"There Is Space to Come Together": An Interview with Representative Chloe Maxmin

We sat down with Maine State Representative Chloe Maxmin to talk about Maine’s Green New Deal, collaborating with labor, and climate organizing in rural communities. 

Original image from the  Alliance for Climate Education.

Original image from the Alliance for Climate Education.

For the latest installment of our interview series we sat down with State Representative Chloe Maxmin. A lifetime climate organizer and co-founder of Divest Harvard, Maxmin is now serving her first term representing Maine’s previously Republican-held 88th district. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Johnathan Guy (interviewer):  You sponsored a bill in the state legislature that was seen as Maine's version of a Green New Deal. It actually ended up passing the state legislature: not without the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), but still with a lot of workforce protections. Even if this bill didn't include everything that you initially wanted, everyone is wondering how you got the Maine AFL-CIO on board. How did you get the AFL-CIO—which has been infamously skeptical of the GND nationally—to buy in, and what kind of lessons can organizers elsewhere learn from your success?

Chloe Maxmin: It's been such an incredible experience to work with the AFL-CIO folks here in Maine and others in the labor community. I come from a very rural conservative district, and I love my community so much. And when I was knocking on doors, I didn't hear people really talk about climate change. But I heard about the need to protect our natural resources and make sure that we can go ice fishing every winter and go hunting and protect our dogs from ticks and have growing industries and good jobs, you know, kind of very basic real things that we interact with every day here. So when I got to the statehouse, I knew that I wanted to do a climate bill, but not the traditional climate bill that was just kind of focused on the numbers, I wanted it to really be rooted in communities like mine that are really struggling and looking for new ways forward. So I submitted a bill title called a Green Deal for Maine. Once it was introduced, I sat down with some folks and thought about who should be at the table. And from the very first discussion that we had about what this bill should look like [and] what the content should be, the labor folks were there. We had Maine AFL-CIO, but also folks from different unions across the state. We worked together to craft language that was by and for the labor community. So that's how it got started.

JG: One of the things that people are starting to learn as they go out and shop around the idea of the Green New Deal on the federal level to these unions is that it's not enough to talk about a just transition. You can even make specific promises, but a lot of what's required to get unions on board is trust, and there certainly seems to be a lack of trust between climate activists and labor officials in a lot of cases. So—especially as a new state rep who has never really been in this sort of institutional setting, never really had pre-existing relationships—how were you able to build that trust?

CM: Well, Maine is a very small state—only 1.3 million people. And the political community is also very small. I've been working in Maine in this realm for all of my life. So I've been tangentially connected to the folks who are working on these issues [for a long time]. We're all in it together working [on climate] at different levels and different ways with different strategies. I was lucky that when I got in there, I knew what [the legislature] was like, I knew what it would be like, I knew who I needed to know, and who I wanted to work with. That was a huge advantage. Some of that learning curve was not so hard for me, because I've been in and around this world for a little bit. But I've also been so frustrated at our political system for as long as I can remember: watching people get into office and really forsake the movements that got them there, the movements that are really pushing for the change that we need, and I never, ever wanted to be like that. So I think subconsciously as well, I was just trying to really avoid being what I don't like.

JG: You talk about having a lot of experience and familiarity with the political landscape. How did you get so intimately familiar at such a young age?

CM: The honest to gosh truth is that I love Maine, and I love my community. I know that everything that I love and everything that my community loves is under threat by climate change, and all of the social injustices that we're facing in our time. So throughout my life working on these issues, it's been for Maine, for my home. And the one thing that I've learned is that we need policy to address all of these systemic complex crises that we're facing. It really matters who is in office and how our movements are mobilizing with and around those folks. So that's a big reason why I decided to run for office in the first place, instead of just organizing on the outside of the system. I think we—we meaning left in general—need to really reorient ourselves towards electoral politics, because that's, you know, that's what we're gunning for. 

JG: So how do you convince people that electoral politics is important, especially people who are disinclined, after seeing all these leftist Democrats losing primaries in 2018? How do you actually get them involved in a meaningful way?

CM: So much of what [my campaign manager and I] focus on is how to bridge social movements and electoral politics. People are really drawn to social movements and grassroots organizing because there's a sense of community: you really feel like you're making a difference and connecting with folks, and you have a very tangible goal. There's so many ways [in which] that grassroots campaign-style movement-building is just inherently geared towards bringing people together. But when you go and volunteer on a campaign, it is not fun. You go and knock on some doors by yourself in the rain, you come back, there's nobody there, you get some horrible cookies, and you leave. If you're a staffer, then you're overworked, underpaid, just have way too much on your plate. It's an incredibly stressful environment. So what we try and do is really say, "What if we looked at electoral politics, political campaigns, as social movements, and really use that as an opportunity to build the kind of community and connection that people seek?" That's such a huge thing that we did with our campaign last year here in District 88. We rented out the local community hall for our canvas days, had tons of food and music. We made it really fun, something that people want to be a part of where they can come see their neighbors and hang out and not just feel so drained.  

JG: I like your community hall example. Do you have any more general examples or tips for people who are trying to integrate social movement-like thinking and culture into electoral campaigns?

CM: It's so specific to one's community, but for me, in my community, we really appreciate the fact that we're tight knit, authentic, rural, and independent. We reflected this in a lot of the messaging and in the ways that we canvassed and in our road signs—we had hand painted road signs that local artists came together to paint—just these little things we did which created a sense that this is a movement and that we're in it together.

JG: You are very tied to your sense of place, and the rural character of your district is really important to you. It also speaks to something unusual about you, which is that you're a climate activist who has been successful (electorally!) in a rural area. One of the reasons why you have people's attention is that you won in a historically very Republican district by a pretty convincing margin while not compromising by running with a moderate centrist platform. Why do you think your campaign was so successful? What sort of advice would you give for climate organizers or people who are running for office, trying to break into rural areas?

CM: I think that the Democrats' biggest weakness right now is forsaking rural communities. Every day, during our campaign, I knocked on doors of people who had never been canvassed by a Democrat in their entire voting history. But they would support our campaign! It was so eye opening to see how much communities like mine have just not been connected with, have not been heard. So it's no wonder that the Dems don't have a solid stronghold in rural communities. But you know, when people ask me this question, my answer is really simple. It's that we listened to everybody and respected everybody's opinion. What I learned is that at the core of everything, whether you're on the AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] end of the spectrum, or if you voted for Trump, we're all deeply frustrated, we all want to be heard, we all want the best for our families and our communities. No one wants a Democrat to knock on their door, and when they say I voted for Trump, then for that Democrat to say, "Well, I'm not talking to you anymore". That's an awful feeling. So we tried to really create an open and accepting campaign, with hundred percent positive messaging; we created our own mailers, and I did handwritten postcards to everybody. We hand-painted our signs, we had canvass days and house parties, all of these things that really attempted to repair some of the deep chasms that have emerged in the community between Republicans and Democrats, between constituents and elected officials. I think the way that we bridge [these divides] is by knocking on people's doors, running local races, and digging deep into our communities. It sounds simplistic, but we really have to recover our humanity and build on that.

JG: I'm curious—you talk about how one of the most important things is to just simply listen, and respect people's opinions. Obviously, however, that's not the end of it: you have some sort of pitch that you're making to them, some sort of political vision, that is in some ways radical or different from what they have assented to or even heard of before. How do you present your own ideas, your own ideology and beliefs when canvassing, especially in places that aren't seen as necessarily receptive to it?

CM: The way that I think about it is this. We've been campaigning the same way for decades. We've been electing the same kind of people for decades. They've been telling us the same thing for decades. They've been breaking our hearts for decades. They've been undermining rural working folks for decades. So it seems crazy to me to continue forth with the same strategies that we've used before, when so much is at stake, and when so many people are struggling. So my pitch was, "Let's do this differently, let's figure out a way together in our community to do this differently." Our campaign was very unique, it was so different, it was beautiful. And in office as well: I obviously care what happens in the State House, and I work extremely hard up there on a lot of bills. But for me, what happens on the outside is just as important as whatever happens in that building. I have my constituent coffee hours every month, and I'm always meeting with constituents who I agree and disagree with, always talking to people in my community, always writing articles for the paper so that A) these movements that we built during election season don't die, and B) we're still thinking critically beyond Election Day about how we do politics differently.

JG: I want to go back to one of the things you mentioned.  When people haven't been listened to for many decades, when there are crises and the system has failed them, the range of political possibilities that people are willing to consider opens up. It can open up in a very positive direction, but we've seen it break the opposite way as well: I'm sure you've heard about all the drama that's happened in Oregon recently with a radical rural right wing militia showing up to the Capitol amidst legislators fleeing. In many ways it seems like one more political chapter in the story of climate politics in the United States being increasingly about an urban versus rural divide. Clearly that fault line is dangerous for the left. But how do you fight that? How do you fight the radicalization against climate policy that seems pretty prevalent in rural areas?

CM: That was such a big [challenge] with the Green New Deal in Maine. Maine is the most rural state in the country. So our path forward when we're tackling this crisis has to be unique, our just transition does look different because we are so rural. Everyone here drives a truck, and our heating expenses [are high]; there are definitely very real considerations for rural communities that don't exist in urban communities. So with the ME Green New Deal, part of getting the labor community on board was really shifting how we think about what climate policy looks like. So, for example, our RPS goal in the original bill was 80% renewable energy consumption by 2040. I think most folks in the climate world are instead looking for 100% by 2030—and if not, then 100% by 2050. When we didn't have those numbers in there, a lot of the environmental community and climate community in Maine wouldn't come out and support the bill. My response was: if we have those kinds of goals in the bill, that eliminates any opportunity for us to build a relationship with the labor community here in Maine. So what's more radical? Is it more radical to have 100% by 2040? Or is it more radical to build a new kind of political power that is actually rooted in a different place, rooted in rural communities that are overlooked? I don't think we can get where we need to go without broad-based political power. I didn't get elected to act like a politician from an urban community—I'm representing my community. And that means that I have to do and think about this in a different way. 

JG: Do you feel with the election of Ocasio-Cortez, with how much the conversation is shifted, that a realignment is in the cards? And if so, what is the role of people who are in rural communities, as they interlocute with their comrades in urban areas and other parts of the country?

CM: For the sake of humanity, and all that we love, I hope that the realignment is there. I think I felt that alignment that you're talking about on the campaign last year, with the power of kindness, conversation, and respect to break down some of these barriers. It's so weird to me that people just want to agree with 100% of what their candidates say, because I don't agree with 100% of what anybody says, and we're all going to disagree on things. The question is, how do we disagree? And can we have a conversation about it? That to me is the core of bridging these divides. And that can only happen if you're knocking on people's doors, and actually treating each other like humans.

JG: You were the co-founder of Divest Harvard. What inspired you to start it?

CM: I started Divest Harvard after I learned that Exxon Mobil owns 76% of a huge pipeline in Maine, and they were trying to pump tar sands through it. I got really involved with that fight, and came back to Harvard my sophomore year after working on that all summer. I thought, "Harvard is not going to be investing in Exxon destroying Maine." Divest Harvard was an incredible journey and incredible experience, and it definitely led me to where I am today for a few reasons. What I saw working on the divestment movement all those years is that we are really good at building stigma [around the fossil fuel industry] but we were not good at taking advantage of this new political space being created as a result. That's why I ended up going into more explicit politics after divestment, because I saw that we just didn't have the frameworks or the resources or the structures to be political the way that we needed to and the way that we all said we wanted to be. The other thing about working on Divest Harvard is that's where I really learned to organize. I took every class that I could on organizing and social movements and studied everything that I could find, and really boosted what we were doing on campus with the intellectual work that I was able to do.

JG: I want to talk to you about something that both divestment and a lot of the more recent activism like Sunrise and the youth climate strikes (and to some degree Extinction Rebellion and other direct action groups) have really coalesced around: this idea of youth as a central political identity, the young confronting the old about condemning them to their bleak futures. This has historical analogues with the New Left in the 60s and so on. What do you think are the uses of centering this identity, and what are its limits?

CM: I am such a big believer in young people in office, and being leaders in movements and organizing. I've always thought that youth is its own kind of expertise. The boldness and clarity that young people have is really unparalleled, and also exactly what we need in the world right now. How can we have a representative democracy or representative movements, if all the people that we're organizing aren't represented in the legislature, in Congress, or in leadership of those movements? So many times, I'll be sitting in the chamber, so frustrated, because we're making decisions that impact all of these kids who can't vote. One of my favorite things about being a state rep is that I get so many invitations to go and talk with students of all ages in my state. Every time I go and talk with young people, and my mind is blown at—like I said, the fullness and clarity but also the courageousness of their ideas. I think that young folks are really poised to bring in this new frontier a different way of thinking and a different way of being. I don't really think there are any barriers or boundaries or downsides to that, just as I don't think there would be any downsides to having more people of color in office or more LGBT folks in office or low income folks in office. It's just another identity in our communities that deserves to be represented.

JG: Definitely. They are, as you say, categorically disenfranchised. When I say limits, I guess I don't mean to ask whether we should set a cap on how much young people get involved. More the point that youth is just one of many identities around which to organize people.  What about other sorts of identities, like workers and members of marginalized communities? One of the things I've realized about Sunrise is that they're so focused on the youth narrative that there's kind of this discordance when they interact with other groups that are organized around some other identity like CJA [Climate Justice Alliance] for example. How do you think about that tension? How can it be addressed?

CM: Yeah, I definitely see what you're saying about Sunrise. But they've also used the moral clarity of the youth identity to create a conversation that was not there before. How they wield that [and] how they utilize that in their relationships with other organizations is up to them to figure out. For me, it's—because I represent so many people who are not young, I live in the oldest county in the country—it's about equal opportunity, equal access, and equal representation.

JG: That leads me into my last question, which is perhaps the thorniest one. I want to challenge you on something you said recently on Twitter, which is that "Politics should be about how we tackle climate change, not if." But I've been pretty astounded in some cases by how much target audiences have proven impervious to it. For example, LiUNA—which is one of the more conservative trade unions—recently put out a press release where they commend the worker protections offered in the GND resolution but go on to say, "We've been fighting for these for years. Why can we have the labor protections and benefits without all the job-killing decarbonization?" When people reject what's put in for other people and say "Why can't we just pass what I like"—How do you respond to that?

CM: The first thing that comes to my mind with that question is that it really comes back to what your theory of change is. My theory of change centers around building broad-based political power, and I think that ultimately feeds into pushing forth the kind of bold climate policy that we need. That's my path there. Other people are going the other way [towards factionalism], which is fine. But I genuinely think that there is space for all of these stakeholders to come together and have this conversation. How that space is created is just so much harder at a national level, I think and maybe that's why I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around [a solution to that problem nationally]. It's another reason I really believe in state politics and local politics because you can have these kinds of coalitions in not only a much more effective and manageable way, but also a more meaningful way built on actual relationships.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

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