How a Climate-Justice Champion Won Office in Rural, Working-Class Maine

How a Climate-Justice Champion Won Office in Rural, Working-Class Maine

How a Climate-Justice Champion Won Office in Rural, Working-Class Maine

State Senator Chloe Maxmin, a progressive activist who unseated the GOP minority leader in November, talks about social-movement organizing.


Climate politics in America, if you follow mainstream coverage, has a way of feeling tried and tired, like a generic Hollywood political drama: the same plot, the same roles, even the same faces, with slightly varying details. Even now, with all the excitement around the historic size and ambition of the Biden administration’s climate proposals, the storyline is depressingly familiar. Biden’s infrastructure and climate package, a sort of Green New Deal–lite, faces enormous political hurdles, and not only on the GOP side of the aisle. We’ve seen this Washington drama before.

Elsewhere in America, and closer to the ground, it’s possible to see a new kind of “climate politics” emerging, less about national party talking points and more a story about, well, people and the communities where they live.  

For example, if you think it’s a given that the phrase “Green New Deal” is toxic to Democrats in Republican-leaning districts, you might want to talk to Chloe Maxmin of Maine. In November, she unseated the state’s GOP Senate minority leader, Dana Dow, with 51 percent of the vote in rural, working-class District 13.

Two years earlier, in her first run for office, Maxmin won a seat in Maine’s lower chamber from her deep-red House district, and then went on to introduce a Maine “Green New Deal” bill with the historic endorsement of the state’s AFL-CIO. The version that passed was significantly pared down, but it started a new conversation about a just transition for Maine workers that continues to influence state-wide climate policy under Democratic Governor Janet Mills. Not too bad for a twentysomething rookie state legislator.

Maxmin, 28, lives a short walk down the road from the farm in Nobleboro where she grew up. After graduating from Harvard in 2015, having cofounded the hard-fought fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus, she moved home and dove into politics. The hallmark of her electoral campaigns has been a highly personalized approach, with a deep focus on community and real, face-to-face conversations with voters of all kinds, no matter where they’re coming from politically. It’s a way of campaigning, as described in a 2018 piece for The Nation, based on social-movement organizing—a model she believes may help Democrats win back rural, working-class communities. And it’s an approach that seems all the more essential in the wake of the 2020 election, January’s less-than-peaceful transition of power, and this country’s ongoing crisis of democracy.

Maxmin hit the ground running as the legislative session began in January, with an ambitious proposal for an amendment to Maine’s constitution guaranteeing a right to clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. But she isn’t narrowly focused on climate and environmental policy. Representing a county where some 20 percent of children live in poverty, she’s also bringing legislation on alternative sentencing programs, community recovery centers for substance abuse, transportation for seniors, and open primaries.

Maxmin and I spoke twice in December and followed up the first week of February. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Wen Stephenson

Wen Stephenson: Bipartisanship has become a bad joke at the national level, but in your campaigns you’ve consciously set a different tone from the kind of partisanship we see and hear so much these days. You seem to be less confrontational, more positive, more about seeking common ground. Is that how you won? I mean, how did a 28-year-old progressive climate activist and Green New Deal champion unseat the sitting GOP minority leader?

Chloe Maxmin: It’s a good question. I’m still kind of unraveling a lot of what happened this year. But you know, when I started running for my House district in 2018, I had a primary, so when I started knocking on doors, I was talking to all Democrats. And that was my wheelhouse, it was a walk in the park, and we won the primary with 80 percent of the vote. But then I started to talk with Republicans and independents as we were heading toward the general, and my House district is quite conservative, so I was talking to hard-core Republicans every single day. And talking to all those folks in my community totally changed my identity as a progressive organizer. I had all these preconceptions about Republicans, and all of that was completely broken down. Because when I took the time to listen to people, and really respect where they were coming from, I did find that I have way more in common with them than I thought that I did.

And you know, often times values don’t align, and a lot of times policy does not align, but I found that most of our values did align. People were voting for Trump because they’re frustrated and feeling abandoned by the political system, and that’s exactly why I was running. People wanted to be able to afford health care for their children, and not have to move out of their hometown because of property taxes, and I feel that too. And the power of local politics is you can have the kind of conversations that can humanize politics again.

So that was our work in 2018, and that was our work this year. And I think that’s how we won. I mean, I so genuinely don’t care about party. At my community level, there are hundreds of people who voted for me and also voted for Trump. My volunteers went to get out the vote at Trump doors as well as Biden doors.

There is something that happens when you get to the state House, where party politics is very real. I do have a very hard time with some of the proposals that the Republicans put forth, because the mentality is divisive, and there isn’t that space to kind of sit down and say, OK, I’m a human in this state, you’re a human in this state, can we talk about it?

WS: Has your approach set you apart from other Maine Democrats?

CM: Definitely. This year our campaign looked nothing like any other Senate campaign in the state. We made almost 90,000 voter contacts, and the next highest was 35,000. So we did a lot of work. I knocked on doors for most of the year.

WS: A lot has been said about Democrat Sarah Gideon’s failed US Senate race against Susan Collins, and Collins won in your district. Do you feel you’ve been able to remain true to your progressive values even as you managed to win this election?

CM: Yeah, I do. I really do. I think the way that I’m progressive has changed and evolved, but my values haven’t changed. I mean, certainly when I started having these deeper conversations with Republicans, I did feel at times that I was betraying myself or my values in some way. But as I pushed through that, I realized that the way progressives have been organizing has been leaving out thousands of people who are just as frustrated as we are, and just as desperate to be heard, desperate to have affordable health care and a good education, all the things that we want, too.

I feel that my work is about making our tent a little bigger, and showing that we have way more in common with folks who appear to think differently from us. And I stopped thinking about politics as a linear spectrum. I think it’s way more complex, and I think policy needs a lot more nuance. A lot of progressive policies that I used to support are really good for urban spaces, but don’t work in Maine.

WS: Like what? What’s an example?

CM: One example, and something I struggle with, is transportation. Because in my community, if you don’t have a car, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t get to the doctor, you can’t get a job. We need cars. Cars run on gas. OK. But Maine’s biggest source of carbon emissions is transportation. So there are a lot of conversations on the left about a fuel tax, a gas tax, for Mainers, and I would never support that. And there are also some bills and proposals to build out high-speed rail throughout Maine, but that costs a lot of money and it doesn’t service my community because that rail would not be going through my district. So I have a really hard time supporting that. I know it’s good for the climate overall, but it’s not a rural solution.

What happens is that rural communities and poorer communities end up bearing the brunt of statewide policies that are meant for urban places. So it has really changed my perspective, and it’s why so many rural folks feel left behind by progressive policies.

WS: In 2018, you and your campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, wrote in The Nation: “One thing is clear as we canvass rural roads, talking to Republicans, independents, Democrats, and the unregistered: The left abandoned rural America.” In Lincoln County, your district, one in five children is living in poverty. You’d think that would be something progressives would care about—and I think most of us do. But what you’re talking about is how to change a political culture on the left that seems to have given up on huge swaths of the country. What’s at the root of that? Is it the fraught intersection of race and class, especially in left politics, you know, the problem of the white working class? Or is it something in the political culture itself, treating voters as demographic abstractions instead of human beings?

CM: Yeah, I definitely think both are part of it. It would be naive to say they’re not. But so much of it comes down to how we run our campaigns on the left. And that’s why we ran for state Snate, because we see the campaign as the heart of building a different kind of politics. And when you run for office, or at least how it works in Maine, you go knock on doors, but you knock on a targeted set of doors. You get that curated list from the state party. The state party does a lot of amazing work, they support hundreds of candidates—but what we’ve seen in Maine is that there are huge problems with [the lists] they give candidates. We’ve been told straight up, “We don’t talk to Republicans.” So they’re talking to the same people, in the same way, every cycle. And so we said, OK, we’re going to do this a little differently. We’re not going to focus on talking to Democrats, we’re going to talk to Republicans and independents. And large, large percentages of [voters in our district] had never been contacted by a Democrat before.

How can you integrate a different race or class analysis into your campaign, if your campaigns are structured and look the same every single cycle? And what happens when you are reaching out to people who are thinking differently, who live in houses that look very different from your own, who are dealing with very different life circumstances, how does that influence your campaign culture? We found that it influences a whole lot. Maine is very, very, very white. That’s a huge thing. And it’s a thing I struggle with, the complexities. I live in a white community, with the privileges that come with that—and then the dual reality, if it’s a white community that has genuinely been left behind and people are genuinely struggling because the system has failed them. And so how do those things interact?

I think that class plays a huge part in it. I remember somebody telling me, volunteers didn’t want to go knock on doors of trailers, because it was too scary and they didn’t want to go down that driveway. And yet we talked to everybody. So, that analysis can be integrated by exposing yourself to the people who really need to have their voices heard, and that’s often not Democrats.

WS: I’m interested in what you learned from the experience of the Maine Green New Deal bill, getting a version of it passed, even if it wasn’t everything you originally wanted.

CM: One of the big reasons I ran for office is that I’ve been so frustrated at the lack of decent climate policies, so when I was elected, I knew I wanted to do a climate bill, but I really wanted it to be coming out of my community. People were talking about, we want good jobs here, we want sustainable industries, we want to go ice fishing every winter. So that’s how we talk about it here, and I wanted my climate bill to reflect that.

Something else specific to Maine, but also the larger climate movement as well, is the climate movement is pretty privileged and urban-centric, and that plays out in what policy looks like. So I wanted to start a new conversation in the state House about a different type of climate policy rooted in rural and working places, and really honing in on a just transition, especially for rural places.

There were five parts to the original bill, and it got whittled down to two—but the original bill was trying to chart out what a just transition would look like, because that plan doesn’t exist right now. It would have created a Just Transition Commission, to oversee the energy transition, that would have [included] affected workers and frontline communities. And most of the bill was developed with the labor unions, particularly the AFL-CIO in Maine. And that was really important to the bill. We all know there’s not a strong history of that.

WS: Wasn’t it a first? The first state-level AFL-CIO endorsement of a Green New Deal bill?

CM: Yeah. And it was really interesting working with them. I mean, they’re representing folks working on natural gas pipelines in Maine as well as folks working on solar installations. So our renewable energy goal was 80 percent instead of 100 percent, because they couldn’t get behind something that was 100 percent renewable energy. So really trying to tease out those kinds of conversations.

My goal was to start a new conversation about climate justice that was rooted in rural and working communities. And I think it was a good first stab at that, and I’m doing another bill this session that’s building on it, a bigger and better version.

WS: The Sunrise Movement has famously gone on the offensive against Democrats whose climate policies aren’t as ambitious as the science would suggest we need to be. Does that concern you at all?

CM: I think it really depends on the Democrat. For Democrats who are really trying to do things differently in places that have not been Democratically represented, there needs to be a lot more nuance and space for different forms of representation, and different forms of policy-making. So it depends who the Democrat is.

WS: Do you think it’s possible to combine the necessary, radical ambition of the national-level Green New Deal with the kind of deep canvassing and local, community-oriented politics that you’re showing to be possible in a rural, working-class district?

CM: Yeah, that’s my long-term vision. There has to be lots of different types of movements and strategies to engage everyone, but there’s this gap between these big bold climate policy ideas and who’s being left out by some of these ideas. I do think there’s a way, and I think a lot of it really revolves around building it from the bottom up, starting with different forms of campaigning, and creating policy and language and messaging that comes out of what you’re actually hearing from people, instead of what polling is telling you people are going to resonate with. And I think it’s a really long process, but I think it can be done.

WS: So you think a conversation about more ambitious climate policy can take place in your district, and people will listen?

CM: I do, but it might be couched in different terms or in different ways than we’re used to. I remember, at one point, I thought that was a kind of climate denial. Why are we talking about this problem without actually talking about it? But now I see it more as a way of actually getting broad-based support for really important policies. So we’re talking about, for example, property taxes. If we’re going to start regulating fossil fuel usage, will that impact school budgets? And if so, it’s really important that schools have access to affordable renewable energy options. Or we’re talking about the fact that lots of students are struggling with student debt, and what’s one way you can have an amazing career in a rural place without going into debt? You can go through an apprenticeship program.

There are just so many ways to talk about this, and I think we’ve been a little bit ideological and evangelical about the numbers and climate change—it just leaves a lot of people behind. As we know, it’s such a privileged way of talking about an issue, when people can’t feed their children today.

Update (April 12): The introduction was updated to reflect news of President Biden’s recently released infrastructure plan.

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