Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, speaks during a 2011 press conference against two casino referendums on the ballot that year. His group opposed three bills passed recently by the Democratic-led Legislature that could face peoples' veto challenges in 2019. Credit: BDN file photo

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Coalitions are forming to threaten people’s vetoes of three bills passed by the Democratic-led Maine Legislature in 2019 on abortion, allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients and school vaccine requirements.

It could lead to a fascinating three-way campaign with Christian conservatives as the nexus of opposition to the three bills relating to public health programs. Some groups representing doctors could also come down on opposite sides on some of these efforts.

The Democratic-led Legislature has kept 2019 from being another year of the referendum, but they could make it a rare year of the people’s veto. Maine has had citizen initiatives — where people can propose legislation — and people’s vetoes — where they can repeal it — since 1907 as part of direct democracy reforms enacted in the middle of the Progressive Era of U.S. politics. The peoples’ veto process hasn’t been used three times in one year since 1909, the first year it was used.

Citizen initiatives have been used more, particularly recently. There were five referendums alone on the 2016 ballot that came directly or partially because of a liberal backlash to legislative inaction on certain issues during the tenure of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Maine’s last people’s veto in 2018 paved the way for one of those referendums — the one enshrining a first-in-the-nation system of ranked-choice voting — to move forward. The process was most notably used by Christian conservatives in 2009 to repeal a same-sex marriage law passed by the Legislature that year. (Same-sex marriage won in a referendum in 2012.)

The current Democratic-led Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills rankled that same group of people this year when they enacted bills to get around a federal ban on abortion funding by using state money to cover them under the Medicaid program, allow so-called “death with dignity” in Maine and repeal religious and personal exemptions to school vaccine requirements.

Groups have 10 business days to file people’s veto challenges with the state, then they will have 90 days to gather more than 63,000 signatures to get on the ballot. As of Friday, only one group — the one opposing the vaccine bill — had filed their challenge.

But Carroll Conley, the executive director of the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, which opposes all three bills said his group is leading a separate effort to repeal the abortion bill — which he said has faced a nearly unprecedented “backlash” in that community — and has been part of discussions around a “death with dignity” people’s veto.

We’re not sure what the campaign coalitions would be on both sides of all of these issues yet, but we can make some educated guesses. Among the people who sponsored the challenge of the vaccine law were Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, a vaccine skeptic, alongside Reps. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, and Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, and two others who made personal freedom arguments against the bill.

The abortion coalitions should be relatively straightforward if the challenge makes it to the 2019 ballot, with the Christian Civic League of Maine likely lining up against Planned Parenthood and other national and in-state abortion-rights groups.

A “death with dignity” campaign could blur those familiar partisan lines. A referendum drive for the law that predated its passage in the Legislature was funded almost solely by an Oregon group that has advocated for similar laws since the 1990s. Some lingering opposition to such laws could lead medical groups to help conservatives with a campaign here.

Reading list

— A Democratic legislative leader aims to challenge Maine’s senior U.S. senator in 2020. In a campaign video released Monday morning, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, announced that she would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. The four-term incumbent has not formally announced plans to seek re-election, but she has amassed more than $4 million in campaign donations. In a 2020 Senate electoral map that favors Republicans, national Democrats are targeting Collins, who has won re-election by increasingly wider margins since entering the Senate in 1997. Gideon joins lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, the third-place finisher in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, in the party field alongside little-known Saco lawyer Bre Kidman. Other Democrats are considering a run, including Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town and developer Rosa Scarcelli of Portland.

— In what is becoming standard operating procedure for Navy destroyer christenings in Bath, police arrested 22 protesters. As a delegation from Hawaii, Maine congressional members and others gathered at Bath Iron Works on Saturday to christen the future USS Daniel Inouye, about 50 people protested outside in an effort to draw attention to climate change and urge shipyard management to stop building warships. Of that group, 22 were arrested, mostly on misdemeanor charges related to blocking a road and gate outside the shipyard. Police also arrested 25 protesters at a christening earlier this year, but District Attorney Natasha Irving chose not to prosecute them.

— The conflict over a domestic ‘gag rule’ on abortion referrals is heating up again. Abortion rights advocates in Maine on Friday submitted an emergency request for the District Court of Maine to block federal program changes that would prevent certain facilities from providing abortions and their doctors from telling their patients about abortion services. The move comes in response to a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling announced Friday that allows President Donald Trump’s administration to withhold Title X funding while the legal battles play out.

Seth sets sail

I joined other current and former BDN employees Friday in bidding farewell to Seth Koenig, our intrepid Portland agitator and man about town. Seth is heading off to work full time as a Navy officer.

In epic Seth fashion, he capped off his BDN career by winning a media whoopie pie contest at Hadlock Field. Seth was almost always one step — or gulp — ahead of the competition.

The first time I met Seth in 2005, he was wearing dark glasses and a baseball hat while sitting in a shadowy corner of Pedro O’Hara’s in Brunswick. He looked like he was practicing for a spy mission for the Navy. I was interviewing him for a job as the Bath reporter for a paper where we previously worked. Chris Cousins, who was about to head off for a Nieman Fellowship, had gotten to know him while the two were sitting through Bath City Council meetings. “He talks a lot but he seems to know what he is doing,” Chris told me. As always, Chris nailed it.

During that interview over lunch in a Brunswick basement bar, Seth listed the ways he could make a newspaper he did not yet work for improve its coverage. He was right.

That was the first of countless conversations we had in which Seth freely shared his thoughts on how to make things better. He was almost always right, although it sometimes took our bosses months or years to come around to his way of thinking.

I hope his Navy bosses are smart enough to pay heed to his never-ending flow of advice or at least seriously consider finding good answers to his hard questions. “Why do they make us wear dark blue camo uniforms when the ocean water is not dark blue? Are we supposed to blend in with a new pair of Levis?”

Be safe, Seth, and please try to keep us out of any new wars. Here is your all-too-obvious soundtrack because the song I wanted to pick had too many words that are usually associated with sailor speak. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...