Capitol Notebook: The dog days get dark

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We have reached the time in late summer when the light fades. As the sun’s angle gets lower, the days shorten and the evening light turns golden.

This is not news, of course, but the strange duality of this particular summer as we reflect on it, is the juxtaposition of its stunning beauty of hot, sunny days set against a stark political backdrop of the harshest, most divided politics since 1968.

The national campaign of Republican Donald Trump, and its mirror image in Gov. Paul LePage, have stirred hatred against the most vulnerable, often the newest immigrants to Maine. And it may be a trend that lasts beyond the election.

When Trump visited Maine earlier this month, he targeted the influx of Somalis as a cause of Maine’s problems and an issue to be fixed. He targeted Somali refugees, saying the immigration “has to stop,” talking points that were likely provided by LePage.

The assault on Maine’s new residents was renewed last week, as LePage exploited the disturbing case of an Iranian refugee who had lived in Freeport with his family, and later joined ISIS and was killed in Lebanon in January 2015.

In comments on this case, according to a story in the Boston Herald, “Maine officials” said the family had received welfare and food benefits. This information is supposed to be confidential under federal law, and LePage and a spokeswoman from the Department of Health and Human Services later denied being the newspaper’s source. (The benefits involved, including food stamps, or SNAP, and welfare, or TANF, are federal funds administered by the states, and are subject to federal rules.)

LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew have jumped on the nativist bandwagon, using this case to intensify their battle against refugees and other immigrants. LePage has previously accused them of bringing disease into the state, and has tried unsuccessfully to limit the benefits they can receive.

Last week, Mayhew told television reporters the state is investigating cases of immigrants who receive benefits and are linked to crime and even terrorism. But their search could be challenging, as statistics from 2015, cited by Scott Thistle in the Portland Press Herald, show that all the successful prosecutions in Maine for welfare fraud were of citizens, and that the number of non-citizens receiving these benefits is relatively small. According to the article, in 2015, there were 35 non-citizen families out of 4,854 receiving TANF benefits, and 361 non-citizen families out of 100,648 receiving food stamps, according to state records.

It is an election year, and the Freeport case has provided an opening for Republicans to whip up resentment against immigrants in Maine. In the era of Trump, in a state where the population skews old and white, this is likely to be an effective election strategy. In the rural areas of the 2nd Congressional District, Trump has already been polling well as voters respond to his nativist and nationalistic message.

The state now divides between those who see immigrants as a threat, and those who see them as a boon to the state’s culture and the economy, which suffers in many places from a shortage of workers.

A friend, an Augusta native, recently visited and always notices with pride the changes in her state. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in that city, she knew one black family. When she now goes into Portland stores, she is greeted by workers of different races and ethnic backgrounds.

“These people are going to save the state of Maine,” she said.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.