As I reflect back on my 8 years of service in the Maine legislature, I think about the legacy I leave behind not just for the communities I serve, but for the next group of leaders that come after me.
The core of my service centered around the concept of having a government not beholden to special interests, corporations, or lobbyists. And probably most important of all, their money. I was able to pass into law a ban on lobbyist contributions, an end to profiting off political contributions through the use PACs as personal slush funds, a true 1 year ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists, clear definitions around caucus PACs to ensure the Ethics Commission can enforce the rules, and a ban on Clean Election candidates running PACs. At least half of those initiatives received bipartisan support, even unanimous support. Something that increasingly is becoming harder to accomplish given how polarizing our politics have become. These wins represent significant campaign finance reform that would have never happened if I wasn’t in Augusta fighting the good fight.
This has been one of the most divisive elections in recent memory. We’ve seen headline after headline of attacks on our democratic intuitions and the integrity of our elections questioned without facts or even a shred of evidence. This has highlighted an important need to educate the next generation of voters, advocates, and leaders about how their own government and our elections work.
Civics education produces individuals who are more likely to volunteer in their community, register to vote, vote consistently, speak up for issues they care about, and be more productive members of society as a whole.
On the flip side, a lack of education and outreach to youth about government tends to create disengagement and a lack of understanding of the impact an individual can have not only in the selection of their elected officials, but on the issues impacting their lives. This has long ranging complications for our state’s future standing.
Since my time on Maine State Board of Education and throughout my 8 years in the state legislature, I’ve visited classrooms not just in my district, but statewide, to illustrate the legislative process and show how youth can make their voices heard. I even published a children’s book entitled, The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: A Kids’ Guide to the Maine Legislature, to make learning about government a little more interactive for young students.
It’s one the reasons I founded the Maine Democracy Project, an organization committed to promoting civics education and increasing youth voter registration statewide. Recently, I’ve partnered up CivXNow, a project of iCivics, to join the nation’s largest cross-partisan coalition to promote civic learning in education. I also serve on their state policy task force, working with colleagues across the country about how to bring civic projects and best practices to Maine.
Civics education is an often-overlooked responsibility of the Secretary of State’s office. We have a unique opportunity to build on Secretary Dunlap’s good work when it comes to student outreach and engagement and make it a greater priority…
Revamp Existing Student Engagement Programs
The student mock election needs to be revamped to ensure 100% school participation and increase the effectiveness of the overall experience. This could be done through the use of more digital experiences. We also heard that most schools can’t participate in the student mock election day festivities in Augusta. Finding alternative ways to engage schools and students will be critical to increasing the effectiveness of the program.
The 8th Grade Citizenship Award is a great way of inspiring confidence and encouraging civic involvement as students head off to high school. Problem is, not every school participates or puts forward a nominee. We need to change that. We need a proactive office to ensure every school participates and finds a deserving student to receive recognition. Also, the recipient should get a personalized message from the Secretary of State and the list of recipients should be sent to the media much like honor roll lists to recognize their achievement.
There is a program that was started from the Connecticut Democracy Center that we should bring to Maine. It’s called Kid Governor and it’s a civics based experiential scenario for 5th graders. They research the issues, run for ‘Kid Governor’, and vote for their favorite candidate. The individual then spends time in office helping schools with an issue important to them. This gets kids involved in politics in a safe way and helps them learn about how to select candidates based on issues. It takes what they are learning about government in the textbook to a whole new level. I have already made contact with the organization and have started the process to see about bringing this innovate civics education program to our state.
The Secretary of State’s office should have a strong partnership with the Maine Department of Education to start recognizing local schools and districts who are committed to educational excellence when it comes to civic learning and the establishment of high-quality civic education programs. Other states have started an innovative recognition program called Democracy Schools and we should bring this to Maine. As a former member of the Maine State Board of Education, this is in my wheelhouse and can easily build this out with Commissioner Makin.
High school Voter Registration Drive Competitions
Let’s find fun ways to empowering high school students to register their peers to vote. Let’s work with local districts, town clerks, and student councils to conduct voter registration competitions to see who can register the most students. The winning high school in each county could get a prize/recognition.
College Student Voting Rights
This past election, we had reports of confusion at many of our college campuses regarding college student voting rights. Many of you signed onto my letter to the Secretary of State’ office to clear it up. We need ongoing outreach to every college within the state of Maine to ensure our students understand their voting rights and encourage participation in our politics. This can be done with yearly visits, virtual or otherwise, speaking to the political groups on campuses and student organizers to help educate and spread the word.
Grants for State House Visits
While there are some 4th grade classes that do visit the state house and experience state government in person, most do not and cannot. Usually, the barriers are financial and/or logistical in nature. We should look at how we could provide grants for state house visits to schools that have a tough time pulling it off. Students who page in the House and Senate and visit the state house, end up pointing to those experiences later in life as impactful. We even have a few legislators serving in office who were former student pages. Talk about a good return on our investment!
Reaching Gen Z
As more and more Gen Z youth become of voting age, it’s critically important that the Secretary of State’s office be able to reach them. Currently, the office isn’t on Instagram which is more heavily used by this age bracket than Facebook and even Twitter. We need to create an Instagram for the Secretary of State’s office to keep current in reaching all possible Maine voters.
Have your own ideas to promote civics and student engagement at the Secretary of State’s office? Reach out!
Justin Chenette is serving his fourth term in the State Legislature, currently representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton in the Senate. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the owner of a digital marketing firm, president of the Maine Democracy Project, vice president of Saco Main Street, and author of “The Great Whoopie Pie Debate.” Follow updates at justinchenette.com.
Civics education is critical to a functioning Democratic society.
When I served as the first student member on the Maine State Board of Education, it was something that I advocated for in the curriculum. Students should know how their own government works. Students should know how and why to register to vote. Students should know the fundamentals of our political system. This instills a solid foundation of recognizing your civic responsibility, not just your rights, in our country.
Maine government should work for all Maine people — not just those who can afford the best lobbyist. Since I was first elected to the Legislature, I’ve been working to strengthen our ethics laws and policies to ensure that lawmakers are accountable to you, and that we truly are a government of, by and for the people.
Last year, I was proud to present and pass a package of bills to stop the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists and prevent politicians from profiting off political contributions through PACs. This was accomplished with unanimous bipartisan support. It showed when you have a good idea and the public is behind you, leaders can put differences aside to do what is right over what is easy. Now legislators will have to wait at least a year before they would be able to take up paid lobbying of any kind and legislators and candidates will be banned from using PACs as personal or business slush funds.
This year, the governor signed into law two additional measures I introduced to tackle lobbyist influence and ethics enforcement.
During times of turmoil and hardship, when people are in need, our community and frankly our state responds. As Mainers, we come together to give each other a leg up. What we’ve seen with this COVID-19 public health crisis is an outpouring of love, kindness, and support.
Starting last week, we handed out over 100 hot meals curbside to seniors with the excellent team at Saco Parks & Rec at the community center. Open to all Saco residents 50+. Looks like we’ll be doing this every Friday for the foreseeable future with proper health precautions. For these first two weeks, the featured business is the Golden Rooster. They served 100 lbs of their delicious American Chop Suey last week and this week will be shepherd’s pie. If you or someone you know needs a hot meal, please contact Parks and Rec to sign up: Amelia Meier firstname.lastname@example.org.
Age Friendly Saco led by Jean Saunders and Lynn Steed are distributing meals to area locations with large senior populations like the Paul Hazelton House. Saco’s Deli & Co. donated enough meals for 104 older Saco adults. With the help of other business donations, the Saco Food Pantry, and the Saco Police, they hope to continue to help distribute select meal drop offs. They are also working on establishing a phone tree where volunteers will be making phone calls checking in on seniors in our community. If you would like to help make phone calls, contact Age Friendly Saco at 207-710-5029 or email@example.com.
The Old Orchard Beach VFW Post #7997 is providing seniors, veterans, those with disabilities, and people without resources drop off food and essentials. Call the VFW Post at 207-934-9910 anytime between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Landry’s Shop & Save have donated bags for supply distribution. Needed supplies and resources will be delivered to your door and they’ll call to let you they arrived.
The Saco Food Pantry is available and willing to take anyone who needs food supplies. They have dropped the paperwork to get food. Your name, town or city, how many in your family is all they need. They will bring it to your car. If you don’t live in Saco it’s not a problem as they will serve all. Their hours are Monday-Friday 9 to 10:30 a.m. and the first Saturday of the month from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The pantry will also open the last Tuesday of each month from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Their number is (207) 468-1305. They are also willing to distribute food to your doorstep if you are unable to leave your home due to transportation or health issues.
Would you like to help out? Drop by weekday mornings from 9 to 10:30 a.m. with non-perishable food items or make an easy donation online www.sacofoodpantry.org. Volunteers are welcome and may contact Lynn at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their location is 67 Ocean Park Road.
With a void of leadership in Washington, the state is stepping up to provide relief.
Government has a core responsibility to help provide relief related to this public health crisis; to those being impacted financially, assist those in need of care, coordinate emergency response, and support our front-line health professionals. The Legislature passed a sweeping package in direct emergency response.
We expanded unemployment insurance benefits for workers impacted by COVID-19. We need the Feds to grant the ability for folks who previously weren’t paying into the system or didn’t qualify for benefits to be able to expand it to that population like self-employed, nonprofits etc. We are communicating with our Congressional delegation on that piece. Apply for unemployment using this link: http://reemployme.maine.gov.
We established a consumer loan guarantee program to help eligible Mainers access no-interest loans. This program will be administered by FAME and the loans will be given by banks and credit unions. The State guarantees the loans. The loans do not need to be repaid during a specified period of time. Maximum loan amount is $5,000. This can be used by anyone including self-employed individuals and others not covered under the unemployment system. Details can be found at FAMEMAINE.com.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) approved Governor Mills’ application for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans to help Maine businesses overcome any temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. The COVID-19 Relief Business Direct Loan Program provides FAME Direct Loans of up to $50,000 with special terms available to Maine-based businesses experiencing interruption or hardship due to COVID-19. Details also found at FAMEMAINE.com.
We created a COVID-19 response fund (with $11 million to start) to address unanticipated needs as they arise through January 15, 2021. Governor can tap these funds at anytime and can add additional funds as needed
The health and well-being of our children is critical to our future. This year in the Legislature, we passed vital laws to make sure our kids are safe and healthy both at home and in school.
One of my bills aimed at tackling the bullying issue in our schools passed with unanimous bipartisan support.
I introduced LD 1306 to review and overhaul Maine’s bullying laws because of the outcry from parents and students alike around this issue. As someone who was bullied all throughout school, I know the long-lasting pain that bullying can cause. I want to do everything I can to ensure young people feel safe in school, feel accepted, and feel like they can be true to themselves without fear of retribution from their peers. No parent should have to feel compelled to take a child out of a school because of bullying. If there are proper protocols in place for prevention and intervention, bullying will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
Homeownership is the entry point to the middle class and secures long term wealth. For many people, it provides a path towards retirement. One barrier to homeownership is a high property tax bill. Property taxes are the most regressive form of taxation.
Mainers need property tax relief, especially for seniors on fixed income and families working hard to get by.
When I was the Ranking Democrat on the Taxation Committee, I led the charge to increase the Homestead Exemption Program in 2017 and the Property Tax Fairness Credit in 2018.
This year, this past legislative session, we built on that success.
This was the most impactful legislative session in recent memory for advancing policies to protect our environment, promote a green energy industry, and fight climate change.
As a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee, I believe combating climate change is vital to preserving Maine’s natural resources-based economy and our overall way of life.
That’s why we passed laws to invest in local clean energy projects, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, stabilize energy costs and support good paying green energy jobs.
This past July, I spent almost an entire month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Why? To take on a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
The Victory Institute and the David Bohnett Foundation named me a leadership fellow and awarded me a full ride scholarship to graduate from the Senior Executives in State nd Local Government program at Harvard.
This 3-week leadership development program was transformational. It was a balance of traditional and hands-on learning experiences to help fellow public officials better address the concerns of our constituents and communities.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco