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Key Ballot-Box Victories in Maine

Maine raised their minimum wage, raised taxes on the wealthy to fund education, passed ranked choice voting, and legalized marijuana. Maine People’s Alliance’s Ben Chin explains how the state won progressive victories at the ballot despite the national shift rightward this election.

Back this past July Inequality.org sat down with Maine People’s Alliance political director Ben Chin, who was then gearing up for a fight on a set of progressive statewide ballot initiative campaigns. With the election now in the rearview mirror, we’ve asked Ben about how those campaigns fared — and what Maine activists have coming up next.

Inequality.org: Ben, you won!

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Maine People’s Alliance political director Ben Chin

Ben Chin: Yes, looking just at the ballot initiatives, we were very successful. The two initiatives I’m most excited about are the minimum wage increase and the campaign to raise taxes on the wealth to fund education. Voters passed a 3 percent surtax on incomes over $200,000, the revenue from which will fully fund education for the first time in state history.

The minimum wage will rise to $12 an hour by 2020 and will continue to rise with inflation giving a raise to one in three workers in the state. We also phased out the sub-minimum wage (also known as tipped minimum wage). A lot of folks told us not to include this claiming it would sink the whole ship, but we held strong and won by ten points. These two victories fundamentally change the opportunity structure in the state.

Inequality.org: You’re also the first state to pass ranked choice voting, enabling voters to choose their top candidates without worrying about a spoiler.

Ben Chin: Yes, it’s passed at the municipal level in some cities, but we’re the first to pass it statewide. We also legalized marijuana, a blow to mass incarceration and the racist drug war. All of these campaigns helped turn out voters and we were at the polls collecting signatures for what could be our next campaign: Medicaid expansion. We collected a lot of signatures for a potential ballot campaign in 2017 or 2018.

Inequality.org: Is Medicaid expansion feasible in the Trump era?

Ben Chin: No matter what happens to the Affordable Care Act, voters believe in making healthcare more accessible and affordable. It will be hard for the GOP if their plan is to make health care less accessible and affordable.

Inequality.org: What lessons can we take from these victories?

Ben Chin: Working class people are frustrated with the political and economic system. The referenda outperformed Democratic candidates, which is very rare. Typically you worry about voters showing up for the top of the ticket and not bothering to fill out the rest of the ballot. This year, ballot questions got more votes than the top of the ticket. I think it says that the Democratic Party needs to align itself with working people if they want to win.

Inequality.org: Are you happy to have avoided jail time? (See Governor Paul LePage’s threat to jail Ben for his advocacy to raise the minimum wage)

Ben Chin: (laughs) It’s good to be breathing fresh air and to have avoided the slammer. It was interesting that the Governor was so upset he couldn’t move the needle on these issues. The people were just not with him on blocking a wage increase for a third of the state. What we saw is that there are two competing visions for the future of the state: ours on one side and Governor LePage’s on the other. We feel very confident that our policies are the right thing to do.

Inequality.org: Were you surprised Trump didn’t win the state given LePage’s success? [Hillary Clinton won 48 percent of the vote, winning 3 of Maine’s 4 electoral college votes, while Donald Trump won 45 percent, and 1 electoral college vote]

Ben Chin: Well, the minimum wage increase just won more votes than Governor LePage has ever won. Also interesting: in my hometown of Lewiston, Clinton won in 2016, while LePage won Lewiston in 2014. Paul LePage and Donald Trump have a similar sized base and in an off-year election that base might be enough to win a state-wide election, but in a presidential year there are simply not enough working people swayed by LePage’s message. A lot of what drove people to the polls this year was the ballot initiatives, which is rare.

Inequality.org: Obama won Maine by 15 points in 2012. Clinton won by 3 points.

Ben Chin: Yeah, that was a big swing huh. We were glad to see Clinton win overall. Given LePage’s relentless attacks and support for Trump, I’m not surprised people came out for Trump, but it wasn’t enough. On the ballot initiatives, we had a compelling message that drove people out, I don’t think the Clinton campaign had that compelling message.

Inequality.org: What about the campaign you helped run do you think made the difference?

Ben Chin: We had 6,000 conversations with voters- knocking on doors and telling them about the campaign. We won by about 6,000 votes. So we feel really good about the smart work we did to find the people we needed to talk to and to make sure they showed up to vote. One of the inspiring pieces of doing this work, is getting to talked to people in the most low-income places and be able to say, “You can cast a ballot that will directly impact your life.”

Inequality.org: What lessons can campaigners in other states take away?

Ben Chin: People are much more familiar with minimum wage than they are on taxing the wealthy. People have heard stories about minimum wage winning, but don’t know about the tax story. We should not shy away from tax issues. The public is with us on taxes and we need to communicate that.

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