems with Maine’s new law. “The governor quickly committed to calling the Legislature back,” Whitcomb said.

Jackson hopes that the two-thirds majority that is needed for an amendment can be reached, but he’s aware that there may be further roadblocks, even if the law is amended. He knows the Food and Drug Administration is not enthusiastic about the law and that the farm bureau is rallying the troops.

“Go ahead,” he said. “They are not going to get the law repealed in this session for sure.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

mpols@pressherald.com

Twitter: MaryPols

Controversy continues over Trump calls to families

Press Herald Politics -

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, said that Trump called him at his home in Zebulon, North Carolina, a few weeks after his 22-year-old son and two fellow soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan police officer on June 10. Their phone conversation lasted about 15 minutes, Baldridge said, and centered for a time on the father’s struggle with the manner in which his son was killed – shot by someone he was training.

“I said, ‘Me and my wife would rather our son died in trench warfare,'” Baldridge said. “I feel like he got murdered over there.”

Trump’s offer of $25,000 adds another dimension to his relations with Gold Star families and the disclosure follows questions about how often the president has called or written to the parents or spouses of those killed.

The Washington Post contacted the White House about Baldridge’s account on Wednesday. Officials declined to discuss the events in detail.

But in a statement Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: “The check has been sent. It’s disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the president, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda.”

It was 18 months before then-President Barack Obama fulfilled a similar promise made to the family of Kayla Mueller, who was killed in 2015 while she was held captive by the Islamic State in Syria. Obama’s undisclosed sum, for a charity set up in Mueller’s name, arrived only after a report by ABC News called attention to what the president later called an oversight.

Trump said this week that he has “called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.” At least 20 Americans have been killed in action since he became commander in chief in January. The Washington Post interviewed the families of 13. About half had received phone calls, they said. The others said they had not heard from the president.

In his call with Trump, Baldridge, a construction worker, expressed frustration with the military’s survivor benefits program. Because his ex-wife was listed as their son’s beneficiary, she was expected to receive the Pentagon’s $100,000 death gratuity – even though “I can barely rub two nickels together,” he told Trump. The president’s response shocked him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000,’ and I was just floored,” Baldridge said. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this.”

The president has been on the defensive since details emerged of his phone call Tuesday with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 along with three other U.S. soldiers in Niger. After not addressing the incident for 12 days, Trump on Monday falsely claimed previous presidents never or rarely called the families of fallen service members. In fact, they did so regularly.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Trump called Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, on Tuesday and said her husband “knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” Wilson was riding in a limousine with the widow and said she heard the conversation on speakerphone.

Trump denied the allegation Wednesday, saying in a tweet that Wilson had “totally fabricated” what happened and that he had “proof.” But the soldier’s childhood guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, confirmed the account.

Judge dismisses LePage lawsuit against attorney general over cost of hiring outside attorneys

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA — A Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit by Gov. Paul LePage that sought to require Attorney General Janet Mills to cover the costs of hiring outside attorneys when she declines to represent the governor.

LePage sued in Kennebec County Superior Court in May after Mills declined to represent his office in filing legal briefs as part of the ongoing controversy over President Trump’s immigration policies. LePage, a Republican, supports Trump’s executive orders attempting to temporarily ban or restrict immigrants from several predominantly Muslim nations from traveling to the U.S. Mills, a Democrat who is seeking her party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2018, strongly opposes the executive orders and has joined other states challenging them in federal court.

In his lawsuit, LePage argued that Mills’ office should pay for him to hire outside legal counsel when she refuses to represent him. But in an order dated Monday, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy said the issue was moot because the deadline to file so-called “amicus briefs” on the immigration cases with the U.S. Supreme Court had passed. So even if she were to agree with LePage’s contention that Mills delayed action or wrongly refused to pay for hiring outside counsel, Murphy said, the governor still would be unable to file briefs with the court.

But Murphy also addressed the broader issue by writing that the court does not have the jurisdiction to order the Attorney General’s Office to pay for the governor to hire outside counsel. In fact, Murphy wrote such an order would violate Maine’s constitutional “separation of powers” between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

“Appropriation and budgeting are powers given exclusively to the legislative branch by the Maine Constitution,” Murphy wrote. “If the Court were to put requirements on the legislatively appropriated budgets of the Office of the Attorney General, the Court would essentially be appropriating funds from the Office of the Attorney General and redistributing them to the Executive Branch.”

Had the Legislature intended to provide LePage’s office with funds to cover those legal costs, Murphy continued, it could have done so earlier this year.

“Going forward, it is well within the Legislature’s powers to do just that,” Murphy wrote. “However, any order from this Court requiring that ‘the costs of engaging the outside attorney must be paid out of the appropriation for the Attorney General’ under these circumstances would violate the Maine Constitution.”

LePage’s communications office did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling Wednesday night.

Mills cheered the ruling.

“We are pleased that the court upheld the separation of powers principle of the Maine Constitution and the checks and balances in our government institutions that are critical to our democracy,” Mills said in a statement. “We will continue to participate in cases that support the health, safety and well-being of people in Maine.”

LePage and Mills have clashed on a long list of issues that includes immigration, Mills’ use of legal settlement funds, Medicaid and Trump’s review of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Under Maine law, the attorney general typically represents the state in legal cases. However, the attorney general can decline to represent the executive branch on issues that he or she argues do not represent the state’s interests. Mills has declined to represent LePage on several issues, but has never declined a request by the governor’s office to hire outside legal counsel.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

Lawmakers call York County casino referendum campaign, “a case study” in abuse of the initiative process

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA –– The ballot question that asks Maine voters to give a Las Vegas casino developer the opportunity to build a casino in York County is the “poster child” for a citizen’s referendum process run amok, members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee said Wednesday.

The committee’s Senate chairman, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the casino campaign violates the intent of the initiative process, which was embedded in the Maine constitution as a way for citizens to enact laws at the ballot box if their elected representatives fail to respond to public concerns. He said the committee would explore ideas at its next meeting for ways to reform the initiative process.

“It is wealthy interests, often from out of state, that are now the movers and negotiators of citizens’ initiatives and we really need to get back to the basics of why we have this process in the first place,” Katz said.

Meanwhile, the Las Vegas developer who could build the casino, Shawn Scott, made his first public comments about the project on a radio call-in show Wednesday morning. He told WLOB radio that he would not flip the casino license, as he has done with other projects, but planned to stay involved with the York County casino if voters approve the measure.

The oversight committee took no votes but reviewed a detailed history of how Question 1 got on the Nov. 7 ballot. Under the proposal, only Scott or a company he controls can apply for the license. Scott funded the successful 2003 referendum campaign to license Hollywood Slots at a horseracing track in Bangor, then sold the license for about $51 million.

Supporters say the York County project, at-a-yet-to-be disclosed location, would create more than 2,000 permanent jobs and generate more than $45 million in annual tax revenue for the state.

The committee’s meeting came a day after Gov. Paul LePage urged voters to reject the measure, calling it a “phony deal.” LePage accused the Question 1 campaign of misleading voters with advertising that promises economic benefits without disclosing that a casino would be the source of any revenue.

He also asserted that a casino would merely shift money and jobs away from Maine’s existing casinos in Bangor and Oxford. Most of the candidates running for governor in 2018 have also come out against the measure.

Scott and other backers refused invitations from the committee to attend Wednesday’s meeting and answer questions, although Scott made himself available for the radio show Wednesday morning.

Katz, the committee chairman, described Scott’s radio appearance as “kind of ironic.”

As the oversight committee ponders its next move, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Practices is finalizing its investigation into the financing of a string of ballot question committees that were formed by Scott’s sister, Lisa Scott, a real estate developer from Miami. She and other out-of-state and international investors bankrolled the $4.3 million signature gathering campaign that put the casino question on the ballot.

Katz said the ethics commission staff would make its recommendations by Oct. 31 on potential fines against Lisa Scott and others for inaccurate or late reporting of campaign finances.

Katz recounted problems that Shawn Scott has had with casino regulators in five other states and countries and said his attempt to reap profits again here “ought to make Maine peoples’ blood boil.” He said Scott sold the rights to a casino license in Louisana for $130 million, after spending about $10 million getting a ballot question passed there.

State officials have estimated that a casino in York County would be valued at $150 million to $200 million. Scott in 2003, after passing a ballot measure for Hollywood Slots, which combined slot machines and harness racing, sold his rights to the license to Penn National for about $51 million as state regulators begin to scrutinize his companies.

Katz said a suitability study for Scott’s company in Maine to hold the license came back with “significant issues about the application including the fact that some of the people intimately involved had significant criminal records.”

But Scott said during his radio appearance Wednesday morning that he did not intend to again flip a casino license.

“We don’t have any intention of cashing out and leaving,” he said. “We want to be here for the long haul, we want to develop this project.”

When pressed about his past history in Maine by show host Ray Richardson, Scott said, “Bangor turned out to be a win-win for everybody and it’s producing still $37 million a year in tax revenue. Sometimes in life businesses don’t work out but in the Bangor case that was a win-win for everyone.”

However, Katz and other oversight committee members said Scott and other casino backers weren’t being straight with Maine voters about who was investing in the casino project and who would benefit from it. They pointed to the complex web of ballot question committees formed by Lisa Scott and her associates, and to the aggressive statewide petition drive, carried out by petitioners who were paid up to $17 for each voter signature they obtained.

Several other committee members echoed Katz’s concerns about how Maine’s initiative process was being used.

“In listening to all of this, it’s become clear to me the grassroots efforts in Maine has become Astroturf,” said Rep. Paul Sutton, R-Warren. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the Question 1 campaign, “underscores what we kind of know and that is the initiative process, the referendum process has now evolved into something far beyond what we ever intended. I think it has become way obvious it has become too easy to manipulate.”

In the last session of the Legislature, lawmakers failed to pass two bills that would have altered the initiative process. One bill would have increased the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot, and one that would have required an even geographical distribution of signatures from voters in both of the state’s two congressional districts.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, noted that the Legislature can amend any law passed at the ballot box. If Question 1 passes, he said, lawmakers could require a competitive bidding process or even repeal the casino approval entirely.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

Twitter: thisdog

Maine’s secretary of state demands documents from Trump’s voter fraud commission

Press Herald Politics -

The Maine member of President Trump’s voter fraud commission has written a pointed letter to its executive director, demanding he be given documents and kept informed about the group’s activities and charging that there is “a vacuum of information.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, one of four Democrats on the 12-person commission, sent the letter Tuesday after learning from a reporter that a commission staffer had been arrested and charged with possession of child pornography.

Dunlap said he had not only not known ahead of time about the arrest last week of researcher Ronald Williams II but he was not even aware he had been hired – or that the commission had any staff members apart from its executive director, Andrew Kossack. Williams, whose employment has been terminated, faces 11 counts of possession and distribution of child pornography, officials told The Washington Post.

“It is rather frustrating to me as a Commissioner that intelligence of this development was presented to me in the form of a text message from a journalist,” Dunlap wrote.

Dunlap charged that he and other commissioners are being kept in the dark about ongoing policy development and actions, said he has “received utterly no information or updates” of any kind since the commission’s last meeting Sept. 12 and does not know whether another meeting was planned.

“It has been made manifestly clear that there is information about this commission being created and shared among a number of parties though apparently not universally,” he wrote.

Dunlap demanded that he be given copies of all correspondence and documents circulated among commission members, staff and other government officials since the creation of the commission May 11. He cited the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and a separate federal circuit court ruling in making his request.

Neither Dunlap nor Kossack immediately responded to request for comment.

Dunlap – who has been criticized by fellow Democrats for participating in the voter fraud commission – has emerged as one of the panel’s most vocal critics since the Sept. 12 meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. At that meeting, he said Commission Vice Chairman Kris Kobach’s suggestion that thousands of people had acted illegally when they registered to vote in New Hampshire using out-of-state licenses was a “reckless statement to make” and factually untrue. Under New Hampshire law, one can register to vote at their place of domicile – a college dormitory for instance — without obtaining a state driver’s license.

Dunlap has also expressed exasperation with recent revelations that two Republican members of the commission – voter fraud activists Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams – were closely involved in drafting a controversial request for detailed voter information sent to all 50 states, even though they were at the time not yet members of the commission. By contrast, Dunlap was unaware of the letter’s content prior to it being sent, an action taken without deliberation or approval by the commissioners, who appear to have no actual powers.

The involvement of von Spakovsky and Adams – first reported by ProPublica – was revealed in emails the commission was forced to release on a judge’s order in connection with a suit by a public interest nonprofit, the Campaign Legal Center.

Williams, the staffer arrested and charged with possession of child pornography, previously worked as an intern for Adams in President George W. Bush’s Justice Department, where he helped Adams use the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect white voters for the first time, ProPublica reported.

Before joining the commission, von Spakovsky also advised cabinet officials not to appoint any Democrats or moderate Republicans to the commission, saying they would obstruct its investigations.

“Von Spakovsky has a profound influence on this commission,” Dunlap told ProPublica Tuesday. “I never expected to be at the head of the table, but I’m not even sure I’m sitting at the table.”

The commission – set up by Trump to probe his evidence-free claims that millions of illegal voters had cost him the popular vote in 2016 – is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. At the group’s two meetings to date, Pence and Kobach have made it clear that the body will focus almost entirely on voter fraud, a problem numerous studies and probes by administrations of both parties have shown is extremely rare, and will not address the systematic intrusion of state election infrastructure by Russia, a problem Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, has been especially vocal about.

A 2011 voter fraud probe in Maine by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers found just one instance of fraud. Nationally, numerous voter fraud investigations have concluded the problem is vanishingly small, with one study by Loyola Law School, Los Angeles professor Justin Levitt finding just 31 credible allegations of identity fraud in all primary, general, special and municipal elections between 2000 and 2014, despite over a billion votes being cast.

Dunlap has said he has joined the commission with an open mind and will act as a whistleblower if it engages in partisan shenanigans, but has become much more critical of the body’s approach over the past month, saying many of his colleagues appear to define “voter fraud” to include legitimate voting by people they don’t want to see vote, like college students.

The commission also is accused of using private email accounts to conduct official business, a possible violation of federal public records laws.

So begins Maine’s ‘Game of Thrones’

Matt Gagnon - Bangor Daily News -

Sen. Susan Collins has now ended months of speculation, and decided not to seek election to become Maine’s next governor. Remaining in the US Senate means that the die is more or less cast in both parties, and the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage can truly begin.

On the Republican side, the field is already crowded, and may soon get even more crowded. Former Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew is in. So is House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, Senator Majority Leader Garrett Mason, businessman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau.

There are more people, including Charlie Summers and Josh Tardy, that are thinking of getting in.

On the Democratic side, things are just as crowded. Attorney General Janet Mills is in. So is former House Speaker Mark Eves, attorney Adam Cote, former state Sen. Jim Boyle, former state Rep. Diane Russell, state Sen. Mark Dion and two minor candidates, activist Betsy Sweet and health care executive Patrick Eisenhart.

Like the Republicans, there are others, including auto magnate Adam Lee, who may jump in to the race.

The Blaine House in Augusta. Carter McCall | BDN

It is fitting, in my estimation, that the race to replace LePage is so wide open, with so many candidates running. LePage’s own election in 2010 came from the single most contested, most interesting gubernatorial election in my lifetime.

In that year, there were seven Republicans on the primary ballot, and four Democrats, though two candidates (Dawn Hill and John Richardson) that were expected to be on the ballot dropped out or were disqualified.

So who has the inside track on Maine’s own “Game of Thrones”?

Anyone, including me, who tells you that they know who is most likely to win is lying to you. Primaries like this are too volatile, with too many candidates who have unique gifts and equally unique flaws for any of us to truly know right now.

But let’s look at the Republican field anyway.

Among conservative activists, Mayhew has been whispered to be the favorite for the nomination for a long time. Her position in the LePage administration and her visibility and record on the issue — welfare — Republicans care about most gave the early impression of “heir apparent” to much of LePage’s legacy.

But she’s not the only one who can claim that mantle. Fredette has been LePage’s staunchest ally in the Maine House for two successive budget battles, and rallied his caucus to get the governor to the table during the shutdown negotiations this past year. He has a good story to tell there.

Moody too, clearly appeals to a lot of the LePage base. It is hard to find a candidate who feels more down to earth and relatable, who has working-class credibility as well as a compelling personal story and truly important business experience. All of these things were key to LePage’s appeal.

Mason likely is charting a new path and creating his own constituency. He is young, articulate, very smart, energetic, and has real conservative credibility. He is going to perform very well among many of the groups that were most enthusiastic for Donald Trump, including evangelical voters and populists, which is likely one reason he is pledging to put “Maine First.”

And Thibodeau, the most recent entrant, himself has a unique story. He has an excellent personal story, and can lean on real business experience in his campaign, and also will lean on his time as Senate president, and his often contentious relationship with the governor, to cut a profile as a conservative who can get things done. He is highlighting the battle over — and ultimate repeal of — the 3 percent income tax surcharge this past session as proof of his bona fides, and makes a good case.

In these early stages, it is simply too early to really tell you who has the advantage. Again, each of these candidates have certain gifts and certain weaknesses. Republican primary voters are fickle, and there are many constituencies inside it that could provide a base for any of these candidates.

In my opinion, this race is actually going to be less like 2010 — in which LePage clearly dominated the field — and a lot more like 1994, when eight Republicans ran for the nomination, and Collins won with only 21.3 percent of the vote.

That is likely here, where each candidate may in the end being separated by only a percentage point or two. This ultimately means that there really is no front runner right now, and every single day of the campaign will be important.

The Democrats, on the other hand, do have an early front runner, and there will be real separation there. I’ll tell you all about that, next week.

 

Trump reneged on offer of $25,000, says father of fallen soldier

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, said that Trump called him at his home in Zebulon, North Carolina, a few weeks after his 22-year-old son and two fellow soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan police officer on June 10. Their phone conversation lasted about 15 minutes, Baldridge said, and centered for a time on the father’s struggle with the manner in which his son was killed – shot by someone he was training.

Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017

“I said, ‘Me and my wife would rather our son died in trench warfare,’ ” Baldridge said. “I feel like he got murdered over there.”

Trump’s offer of $25,000 adds another dimension to his relations with Gold Star families and the disclosure follows questions about how often the president has called or written to the parents or spouses of those killed.

Trump responds to question about his conversation with widow:

Trump, asked about his “proof” Rep. Wilson was inaccurate in her description of the call, responds: “Let her make her statement again.” pic.twitter.com/lTOwJ7iCFl

— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 18, 2017

The Washington Post contacted the White House about Baldridge’s account on Wednesday morning. Officials declined to discuss the events in detail.

But in a statement Wednesday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said: “The check has been sent. It’s disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the president, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.: “”Everyone knows when you go to war you could possibly not come back alive, but you don’t remind a grieving widow of that.” Associated Press/Jacquelyn Martin

It was 18 months before then-President Barack Obama fulfilled a similar promise made to the family of Kayla Mueller, who was killed in 2015 while she was held captive by the Islamic State in Syria. Obama’s undisclosed sum, for a charity set up in Mueller’s name, arrived only after a report by ABC News called attention to what the president later called an oversight.

Trump said this week that he has “called every family of somebody that’s died, and it’s the hardest call to make.” At least 20 Americans have been killed in action since he became commander in chief in January. The Washington Post interviewed the families of 13. About half had received phone calls, they said. The others said they had not heard from the president.

In his call with Trump, Baldridge, a construction worker, expressed frustration with the military’s survivor benefits program. Because his ex-wife was listed as their son’s beneficiary, she was expected to receive the Pentagon’s $100,000 death gratuity – even though “I can barely rub two nickels together,” he told Trump.

The president’s response shocked him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000,’ and I was just floored,” Baldridge said. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”

The president has been on the defensive since details emerged of his phone call Tuesday with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 4 along with three other U.S. soldiers in Niger. After not addressing the incident for 12 days, Trump on Monday falsely claimed that previous presidents never or rarely called the families of fallen service members. In fact, they did so regularly.

White House officials circulated a statement of sympathy for the soldiers killed in Niger after the attack, but it was never released, Politico reported Wednesday. It is not clear why the statement was never released, but it was prepared when the Pentagon had said only that three soldiers were killed and before officials disclosed that a fourth soldier, Johnson, also was killed. His body was recovered Oct. 6, two days after the attack.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Trump called Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, on Tuesday and said her husband “knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” Wilson was riding in a limousine with the widow and said she heard the conversation on speakerphone.

Attempts to reach Myeshia Johnson on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Trump denied the allegation Wednesday, saying in a tweet that Wilson had “totally fabricated” what happened and that he had “proof.” But the soldier’s childhood guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Post that she also was in the car when Trump called, and said that “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”

Sgt. La David Johnson was among the American soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger. U.S. Army Special Operations Command via AP

Trump later expanded his denial, saying that he did not say what Wilson alleged and that “she knows it.”

He added: “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was – sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president, saying in a news briefing that Trump was “completely respectful” during the call. Several White House officials, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, were in the room at the time, she said.

In all, seven Gold Star families contacted by The Post said they have had phone conversations with Trump. Most said they appreciated the gesture. Four other families said they have not received a call and were upset. One said Trump had not called but that they knew the late soldier would not want his death politicized. An additional family said it had corresponded with the White House but declined to elaborate.

The Associated Press reached one other family, that of Army Spec. Etienne Murphy, 22. His mother said she received neither a call nor a letter from the president.

Baldridge said that after the president made his $25,000 offer, he joked with Trump that he would bail him out if he got arrested for helping. The White House has done nothing else other than send a condolence letter from Trump, the father said.

“I opened it up and read it, and I was hoping to see a check in there, to be honest,” the father said. “I know it was kind of far-fetched thinking. But I was like, ‘Damn, no check.’ Just a letter saying ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

The experiences of other Gold Star families were more typical.

The family of Sgt. Cameron H. Thomas, a 23-year-old Army Ranger killed April 27 in a raid on the Islamic State in Afghanistan, met with Vice President Mike Pence at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as the soldier’s casket arrived from overseas. They had a 20-minute call with Trump about two weeks later, said Thomas’ father, Andre.

“He gave his condolences and made some comments how different his paperwork was when it went across his desk,” the father said in a phone interview. “Said most of the paperwork he sees in these types of death says, ‘He’s respected by his peers.’ He said Cameron’s stuck out because it said he was respected and loved by his peers.”

Thomas said he spoke at length about his son’s love for the Army and his determination to become a Ranger, a distinction he earned at age 19. About midway through the phone call, Thomas said he told Trump that he had voted for him, and “that got him on another tangent” that extended the conversation for about 10 minutes.”

The president then spoke about his work in office and “the strides that he’s made in the short time he’d been president,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the family was touched by the phone call. The father of a Mormon family with 12 children, seven of them adopted, Thomas said he was concerned about the attention that his son’s death could bring. But talking to the president helped him put things in perspective and realize that his son “belonged to the country.”

“Politics is politics, and maybe some people wouldn’t care to hear from him,” he said. “But putting politics aside, it does mean a lot to a family, their child.”

William Lee, 40, said his entire family spoke by phone with Trump after his brother, Army 1st Lt. Weston Lee, 25, was killed in Mosul, Iraq, on April 29.

“He was very cordial and very nice,” Lee said, of the call, which he said lasted about five or six minutes.

Lee said the president spoke to them about “how impressive my brother was, how he had read the reports, reading everything about Weston, and he could tell how amazing he was. And talking to us, he could tell how strong we were and how strong he must have been. We were all pretty devastated.

“It meant something, the leader of our nation calling us and showing the honor and respect to my brother that I feel my brother earned,” Lee said, his voice cracking.

Quinn Butler, whose 27-year-old brother, Aaron, was killed in August by an explosion in Afghanistan, said that their parents received numerous letters from generals and other leaders, but no call or letter from Trump.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, a Special Forces soldier, was very supportive of Trump and appreciative for what he has done for the military, his brother said. Quinn Butler said his brother believed that Trump helped initiate some changes that have enabled commanders to make more progress against the militants in Afghanistan.

Butler said that he was surprised that his parents did not receive a call from Trump, considering his brother was a “very elite soldier, a soldier who had given everything.” But he said that the soldier would not want his death politicized.

“I think that Aaron would be very upset if anything was manipulated to show that he didn’t support Trump and that he wasn’t appreciative of the things that he did do, because he was,” the brother said.

Euvince Brooks’ son, Sgt. Roshain E. Brooks, 30, was killed Aug. 13 in Iraq. He has not heard from the White House. The president’s claim this week that he had called every military family to lose a son or daughter only upset the Brooks family more.

Brooks said that after watching the news on Tuesday night he wanted to set up a Twitter account to try to get the president’s attention.

“I said to my daughter, ‘Can you teach me to tweet, so I can tweet at the president and tell him he’s a liar?'” he said. “You know when you hear people lying, and you want to fight? That’s the way I feel last night. He’s a damn liar.”

Democrats may urge Sens. King, Sanders to join their ranks

Press Herald Politics -

The Democratic National Committee may turn up the heat on two independent U.S. senators who caucus with the party to become Democrats.

The resolution calls on Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont “to run as Democrats” in the 2018 election, when both will seek re-election.

There is no indication, however, that either will switch.

King told CNN late Tuesday that he has been an independent since the early 1990s and served as governor without a party affiliation.

“That’s who I am,” he said. “I caucus with the Democrats. You have to choose one caucus or the other. It’s worked out.”

“I more often vote with the Democrats, but not always,” King said. “I like to call ’em as I see ’em. And that’s where I’m going to stay.”

Members of the party’s national committee are slated to gather Thursday in Las Vegas for their fall meeting, with a lengthy agenda covering a range of issues.

One resolution it is slated to take up says that King and Sanders “have contributed enormously to key Democratic causes, such as fighting for universal health care, making college education attainable for all Americans and combating climate change.”

It says, too, the party exists “to support and elect Democrats across all states and levels of government.”

Given “the important contributions” of King and Sanders “to causes at the heart of the Democratic Party’s mission,” it says they ought to run as Democrats.

It also urges elected officials, candidates and voters who share the party’s goals to register or affiliate with Democrats.

scollins@sunjournal.com

Trump reverses course on emerging Senate health care deal

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate deal to curb the growth of health insurance premiums is reeling after President Trump reversed course and opposed the agreement, and top congressional Republicans and conservatives gave it a frosty reception.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced their accord Tuesday after weeks of negotiations and five days after Trump said he was halting federal subsidies to insurers. Under the lawmakers’ agreement, the payments would continue for two years while states were given more leeway to let insurers sidestep some coverage requirements imposed by President Barack Obama’s health law.

President Trump applauds members of the audience before speaking at the Heritage Foundation’s annual President’s Club meeting, Tuesday in Washington. Trump first praised a bipartisan deal on ACA subsidies, then backed off his support. Associated Press/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In remarks Tuesday in the Rose Garden, Trump called the deal “a very good solution” that would calm insurance markets, giving him time to pursue his goal of scrapping the Affordable Care Act, the target of Republican derision since it was signed into law in 2010.

Although top Democrats and some Republicans praised the Alexander-Murray agreement, Trump backed off after a day of criticism from many Republicans.

In an evening speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he said that “while I commend” the work by the two senators, “I continue to believe Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies.”

Related Key senators strike short-term deal to reinstate ACA payments to health insurers

The subsidies go to insurers for reducing out-of-pocket costs for lower-income people. Since Obama’s law requires insurers to make those cost reductions, insurers and others have warned that halting the subsidies would force premiums higher and prompt some carriers to abandon unprofitable markets.

“This agreement avoids chaos,” Alexander said. “I don’t know a Republican or Democrat who benefits from chaos.”

Alexander said the president had encouraged his efforts in two phone calls in recent days. But Trump has called the subsidies bailouts of insurers, and he’s noted that insurers have contributed little to his campaigns.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., accompanied by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., right, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday after she and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said they have the “basic outlines” of a bipartisan deal to resume payments to health insurers that President Trump had blocked. Associated Press/Andrew Harnik

Just minutes before Alexander announced the deal, White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters that “a starting point” in exchange for restoring the cost-sharing payments “is eliminating the individual mandate and employer mandate.” Those are the central pillars of the health law, and Democrats solidly oppose eliminating them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was noncommittal about the agreement. “We haven’t had a chance to think about the way forward yet,” he said.

Aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., did not provide a statement from him.

Both McConnell and Ryan have been eager to turn national attention away from the Republican push to scuttle Obama’s law, which crashed in the Senate twice, and toward an effort to cut taxes.

Reaction from other Republicans toward the Senate agreement was mixed. For many conservatives it’s practically unthinkable to sign off on federal payments that would arguably prop up a law they’ve been vowing for seven years to destroy.

Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House, tweeted: “The GOP should focus on repealing & replacing Obamacare, not trying to save it. This bailout is unacceptable.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, who’s been at work on a proposal of his own, was slightly more positive, calling the Alexander-Murray bill “a good start” but saying much more work needed to be done.

Alexander said he and allies including Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., would spend the next several days trying to build up support with the goal of formally introducing legislation later this week. If the legislation does pass, it would almost certainly be as part of a larger package including must-pass spending or disaster relief bills and that might not be until the end of the year.

The deal includes provisions allowing states faster and easier access to waivers that would allow them to shape their own marketplace plans under the health law.

It would provide for a new low-cost catastrophic coverage insurance option for all consumers. It would also restore $106 million for outreach and enrollment programs aimed at prodding people to buy policies — efforts that Trump has slashed.

A federal judge ruled in a 2014 lawsuit brought by House Republicans that Congress never legally authorized spending money for the insurers’ subsidies. Obama and Trump, initially, continued making the payments, though Trump declared last week he would pull the plug.

The payments, which cost around $7 billion this year, lower expenses like copayments and deductibles for more than 6 million people. But discontinuing them would actually cost the government more money under the health law’s complicated structure, because some people facing higher premiums would end up getting bigger tax subsidies to help pay for them.

Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

LePage opposition makes it harder for casino campaign to shake ‘phony’ label

State and Capitol - Bangor Daily News -

Good morning from Augusta, where backers of a ballot question to allow construction of a casino in York County continue to weather criticism for their campaign tactics.

Gov. Paul LePage used this week’s radio address to attack the people behind Question 1 on the November ballot for being “misleading.” He called it a “phony deal” and  dismissed campaign claims that voting “yes” would lead to more jobs and improved education funding in Maine.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee wants answers. The committee meets this morning with hopes of grilling campaign operatives about their funding sources and what some lawmakers seem to believe is a lack of transparency. But the campaign’s paid operatives do not seem poised to cooperate. Through her attorney Avery Day, who coincidentally once served as LePage’s chief legal adviser, Horseracing Jobs Fairness treasurer Cheryl Timberlake informed the committee that she would not show up today. Day’s letter cited an ongoing ethics commission investigation and the fact that Timberlake planned to be out of state.

Nevertheless, the advertising blitz for Question 1 on the November ballot is in full swing. A new “Yes on 1” ad, which makes no mention at all that Question 1 would allow a casino in York County, purports to have regular Mainers talking about the benefits of the question’s passage, such as funding for public institutions and job creation. However, campaign finance reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission show that two women in the advertisement are being paid by the campaign. Rebecca Foster of Falmouth and Charlene Cushing of Farmington are both listed as “campaign spokespersons” in the filings and were paid $10,000 and $15,000 in September, respectively. Here’s their soundtrack.

Reading List
  • Another Republican is vying to replace LePage. Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport announced Tuesday morning that he is running for governor, setting up a June Republican primary that includes the Legislature’s top three Republicans, plus at least one other GOP heavyweight.
  • A Maine House Republican has left the party. Rep. Norm Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft said Tuesday that partisan politics — particularly around the bruising state budget debate earlier this year that led to a government shutdown — are what caused him to un-enroll from the GOP and become an independent. That leaves the balance in the House at 74 Democrats, 69 Republicans, one Green Independent and six independents, with one seat vacant.
  • Obamacare subsidies might not be dead yet. After President Donald Trump’s executive order last week appeared to spell doom for the subsidies that help make health insurance premiums more affordable for many who buy their insurance through the marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington appear to have struck a deal to restore the subsidy program. Trump praised the plan as a “short-term solution.” But this is Congress, so expect further complications.
  • The pope costume is taken, but you still might be able to buy a Cleopatra getup. In a sad story that’s another example of how internet sales are affecting classic Maine businesses, the BDN’s Beth Brogan reports that Drapeau’s Costumes is selling its full collection of handmade costumes before closing at the end of this year. The store, which started decades ago in Lewiston and moved to Lisbon Falls, put its full stock of more than 4,000 handmade items on sale. Give the seamstresses a hug after you pay for the Viking costume you will say is for Halloween, but actually wear around the house.
Look out: Shepherd is in full holiday mode

You are to be forgiven if you don’t know what the Daily Brief’s political team looks like. After all, our looks are part of the reason we’re in print journalism, not on television.

Robert Long and Christopher Cousins have both had beards and mustaches for as long as we’ve known each other and we’ll probably remain that way forever unless there’s an accident lighting a gas grill or something. Michael Shepherd, who you may have noticed has this week off, doesn’t have a single stub (we think that’s the singular of stubble; y’all will let us know if not) anywhere on his cherubic face.

“Sorry to leave you guys this week,” wrote Mike Tuesday in a chat channel. “Looks like a lot of news.”

We’ve got it handled, Mike, and it’s National No Beard Day. Time to get all crazy with some Aqua Velva or something, but keep it somewhat under control. We need you back on Monday. Here’s your soundtrack.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading it on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Trump pulls families of war dead into political fight

Press Herald Politics -

WASHINGTON — President Trump has pulled bereaved military families into a painful political fight of his own making, going so far Tuesday as to cite the death of his chief of staff’s son in Afghanistan to question whether Barack Obama and other presidents did enough to honor the military dead.

He’s boasted that “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” though The Associated Press found relatives of two soldiers who died overseas during Trump’s presidency who said they never received a call or a letter from him, as well as relatives of a third who did not get a call from him.

The White House said Trump did telephone on Tuesday the families of four soldiers who were killed in Niger nearly two weeks ago, the issue that had spawned the controversy this week.

“He offered condolences on behalf of a grateful nation and assured them their family’s extraordinary sacrifice to the country will never be forgotten,” said a White House statement.

Contending that Trump’s propensity for a political fight has drifted into “sacred” territory, Democrats and some former government officials have expressed anger at his comments that he, almost alone among presidents, called the families of military members killed in war. They accused him of “inane cruelty” and a “sick game.”

For their part, Gold Star families, which have lost members in wartime, told AP of acts of intimate kindness from two presidents – Obama and George W. Bush – when those commanders in chief consoled them.

Trump’s posture has been defensive in recent days after he was criticized for not reaching out right away to relatives of the soldiers killed in Niger. On Monday, Trump said he’d written letters that hadn’t yet been mailed; his aides they had been awaiting information on the soldiers before proceeding.

Then Trump stirred things further Tuesday on Fox News radio, saying, “You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”

John Kelly, a Marine general under Obama, is Trump’s chief of staff. His son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. John Kelly was not seen at Trump’s public events Tuesday.

A White House official said Obama did not call Kelly after his son’s death but did not say whether the former president reached out in some other fashion. White House visitor records show Kelly attended a breakfast Obama hosted for Gold Star families six months after his son died. A person familiar with the breakfast – speaking on condition of anonymity because the event was private – said the Kelly family sat at Michelle Obama’s table. Obama aides said it was difficult this many years later to determine if he had also called Kelly, or when.

Opinion podcast: Sex and power in the workplace not limited to Weinstein’s Hollywood

Press Herald Politics -

With Sen. Collins choosing to remain in the Senate, host Greg Kesich, columnist Cynthia Dill and marketing project manager Molly Adams talk about the influence a moderate politician can have in such a politically divided time. They also break down allegations against Harvey Weinstein and discuss why it has shocked us into a new national conversation about sex, gender and power.

Finally, Greg talks with Megan Doyle, lead reporter for “From Away: Stories of Immigration in Maine,” who shares insider info about the editorial process in granting anonymity, finding sources and the decision to remove comments from the series. Read the complete series about Maine immigrants and the paths they traveled here.

Related stories:

Meet the candidates for Maine’s 2018 governor’s race

Weinstein Co. may put itself up for sale

The military aide: He risked his life to work for the U.S. government in Iraq

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Republican lawmaker Norm Higgins to leave party

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA – State Rep. Norm Higgins announced Tuesday he was leaving the Republican Party and would serve as an independent in order to escape partisan squabbling.

Higgins joins a growing list of state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have abandoned their party affiliations in 2017 in order to serve as independent members of the Legislature.

Higgins, a retired school teacher and principal from Dover-Foxcroft, is the second member of the House to leave the Republican party, following Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland, who withdrew in January. Higgins is serving his second term in the Legislature.

“The Legislature becomes a partisan arena where the outcomes are measured in wins and losses,” Higgins said in a prepared statement. “Our citizens observe this extreme level of competition and lose faith in our ability as a society to find solutions for the common good. The citizens expect their representatives to work together and capture the best ideas regardless of party and find common-sense solutions.”

In 2017, three incumbent Democrats have also left their party to become independents, including Reps. Denise Harlow, of Portland; Ralph Chapman, of Brooksville and Martin Grohman, of Biddeford.

Grohman left the party in September, while Harlow and Chapman dropped their affiliations in May, in part because of their opposition to a bill to overhaul Maine’s metallic mining regulations that was supported by most Democrats.

Higgins’ departure brings the House Republican caucus to 69 members, following the unexpected death of state Rep. Gina Mason, R-Lisbon, in September. Mason’s seat will be filled by a special election on Nov. 7. Democrats hold 74 seats in the House, while there are now seven independents, counting Higgins.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

Twitter: thisdog

LePage calls York County casino question ‘a phony deal’ with overblown promises

Press Herald Politics -

AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage came out forcefully against the York County casino ballot question on Tuesday, calling Question 1 “another case of big-money, out-of-state interests using Maine voters to get a sweet deal.”

“But it’s a phony deal for Maine,” LePage said in his weekly radio address. “Supporters of Question 1 are using a bait-and-switch tactic that has nothing to do with funding schools or creating jobs. Their promises of boosting our economy are overblown.”

On November 7, voters statewide will decide whether to authorize a third gambling facility in Maine, this one located in a yet-to-be-announced location in York County. Supporters of the ballot question have been touting the proposed casino as an economic development prospect for southern Maine that will generate revenues for public schools, veterans and local communities.

But the ballot question is written in such a way that it would only allow one individual or his businesses – international gambling entrepreneur Shawn Scott – to build the facility. The multimillion-dollar campaign has been dogged by controversy from the beginning.

In his radio address, LePage called the Question 1 campaign misleading for focusing on schools and jobs – rather than on gambling – and predicted it would merely shift money away from Maine’s two existing casinos in Bangor and Oxford.

“It’s a stacked deck,” LePage said. “Once again, Maine’s referendum process has been highjacked by big money, out-of-state interests hoping to pull the wool over your eyes. Before you cast your vote, remember what Question 1 is really about. It’s about gambling. Period.”

This story will be updated.

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