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AUGUSTA — Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked Gov. Paul LePage’s nomination of Susan Dench of Falmouth to the University of Maine System board of trustees.
Senators unanimously supported 50 other nominations to a range of boards and committees.
Tuesday’s 17-15 party-line vote followed an 8-5 party-line Education Committee vote against Dench on Friday, Sept. 26. A two-thirds threshold was needed Tuesday to override the committee’s recommendation.
While Democrats suggested appointment to the UMaine board of trustees “should be reserved for those of only the highest ethical standards,” as one Democratic senator put it, Republicans called Democrats’ opposition to Dench “character assassination.”
Dench said the debate was more about LePage than it was about her.
“I’m very disappointed with the way things turned out; I had a lot to offer the board,” she said minutes after Tuesday’s vote. “I think this wasn’t a political or personal vote against me; I think this is a partisan vote against Gov. LePage.”
LePage, meanwhile, said the vote was the result of “vitriolic partisan politics.”
“This appalling treatment of a Maine woman not only shows the closed-mindedness and viciousness of liberals in Augusta,” the governor said in a prepared statement, “but will also have a chilling effect on our ability to attract quality people for public service.”
Dench’s nomination to the board was the subject of dissent from Democrats beginning when LePage nominated her earlier this month.
Dench, an author and conservative activist, leads the Informed Women’s Network, a national group that advocates for conservative causes. Dench’s writings – including a blog she wrote for the Bangor Daily News until July – caused concern among some lawmakers, who said her views on gender roles and the effect of the feminist movement on public schools were extreme.
Dench’s public nomination hearing Friday before the Legislature’s Education Committee resulted in a party-line vote against the nomination. Several university system English professors, including Jane Kuenz, University of Southern Maine English department chairwoman, alleged that Dench plagiarized in at least one of her columns for the BDN.
Kuenz argued that Dench “copied the train of thought” of a 2003 column published by the Free Republic, which drew heavily from a 17th century essay by William Bradford, who was governor of the Plymouth Colony at the time. Dench argued in the column that the Pilgrims were communists.
Kuenz said the plagiarism was obvious to her, although Matthew Stone, BDN’s opinion page editor, said the BDN column in question was properly sourced.
Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville, a member of the Education Committee, said the plagiarism charge was especially offensive.
“It matters because this is behavior that is unacceptable to students and faculty alike,” said Johnson, who said he and other lawmakers received numerous letters from the academic community over the weekend – including from outside Maine – supporting the notion that Dench plagiarized.
“If a student plagiarized, they would fail. If a faculty plagiarized, they would be fired,” Johnson said.
Assistant House Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said that while she respects a wide range of viewpoints, Dench’s were too extreme and that the vitriolic debate around Dench could have been avoided if LePage had communicated with lawmakers during his nomination process, as Haskell said prior governors have done.
“It is my view that the opinions of Mrs. Dench regarding gender issues and regarding sexual assault are not just diverse and not in the mainstream, they are way to one side,” Haskell said. “I would not want such a person making decisions around the policy of our gender roles.”
Republicans argued that the plagiarism charges were debatable and that Democrats opposed Dench because of her conservative ideology.
“I hope that we will reject this effort to ambush a good woman’s character, that we will embrace the kind of intellectual diversity this nomination represents,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “If we reject this nomination, the message will be clear: If you have political or societal views that are not in the mainstream and you want to be part of the mainstream, keep your mouth shut.”
Dench’s was the only one of 22 LePage nominations rejected by the Education Committee on Friday and the only one of 51 rejected by the Senate on Tuesday. According to research by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library, Friday’s vote marked the first time the Education Committee has rejected a gubernatorial nomination to the University of Maine board of trustees dating to at least 1977.