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Abortion Scramble

‘We’re losing’: Texts show Maine Democrats scrambling to save abortion bill

by Billy Kobin Bangor Daily News 8.7.2023

AUGUSTA, Maine — It was 10 hours before the Maine House of Representatives held its first vote on a key abortion bill, and uncertainty was creeping in for Democrats.

“I am conflicted on 1619,” Rep. Deqa Dhalac, D-South Portland, texted Assistant House Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, referencing the number of a bill that would allow doctors to perform abortions they deem necessary after the state’s viability cutoff around 24 weeks.

“OK, what do you need?” Cloutier asked Dhalac.

“My community folks talked to my mom in Somalia and she called me this morning asking me if I am killing babies,” replied Dhalac, a freshman who made history with Rep. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, in 2022 as the first Somali- Americans elected to the Legislature. “Damn.”

“Oh Deqa,” Cloutier said. “I’m sorry.”

Those concerns were an early signal of events to come on June 22. Democrats shut down the House that afternoon after a member filed a late amendment. The break would last hours.

Democrats eventually voted 74-72 at 10:46 p.m. to pass a measure that received more than 19 hours of testimony at a May hearing packed by abortion opponents. It ended up being the key vote among several on the measure, and Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law last month.

The text messages between Democratic leaders, obtained by the Bangor Daily News in Freedom of Access Act request submitted in June that could only be fulfilled by law after the Legislature adjourned last month, showed they were on the verge of losing the key vote.

The texts also show top Democrats trying to lock down members or trying to get those on the fence to leave the chamber to avoid a difficult vote. Leaders were surprised when one ailing member showed up to vote no. One vented about “older white guys” in their party and one state senator chimed in to say a Republican exhibited “fake tears” in a speech.

Here are some of the noteworthy conversations that shaped the vote.

‘I am not voting for 1619’: 10 a.m.

“Wanted to let you know that I am not voting for 1619,” Rep. Kevin O’Connell, D-Brewer, texted Cloutier in the morning.

That was a major development, since O’Connell was among the large group of Democrats sponsoring the measure. Only seven of them did not sign on from the beginning.

Among them was Rep. Bill Bridgeo, D-Augusta, who was also among the Democrats on June 22 who let leadership know in text messages that they intended to vote against the bill. Five Democrats did so that night.

Democrats hold 81 seats and Republicans hold 68 seats in the House, with two independents. But with lingering questions over how a few members would lean, along with potential absences, passage was far from guaranteed early in the day.

State Reps. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, left, and Deqa Dhalac, D-South Portland, attend their first session of the Maine Legislature, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. They were the first Somali-Americans elected to the Maine Legislature. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

‘Are you willing to take a walk rather than vote no?’: 2:32 p.m.

Dhalac checked in with Cloutier about how the vote count was looking. Cloutier replied at 2:32 p.m. to say she understood the issue was difficult for Muslims. Ahead of the vote, evangelical leaders held a press event with two Lewiston imams in opposition to the bill.

“Are you willing to take a walk rather than vote no?” Cloutier asked, using a term that refers to when members leave the chamber to skip difficult votes.

“Will that be easier?” Dhalac asked Cloutier. “I will do that if possible.”

“It’s better for us,” Cloutier said.

Dhalac stayed and voted for the bill, telling the Bangor Daily News she “decided to vote on my conscience” after talking with peers, friends and legislators who fell on both sides of the issue. That decision stood in contrast to Democrats who stayed away that night and for a final enactment vote the following week, including Abdi and Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais.

Texts revealed leadership and staffers were hoping Perry would talk with Rep. Ronald Russell, D-Verona Island, to convince him to walk. Both were among the few Democrats to not cosponsor the bill. Perry declined comment for this story.

Russell told the BDN that after playing phone tag, he decided to not talk with Perry. He thought about his father, a doctor who ran a rural hospital, and women both in his life and in the Legislature before deciding to vote for the bill. He said leaders did not pressure members to vote a certain way that night, praising the “latitude they gave the caucus.”

Amendment catches leaders by surprise: 5:15 p.m.

After working through other bills that afternoon, the House began debating the abortion measure, but a late amendment from Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, would complicate things. He proposed limiting abortions after the 24-week cutoff to cases involving fatal fetal anomalies or a threat to the mother’s health.

The importance of family background in Maine politics was on display, as while he is a progressive, Collings is also Catholic and originally from Fort Kent in the St. John Valley, perhaps the state’s most anti-abortion region.

“The Clerk just got an amendment to this bill,” Bill Brown, chief of staff to House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, texted a group of staffers and leaders.

House Majority Leader Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, seemed to think Brown was referring to a different amendment, but Brown then shared the text of Collings’ amendment.

“Oh,” Terry replied, adding an emoji featuring a slanted mouth that can indicate disappointment or confusion.

The amendment caused some Democrats to rethink things. Bridgeo texted Cloutier at 5:11 p.m. to say he would support it.

“We are going to caucus in a few minutes to discuss,” Cloutier replied.

Collings’ approach was similar to one supported by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in neighboring New Hampshire, but Mills rejected such an idea after proposing her bill, saying she did not want doctors to “have to get a legal opinion” on whether a fetus was viable or not.

At 5:14 p.m., Collings moved to table the bill. Talbot Ross then announced the House would go on break until 5:45 p.m. That break would instead last hours.

Collings told the BDN “a lot of people,” including Republicans, expressed interest in the amendment and that he thought he was tabling the bill to explain it to other members. He also said he spoke with leadership earlier in the day about his amendment.

When it was voted down later that night, he said he “very reluctantly” voted for the bill in hopes of seeing it tweaked before reaching Mills. He took a walk on the final vote on the measure.

“I believe the pressure from outside of the Legislative branch was much stronger than my good faith effort to make this law more in line with what Maine people want,” Collings said in a lengthy email explaining his stance.

The seat of Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, who did not show up to vote on an abortion-rights bill, is shown during voting in the House chamber at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

‘We’re losing’: 6:29 p.m.

As the Democratic and Republican caucuses met in different rooms and the break stretched on, Democrats realized they were in trouble.

“Hey. I do know this is a long shot but we’re losing 1619 by a single vote,” Terry texted Rep. Holly Eaton, D-Deer Isle, who had to stay home that night to watch her children, at 6:29 p.m. “Any chance you could tuck in the kids to take the long drive to come in to vote?”

Eaton said it would take two hours to reach the State House. Terry replied “we could wait” and added the only Democrats opposed to the bill were “all older white guys,” listing O’Connell, Collings, Bridgeo among other Democrats.

Eaton eventually said she tried finding a babysitter but “nobody can take them,” so she was loading them in the car to drive to Augusta. Terry replied by saying leaders would give the kids “root beer floats and places to play!!!”

“Holly, you are my hero!!” Terry replied.

“It makes me feel good that I’m able to do this,” Eaton later said

The break ends: 9:46 p.m.

Four and a half hours after going on break, Talbot Ross called the House back to order, also noting Rep. Mike Lajoie, D-Lewiston, had returned from missing a few roll calls.

To the surprise of leaders, Lajoie had arrived on crutches earlier in the afternoon. He told the BDN he blew out his knee on a set of stairs in April and remained in a brace after an operation.

“OMG Mike lajoie just came in,” Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, texted Cloutier.

“Yeah, that’s wild,” Cloutier replied.

Lajoie, a former fire chief in one of Maine’s Catholic bastions, said his wife gave him a ride to Augusta that day and he informed colleagues he would vote against the bill if he made it to the State House.

“It was quite a long night,” Lajoie said.

‘Fake tears’: 10:17 p.m.

Heated floor debate continued.

One of the more vocal opponents, Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, became emotional at times as she recalled giving birth to her first child. At 19 weeks, Libby said an ultrasound revealed potential life-threatening issues, but Libby said her girl was now a healthy 13-year-old.

The Senate had wrapped up work earlier in the day, with Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, checking in on Terry at 10:17 p.m.

“Girl… how are you? How’s this going to go?” Brenner asked. “Also… LL has fake tears.”

Brenner, referring to Libby, included a link to a Pinterest tutorial on “How to Make Fake Tears.” Terry added a “haha” reaction to Brenner’s message.

Libby said she had no comment on the messages. Brenner issued a statement saying she sent the message “in the heat of the moment” and should not have sent it.As a nurse midwife, she also said she found the 2023 legislative session “frustrating due to the volume of medical misinformation” swirling around the bill.

“I want to be clear that I deeply respect my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and those who may not share my views on this issue,” she said. “That text exchange reflects a moment in time and does not reflect how I feel about my colleagues at large.”

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