Thursday, August 8, 2019

Candidate Interview: Betsy Sweet

On June 13, Betsy Sweet declared herself a candidate in the Democratic primary to challenge Susan Collins for US Senate. She has been endorsed by Justice Democrats and Democracy for America. The following interview took place on July 18, 2019 over the phone. The transcript has been edited sparingly for clarity and brevity. (I have reached out to Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon for an interview; if she agrees to answer questions I will publish those here as well.)

On what Sweet would focus on in the Senate in 2021:

The [three] things that people ask me the most about, and I'm most concerned about, is obviously, [first] healthcare...I think we have to push for Medicare for All, we have to have a universal system of health care to make sure that people not only have access to health care, but that they...won't go bankrupt if they actually use it, which is the situation I think we're in now. So I think that's number one...

I think number two is dealing with our environment. You know...if we don't do something about climate change here in Maine, our fishing industry, our lobstering industry is going to be gone, our agricultural and timber industry can be gone. Our ability to attract tourists...

And then the third thing is...saving our democracy quite honestly...I mean the reason we don't have any real action on healthcare, the reason we don't have action on doing something dramatic in our environment, which is desperately needed, is because of the influence of big special interests, corporate interests, that line the pockets of politicians. And I think you have to talk about that...and we have to create a clean elections system for federal races...I do think our democracy is in peril. have to have people who are truth tellers. You have to have people who say this is what's happening, and to connect the dots for us about what is happening, and what is not happening.

On the perception that Sen. Susan Collins brings the bacon home for Maine:

Voting for Brett Kavanaugh is not delivering for the people of Maine. Voting for a tax cut that goes to the richest corporations and the richest people is not delivering for Maine...Not talking about the federal regulations that are going into effect right now on the whole right whale situation...They're talking about...putting rules into effect that will essentially kill the lobster industry in Maine. Susan Collins hasn't said a word about it.

The tariffs that are affecting our industry, in terms of trade with China...the exports have gone down tremendously. She's not out there speaking about that...

It's something that every Congress person does, to make sure that...[they] get, you know, whatever federal investment they can in their state, and that's a good thing. But...I think there's some really fundamental things--not delivering on health care? That's not bringing home the bacon.

On whether she's open to a wealth tax:

Yes...I have watched on the federal level, as well as on the state level, the amount of money being paid by the richest people in this country, and the richest corporations in this country, in terms of their taxes, go down over and over again. So how is it possible that we have Amazon which makes billions of dollars paying zero dollars in federal taxes?

...The top 10 people in this country own as much wealth as the bottom 50%. That's just wrong. That's not just economically wrong. That's morally wrong. And if we look at...the capitalist model...which, you know, it's fine. But in that model, back in the day, when companies made money, and they made profits, they invested it in their workers and they invested it in new technologies and new systems and new products. And...there was some balance and some economic engine there.

But now that money goes into the pockets of CEOs and shareholders and to...foreign bank accounts...Something is very broken....It doesn't work. And so part of that is our tax code. And Susan Collins--her stand on the Trump tax policy did nothing to help Mainers. Absolutely nothing. And the provisions to undo the Affordable Care Act that were included in it that made it even worse.

On statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico:

If they want statehood they should get it...And I think that the allow that is shown in the efforts that we have made--or the lack of efforts that we have made--in helping Puerto Rico recover from the devastating hurricanes and weather events.

On the "breakdown of democracy" and how to confront it:

...Allow people to better access elections. So whether that is...making federal Election Day a holiday or moving into a Saturday...

And I think we have to pay attention to our Constitution...With the President...we have breaches of the Constitution--we have to talk about it, we have to say patriotism is not about being patriotic to a president, it is about being patriotic to our democracy. And I couldn't be more of a patriot in that way...I'm hoping that [Congress is] going to begin to take seriously the idea of impeachment proceedings, to look at constitutional breaches. And you know...impeachment proceedings is not impeachment. [But] we have to take a look. I mean Mueller said, "Hey, please. I was limited in what I could do. Please go look at this." So I think we have to be forging ahead in that way.

On being referred to in the media as a "lobbyist" with all the associations that conjures up:

The reason we're called "lobbyists" is because there's not a check-off on the ethics form for "advocates." So I have been an advocate for only nonprofit social service organizations and environmental organizations for 37 years in Maine. I started with the Maine Women's Lobby and the Maine Commission for Women...And the reason I started my business, the reason I became a quote-unquote "lobbyist"...was because when I was at the Commission for Women, I saw that in the halls of the legislature, there were a lot of lobbyists, but nobody who represented people whose voices needed to be at the table. Because organizations that were providing services for the people, whether it be low income folks or people with mental illness or people with disabilities, or people with cancer... they can't afford to have someone there full time. So I said, gee, if everyone gave a little bit...then maybe we can have someone here full time to pay attention and to have a voice at the table.

On her intuitive healing and coaching practice that garnered attention during her gubernatorial bid and again more recently in the context of her endorsement by Justice Democrats:

Sweet Spirit is my counseling and coaching practice...I have a master's degree in spiritual psychology and it's a professional therapeutic practice. My clients come from referrals from physicians and from psychologists and psychiatrists. And basically, what I've done is to amass as many tools as I can, to help people come back into their alignment...And so people who are interested, people who come to me, are people who are looking for help...They usually are stuck in some way, either in their professional life, or their personal life or they're hurting...

If you look at the economy of alternative health practices, it's huge. Because Western medicine and pharmaceuticals aren't the only thing that helps people. And people are much more looking at energy work and...massage and acupuncture and, you know, coaching and ways...that augment--not replace--but that augment medical practice, traditional Western medicine. So that's what I do. And it's very professional. And it's not, you know, I think people--Republicans--are trying to make it sound like it belongs in a circus. And that is not what I do....

People [that] don't believe in the work, the kind of alternative work that I'm doing, that's great. They don't come...But it's not...wacky, it's not unprofessional, it's not [a] circus tent...It's helping people with anxiety, with PTSD, with extraordinary grief, with depression. I have clients, ranging in age from five years old to 85 years old...

It's such a fun thing for people to make fun of. But you know, every religion... when people pray to the archangels or, you know, my neighbor...who's Catholic will say, "I'm going to pray to St. Anthony...and see if I can find my keys." Or someone will say, "Oh, my gosh, I just knew my mother was with me today," you know, those kind of things...I'm not a psychic, I don't say that you're going to see someone on Thursday at the corner...I help people connect to their own feelings...if it can help them get unstuck from either grief or depression or childhood trauma.

On whether she would hold town halls regularly:

Yes...I have spent the last four decades as an advocate for people in Maine. So I have represented people whose voices are traditionally not heard...because they don't have their own advocate...When I ran for governor in 2018, we...ran as a clean elections candidate, so we didn't spend time on the phone raising money, we spent our time talking to people...

I think how we run is how we will govern. And the way I run is kitchen table to kitchen table, back of boat to back of boat, back of pick-up truck to back of pick-up truck. That's how I spend my time....We don't do big, you know, political consultants in Washington...We operate talking to Maine, listening to what the problems are, and then bringing people together based on shared values and coming up with solutions...And, you know, the Maine people are wicked smart, and so they have lots of ideas about how we fix things, and how we fix big problems as well as very local problems, and I just think we need to listen.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Quote of the Month

Sen. Susan Collins on changing the Senate rules to prevent filibusters of Supreme Court nominees in the context of sub-60 vote support for Judge Neil Gorsuch:

If it's necessary in order to get him confirmed I may have to vote that way, but I certainly don't want to.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wobble Much?

March 8, 2017:

Consider the Congressional Review Act vote to repeal BLM's venting and flaring rule. The oil and gas industry hates it, the House passed it and President Trump would love to sign it...The measure is facing push back from moderate Republicans, including Maine’s Susan Collins. "I do not," she said, when asked if she supported the measure.
March 21, 2017:
Some Republican senators are coming out against a resolution that would repeal an Interior Department regulation governing oil and natural gas drilling on federal land. The rule is designed to cut down on the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas...Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said..."I have not made a final decision."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

New Normal?

It was a pretty awful week for Sen. Susan Collins. For the first time in years, she lost the public relations battle to her critics not once but twice--even as those same critics became louder and their ranks grew.

First, Collins's vote against the confirmation of Education Secretary Besty DeVos, after she backed DeVos in committee, seemed to satisfy no one--the reversal was widely panned on the Maine left as a hypocrisy-masking bit of political theatre and it also drew criticism from Republican Maine Governor Paul LePage.

Collins's tone deaf, borderline-incoherent attempt today to explain the flipflop by appealing to principle seemed destined only to elicit more ire: If DeVos was sure to receive consideration from the full Senate regardless of the outcome of the committee vote, as Collins maintains, then why did believing that every senator should "have a voice" on the nomination require Collins to support DeVos's nomination in committee, as she also maintains?

(Politico's report that Collins decided to oppose DeVos only after Republican had gathered enough votes to assure her confirmation only added to the sense that Maine's senior senator was engaged, here, in political gamesmanship rather than principled behavior.)

Second, Collins sided with her GOP colleagues in ejecting Sen. Elizabeth Warren from the Senate floor for reading a letter Coretta Scott King had written in opposition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions's failed 1986 judicial nomination--a move widely perceived as reflecting a double standard, especially after Warren's male colleagues were permitted to read the very same letter on the Senate floor without incident.

The upshot of these two miscues seems to be, just maybe, that it's not as easy as it used to be for Collins to control the conversation. I can think of several reasons why that might be true:

--More Mainers are paying attention to Collins's acts than at any time in the last 10 years.

--In an ever-more-polarized political environment, it's harder than ever for a pol like Collins to use soothing rhetoric and symbolism to massage the perception around her unpopular votes.

--Fewer Mainers than ever are relying exclusively or even predominately on the mainstream outlets that have historically been all too willing to cheerlead for Collins--or serve as her megaphone--rather than functioning as something more akin to a referee. Instead, Mainers are hearing about Collins's acts from politically active friends on social media, where she's less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt and where her power doesn't win her automatic deference.

It will be interesting to see whether this is a brief blip--whether Collins is soon able to regain her footing and get back in control of her message--or whether this more contested state of affairs represents a new normal.

I suspect the answer will have to do, more than anything, with how Collins navigates through the coming months--in particular, whether and to what extent she helps advance the more extreme parts of the GOP's agenda.

Monday, January 30, 2017

1,200 Rally in Portland to Press Collins

A large group of Maine protesters took to the streets Sunday, calling out Sen. Susan Collins for her stances and pressing her to push back against Trump administration excesses.

As a rally targeting a single Maine representative to Washington, it was an unprecedented gathering--at least as far as we can recall.

Link roundup:

Dan Lampariello of WGME. (Here's video.)

Portland Press Herald.


Maine Beacon.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Collins Votes to Kill ACA For Real

With no Republican sponsored replacement on the table and after intimating that she would do otherwise, Sen. Susan Collins voted late last night to start the process of repealing Obamacare.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Susan Collins in 2017

After every federal election, pieces inevitably crop up in the Maine press explaining why the result was good news for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): Republicans win big? That must mean Collins's star is on the rise. The GOP loses seats? Maine's senior senator is bound to see her clout increase.

The "heads she wins, tails she wins" media reflex is one I've mocked over the years: A bias toward framing all events as empowering Collins (something which, not incidentally, plays into her own preferred narrative) speaks to broader, systemic problems with how Collins is covered by local and national reporters.

That said, there's a strong case that something really has changed this time around. I'd argue that Collins has never been more powerful or more important. Consider:

--Taking bold stances that shape the debate has never been a part of Collins's playbook. Instead, her influence has always flowed from the ability to cast a vote that puts a bill over the top or, alternatively, blocks legislation unless and until her priorities are adhered to. (See e.g. Collins's tie-breaking vote for the third Bush tax cut, on the one hand, and her cloture-defeating move to block the DISCLOSE Act on the other.) With a 52-48 Senate as the chokepoint for legislation in the next Congress, that "on the bubble" leverage will only increase.

--Because 60 votes are required to break a filibuster, any Collins defections will inevitably give cover to the red state Democrats needed to reach that magic number, making her cooperation a threshold condition for passing most major GOP legislation. On appointments and other items where a bare majority is needed, her backing may be even more critical.

The counterargument to the above is that Collins faced much the same situation during parts of the George W. Bush administration--and instead of leveraging her potential influence, she played the role of loyal Bush ally, blending into the GOP woodwork. But Collins is a more self-possessed senator in 2016 than she was in, say, 2006. (It's difficult to envision her speaking this bluntly against a GOP colleague eight or ten years ago, for example.)

The steady erosion of the GOP's left flank also means that Collins has more status than ever with the centrist-enamored beltway press--something that at least has the potential to embolden her, especially when GOP goals clash with the interests of her Maine constituents (a dynamic that's currently playing out around Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.)

But there's a second, more fundamental set of reasons that the Bush-era parallel doesn't hold up: This time around, Collins didn't vote for the GOP president. In fact, she publicly repudiated him.

There hasn't been much post-election discussion of this salient fact in the Maine press. But one inevitable upshot is that the senior senator's pool of potential supporters--for a future run for Senate or any other office--has shifted permanently and perceptibly to the left: There are thousands of Trump-admiring GOP voters who simply won't forgive Collins for that act of apostasy. (Collins was famously booed at an October Trump rally in Maine when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) mentioned by her name).

An electoral coalition discernibly more liberal than it was prior to August 8, 2016 will be looking for Collins to live up to her moderate branding and be a check on Trump--and the constituent-minded senior senator may feel pressure to oblige.

The prospect of a Collins gubernatorial bid means that she'll be under more scrutiny from such voters than might normally be the case, at least until she rules out a run.

And finally, the advent of ranked choice voting--should it survive an expected legal challenge--means Collins will be incentivized even more than usual to avoid association with stances Mainers regard as extreme. That becomes doubly true if a primary challenge and/or tepid support on the right leads Collins to consider running as an independent, a prospect once considered far-fetched but that now seems increasingly likely.

To be clear, the early signs are mostly bad: Notwithstanding Collins's encouraging comments about the dangers of ACA repeal, she's been effusive in her support for the Sessions nomination; said glowing things about the prospect of Ben Carson heading HUD; and has remained silent about the prospect of climate change denier Scott Pruitt leading the EPA.

But as pressure ratchets up on Collins from all sides, there's at least some reason to think that the potential upside of checking GOP power could weigh more heavily in her calculus than it did the last time there was a Republican president with Republican legislative majorities.

Of course, how that calculus plays out will also depend on whether--and how loudly--those hoping Collins lives up to her moderate reputation are engaged in the political conversation.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Behind The Curtain

Activist and blogger Mike Tipping buried what seemed a rather explosive charge--whether he meant it as such or not--deep in a recent post on what Sen. Susan Collins's past willingness to support bigoted and xenophobic pols might tell us about her posture toward presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Tipping makes a compelling case that she's likely to back the misogynistic real estate mogul.)

Here's the key nugget:

Last December, when I wrote about how Republicans were standing by Rep. Jeff Pierce, the latest in a string of Maine GOP state legislators to make bigoted and racist comments on social media, I used a photo of Pierce standing with Collins and LePage to illustrate the post. A member of Collins' staff called the Bangor Daily News to complain and the newspaper asked me to remove the photo. We eventually came to a compromise where it was replaced as the featured image but remained on the page.
In short, Tipping seemed to be suggesting that he was pressured by editors into tweaking the post at the behest of a prominent public figure--something that struck me (and apparently others) as a quintessential journalistic no-no.

And while Tipping himself later rejected the "censorship" label, the idea that editors were pushing to excise a photo (pictured above) because it made the state's most powerful and senior elected official uncomfortable doesn't exactly scan as a model of free and open discourse.

That the paper's former editor and his wife did stints as Collins staffers (the editor subsequently returned to the newsroom) and that BDN owners have repeatedly donated to her campaigns provides more fodder for skepticism about the outlet's actions and its motives here.

That BDN has a long history of covering Collins more like a hometown hero than an accountable pol in its news pages--and famously skewed its coverage to her advantage at a pivotal moment in her career--only compounds the sense that something fishy may have been afoot.

So I reached out to BDN's Director of News Anthony Ronzio for an explanation--and to Tipping for his take as well.

Ronzio suggested via e-mail that the issue wasn't so much the photo itself as its presence as a click-thru image on the BDN homepage next to an unfavorable headline (the post is titled "Awful, bigoted comments by Maine Republican legislators are now routine"):

The matter, as I recall it, was how the blog photo and headline appeared on the BDN homepage. That triggered a complaint from Collins’ folks. We strive to ensure stories on the BDN homepage are presented accurately and fairly, and this didn’t pass that test...

In short, we treated this situation no differently than we would treat concerns expressed by the Maine People's Alliance, other elected officials, athletic directors, businesses or readers in general. It happens all the time.

He then pasted in a screenshot of what he intimated was a parallel circumstance--a shot of Betty White with her middle finger extended, which presumably offended some reader or readers.

For his part, Tipping wrote via e-mail, "I think it was...reasonable for the BDN to consider what photo went with the post as a featured image on other pages." He also clarified that his blog discussion of the back-and-forth with Collins and BDN was included to draw attention to what it indicated about the Collins camp rather than what it might suggest about BDN's editorial process. harm no foul?

Maybe. Certainly the wrinkle about the homepage layout puts the push to revise the post in a somewhat different light.

And yet it's still nowhere near clear to me why BDN felt it necessary to honor the Collins camp request: Namely, what cost to fairness or accuracy would there have been if Collins had been pictured next to a disgraced pol and a negative headline?

Especially given the thrust of Tipping's piece--focusing on the normalization of bigoted acts within the Maine GOP--didn't it make perfect sense to illustrate it with a photo tying the offender to the state party's most powerful figure? Isn't the salience and pertinence of that connection pretty much self-evident?

Ronzio didn't reply to a request for clarification, so I can only speculate. But reading between the lines, his fear seems to have been something like the following: That a reader scanning the page could conceivably have assumed that Collins was the Maine Republican legislator guilty of "awful, bigoted comments".

But the obvious retort to that what? Headlines can and do necessarily connote all sorts of things that, if taken completely out of context, aren't supported by the accompanying story--which in this case was only one click away.

The idea that basic fairness implies an imperative to protect a three-term US senator from even the prospect that some incurious reader somewhere might arrive at erroneous conclusions (that some blogger thinks she's "awful" I guess?) and then not click through to get a more accurate picture is a huge stretch.

What's more, that such a conclusion seems obvious to Ronzio (and whoever pulled the trigger here) suggests that BDN puts an extremely high value on avoiding offense--to such an extent that this priority risks crowding out more worthy objectives, like conveying to readers the unvarnished truth about their leaders. (Ronzio's inapposite comparison between a photo showing an obscene hand gesture and an utterly kosher, non-obscene photo only furthers this sense.)

It also reflects an internalized timidity and a knee-jerk willingness to accommodate Collins camp complaints--something which exists throughout the Maine media--that would be totally foreign in any number of other media ecosystems: Plenty of competitive, scoop-hungry editors in cities across the country would see the availability of a photo headline depicting the association between a disgraced pol and prominent figure like Collins as a boon--a feature rather than a bug notwithstanding the official's complaints--because of the attention it draws and the news value it adds.

That kind of competitive, confrontational spirit simply doesn't exist in Maine--at least when it comes to Susan Collins. And that's a real shame and a genuine problem.

Because while, per Tipping, it was probably reasonable for BDN to take steps to insulate Collins from even the risk that her stature might suffer some infinitesimal, undeserved dent, it would have been equally reasonable to tell the Collins camp to go fly a kite--to quit being so sensitive and instead get used to the idea that it isn't the media's job to safeguard her reputation or her political brand.

The Maine media landscape could sure use an injection of that kind of maturity, unsentimentality and moxie when it comes to the state's most powerful politician.

I've been watching the Maine press long enough to know that I better not hold my breath waiting for it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Collins Inches Closer

Just about ready to get on the Trump train.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

You Can't Make It Up

One-time Financial Planning Association lobbyist Phillips Hinch has joined the staff of Sen. Susan Collins as a senior policy adviser.

According to his "revolving door profile" at, Hinch was lobbying less than four years ago--on issues like finance, retirement and taxes.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Game, Set, Match

Sen. Susan Collins on the prospect of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination:

"I don't think his nomination would be catastrophic."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Too Little Too Late?

ThinkProgress has a deep dive on the biomass amendment Sen. Susan Collins proposed earlier this week:

Environmentalists around the country are now incensed over an approved amendment categorizing bioenergy as carbon neutral--a move that groups say puts forests and even portions of the Clean Power Plan at risk.

"I think it's a very dangerous amendment," said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with ThinkProgress. "It tries to dictate that burning forests for energy won't affect the climate, that's what the term carbon neutral is supposed to mean and that's just not true. You can't legislate away basic physics."


Environmentalists say the amendment sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) interferes with the EPA's efforts, as it explicitly tells agencies to adopt policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of forests' bioenergy. They also argue that it may incentivize cutting forests for energy and most importantly, undo important provisions of the Clean Power Plan that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector through increased use of renewable sources.

Some key questions: Why was the green community caught off guard here? How on earth did this thing pass on a voice vote?

And why aren't environmental organizations that endorsed Collins (like League of Conservation Voters) and those that didn't (like Sierra Club) raising a bigger ruckus in social media and elsewhere to try to head the amendment off before it becomes law?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

No Roll Call on Collins Amendment

Politico confirms that the Sen. Susan Collins amendment to override EPA scientists about the climate implications of burning wood was indeed adopted--by a voice vote.

How exactly does that happen?

MPBN has also posted a strong article on the issue--the best I've seen from them in a while.

Enviros Blast Collins on Biomass

Still trying to get the facts about the status of the Collins/King effort to undermine the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Meanwhile, a slew of environmental organizations including League of Conservation Voters, National Resource Defense Council and Sierra Club are out with a strong joint statement blasting the amendment:

The amendment would require that federal policy shall "reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy." This requirement would result in substantial damage to forests and climate by undermining the scientific process established by the EPA...

Cutting and burning our forests to generate electricity is not "carbon neutral." Per megawatt-hour, wood- burning power plants emit more CO2 than fossil-fueled plants...this amendment would therefore sanction and promote high-carbon sources of energy in federal policy, undermining the gains we are poised to make under the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Accord, and other climate policies.

Moreover, this amendment amounts to legislative interference with what should be a science-based policy...

This amendment is an environmentally damaging and scientifically indefensible approach to biomass policy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Amnesia Watch

Sinclair Broadcast Group video and text January 26, 2016:

[Sen. Susan Collins] says the recent indictment of the people behind the undercover [anti-Planned Parenthood] video is a, "cautionary lesson" to others on Capitol Hill to wait for all the facts on an issue before passing any legislation.

"It shows that it was premature to move to any kind of elimination of funding for Planned Parenthood...I'm personally very happy that I opposed all the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood."

Portland Press Herald, August 4, 2015:
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is coming under unusual fire from women’s health groups for supporting a Republican-backed effort to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.


Planned Parenthood has been under intense criticism since anti-abortion activists released secretly recorded video of organization leaders discussing the use of fetal tissue from abortions for research purposes. That has resulted in allegations that Planned Parenthood profits from abortions and prompted a drive by Senate conservatives to strip the organization of its federal funding.