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A Real People’s Champion in Maine

Rising progressive star Ben Chin, the political director of the feisty Maine People’s Alliance, has some important lessons to share.

Maine Governor Paul LePage finds Ben Chin so threatening he’s put Chin’s face on a “Wanted” poster. A Tea Party stalwart like LePage has good reason to fear Chin. He’s a rising star in Maine’s progressive movement and a major force behind statewide campaigns to tax the wealthy and raise the minimum wage.

Chin, the political director of the Maine People’s Alliance, took a few moments from his work and young family to talk with me.

poster2How would you describe Maine People’s Alliance?

Chin: We are the largest community organization in Maine. We work on almost every issue you can think of from protecting the environment to creating a healthy economy and on down the line.

With 32,000 active members in a state with a population just over one million, we are one of the most powerful statewide community organizing groups in the country.

What are you working on these days?

Chin: We’ve got two referenda on the ballot this November that we’re excited about. First, we’re going to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 and phase out the tipped minimum wage in the process.

Second, we’re going to full fund public education by implementing a 3 percent surtax on household income over $200,000.

What else is coming down the pipeline?

Chin: Oh, we’re just getting started. This summer we’re rolling out our plan for universal family care. That includes early childhood care and education as well as home care for the elderly and people with disabilities. We see this as absolutely essential to modernize the social insurance system for a 21st century economy.

We plan to fund the program by simply removing a loophole in the tax code that exempts payroll taxes on income above $118,000. Look for more on this plan coming soon.

What are you up against in Maine?

Chin: We in Maine have the distinction, and I think it’s now undisputed, of having the most reactionary, right-wing, extremist, Donald Trump-like governor in America — Paul LePage. His bread and butter is race-baiting and he’s used fears of new immigrants to push his agenda of austerity.

Ho-Chi-Chin-sign-800x430You’ve had your own experience with race baiting.

Chin: Yes, last year I ran for mayor of Lewiston, challenging the local version of Donald Trump, incumbent Mayor Bob McDonald. During the race, local slumlords put out signs that said “down with Ho Chi Chin,” with a caricature of an Asian man. It was ugly.

We didn’t win this time around, but there was an incredible turnout. People who’ve never voted before came out and we actually won the general election, but lost in a run-off by a small margin.

Would you run again?

Chin: Well, when I ran the first time, I didn’t have a eight-month-old baby. Now I do. So I have more things to consider as I go into a race, but I’m certainly considering it.

What did you learn from running for office?

Chin: The number one issue I faced was that it was challenging to run a populist campaign around racial justice. When we talk about economic justice, issues like increasing minimum wage and increasing affordable housing, it’s easy to have a populist tone that energizes lots of people.

But on issues of race, talking to voters about things like immigration, it’s harder. We haven’t yet built that durable long-term alliance between the white working class and people of color.

We haven’t yet built that durable long-term alliance between the white working class and people of color.

How did you get engaged in this work?

Chin: When I was a college student at Bates College in Lewiston, the city administrator in town wanted to put a road directly through downtown that would displace a quarter of the public housing. Everyone told us it was a done deal.

But I joined with a grassroots group that included a wide range of people including MPA to stand up for affordable housing. Long story short: we won. That was transformative experience for me.

What could folks in other states learn from what’s happening in Maine? 

Chin: Well we have a negative lesson for folks. People need to take Donald Trump seriously. Anyone who doesn’t think he has a real shot should look at Maine. Look at Lewiston. Rough around the edges, racist, populists with weak campaigns can win elections.

What’s your favorite way to procrastinate? 

Chin: I am really into triathlons and am gearing up to run an Olympic distance tri. I often sneak out in the middle of the day to exercise. It’s the ultimate stress release. It’s my way to stay sane.

For more on Ben’s work, check out his weekly podcast on The Beacon and follow Maine People’s Alliance on Facebook and Twitter.

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