How a Green New Deal in Maine Could Transform Progressive Organizing: An Interview With Chloe Maxmin
Chloe Maxmin represents District 88 in the Maine House of Representatives. She’s the youngest woman in the Maine House of Representatives and won her election running as a Democrat in a district that is one of the oldest in the state and had never elected a Democratic to the state house.
Representative Maxmin has been active in climate organizing and politics since she was barely a teenager. She co-founded Divest Harvard, has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Brower Youth Award, and is a contributor and fellow at The Nation. We first met Chloe when she gave a keynote address to the Bioneers Conference in 2014 and have been witness go the leadership that she’s shown on a regular basis at national and local levels since then. Chloe generously paused her busy schedule to speak with Bioneers’ Teo Grossman about the groundbreaking Green New Deal for Maine, the power of youth movements today, and the big question of whether our current system is capable of dealing with the challenges we face.
TEO GROSSMAN, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS & RESEARCH, BIONEERS: We spoke with you last year during your primary race. You’ve since won the election and taken office. Congratulations! I’m curious what it feels like now, having won the election, now you are actually representing all the people in your district, which is a different job than campaigning for them, I suppose.
REP. CHLOE MAXMIN (D – NOBLEBORO), MAINE: Thank you! It is a very different job than campaigning. It’s kind of ironic to me how they’re two completely different skill sets but both vital and complementary if done right. It is an honor to represent my community and my home that I love. I represent a very conservative community, even though I’m a Democrat. A lot of people put their faith and trust in me, and that is something that I think about every day and will never take lightly. I am very committed to actually representing my district, which should be obvious but it actually seems to be kind of novel to always be asking, “What does my district think?” whenever we’re going to take a vote in Augusta.
When I really think about it, I don’t think of myself as somebody who is on the inside of the system. I’ve fought outside the system for so long and been so frustrated at its lack of empathy, urgency, attentiveness, representation. I am really trying to do things differently and to focus most of my energy on how I can bridge what’s happening in Augusta and in these political spaces with the realities in my community and among my constituents, what we’re talking about, and what we’re thinking about.
TEO: You recently introduced, “An Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine” (LD-1282). Can you describe what the legislation is, what it’s proposing, and how it’s been received?
REP. MAXMIN: Yes, I sponsored Maine’s Green New Deal. It genuinely came out of conversations I had when I was knocking on doors in my district. I live in a very rural natural resources-based community, and we don’t really talk about climate change, we don’t really talk about green jobs, but everything I heard was, “We want good jobs, we want growing industries, we want to protect our natural resources, we want to lower our property taxes, we want to make sure that we’re really boosting vocational training and technical training.” All these different themes to me are what a Green New Deal mean. It’s an economic revitalization strategy.
I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to push a climate bill or not because I’m just so frustrated with how politics deals with climate change, but I decided to do this and call it a Green New Deal to really call attention to a radically different way of thinking and talking about climate policy in Maine specifically but also in general. What we created is targeted legislation instead of a very broad resolution, and it’s very Maine specific. It leaves out some big things like agriculture and transportation, but that’s because we really focused on economic growth and rural development.
The other unique thing about our bill is that, since day one, the labor community has been involved with crafting it. One of the main purposes of the bill is to build a broad platform so that we can have broad political power instead of a niche political power, which is how it usually works in Maine. As we transition to renewable energy, the bill is asking how we make sure that all Mainers are treated fairly and equitably.
The first part of the bill is the Renewable Energy Mandate, which moves Maine to 80% renewable energy electricity consumption by 2040, about double where we are right now. The second part of the bill creates a task force on a Green New Deal, which is where a lot of these green jobs programs will be fleshed out. These are going to be major programs, and they have to be thought through and researched before we just throw in legislation. The other big part of that task force is creating a subsidy for solar power and heat pumps for low-income homes in our low-income heating program and tax incentives for middle class homes that want to go solar. Again, we are focusing on the most vulnerable folks as we make this transition.
The third part of the bill is Solar on Schools, which will create a voluntary net metering program for public schools in Maine. We’re teaming up with a bond proposal that would increase access to renewable energy for schools. This is an educational opportunity, a labor/economic growth opportunity, but also will lower the costs of operating our schools so that our property taxes aren’t going up.
The last part of the bill is a Commission on a Just Transition, which is a body that will report annually on how/if our renewable energy transition is just and equitable. The task force and the commission both have very unique memberships. The task force has young folks, climate scientists, local energy developers, people from frontline communities, labor voices, people who have an existential stake in making this transition just and rapid. The Commission on a Just Transition includes people who are impacted by this transition. So we’re really bringing to the table all of these voices that have been traditionally left out of this conversation.
I debated whether or not to keep the title of the bill the “Maine Green New Deal” because it’s now become very contentious, and it was not back when I first thought of this. I decided to keep it because I knew that everyone would be excited and would look at the bill. That part has been really successful, and the bill has been received really well. A lot of people are excited to mobilize around it, and the launch of the legislation definitely created the space that I wanted to have this new conversation about climate. Obviously there is some pushback, but this pushback is good because we’re talking about this issue in a different way.
TEO: I’d like to get your take on workforce development, a “Just Transition,” and the costs and economic potential of a Green New Deal. You got your start working on Divestment, which has continued to grow – Norway’s Sovereign Wealth fund divested recently and the total numbers are upwards of $6 trillion committed to divestment. Now we’re talking about the other side of things: what to invest in. How would this work and what’s the forecast for Maine? Anything you learned from the Divestment movement that applies here?
REP MAXMIN: That’s such an interesting question. I think especially with this bill, since it will eventually be binding legislation, it’s really combining the divestment and the investment conversation. They’re intertwined in this context because, by investing in and requiring renewable energy, we’re divesting from fossil fuels, and part of what this bill does is really draw attention to the impact of that divestment. For example, we’re moving to 80% renewable energy consumption by 2040 instead of 100% because there are lots of folks in Maine who work in the fossil fuel industry. We don’t have any extraction here, but we have a lot of pipelines, compressor stations, oil tankers,and all that kind of stuff. So we’re really looking at the cost of divestment in these communities. It has a real impact.
As we’re making progress, we need to be investing in technical training, apprenticeship programs, green jobs, strategy, and growth programs. We need to be training a whole new workforce and creating economic opportunities like putting solar on schools, for example, or solar on low-income homes, or solar on middle class homes.
Maine is a very rural state, and we’re also one of the poorest states in the nation with one of the highest income tax rates. What we are always seeking here in Maine is sustainable industries. So many of our industries, like our logging industry, for example, or our paper mills, have been declining because the world is changing. We’re always trying to find that next thing and incentivize those folks to come to Maine. Our farming community is a huge part of that, growing hemp and sustainable crops and creating resilient food systems. Our fishing industry is a huge part of that, but we want to make sure that we’re creating an even broader field for people. Because of our previous administration, we have not made much progress towards making Maine a renewable energy industry hub. We have a lot of work to do to really bring people to our beautiful state and make sure we have true vibrant economic development here.
TEO: I was doing a little research prior to our conversation and I was pleasantly surprised by the total amount of renewable energy used in Maine in terms of the overall energy mix.
REP MAXMIN: Yes, right now about 75% of the electricity that is generated in Maine comes from renewable energy, but not all of that energy is consumed in Maine. Right now our retail electricity consumption is about 40% renewable. However, our Renewable Portfolio Standard kind of acts like a cap and there’s absolutely no incentive to consume more than 40% renewable in the retail sector. That’s where this bill comes in.
TEO: That’s a good base to build from. I mean…some of us living in other states would be happy to have that problem.
REP MAXMIN: It is definitely. I think Maine is brilliant and beautiful. I’ve argued that we can be a real climate leader because we’re an extremely purple state, and we’re a very poor state, we’re a very rural state, and our entire economy will collapse if the worst of climate change comes to pass.
TEO: Why is that?
REP MAXMIN: Because the majority of our economy is based on our natural resources and our tourism industry. The things that are bringing people to Maine are disappearing and the things that are sustaining Maine outside of the tourism industry are also disappearing. Our lobstering industry, for example. The lobsters are already moving north. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. Shrimping, scalloping, fishing, these are multi-multimillion dollar industries in Maine, and they’re at risk of extinction if we don’t do something. Maine is all about our natural resources, our woods, lakes, rivers, oceans, and even in my lifetime living here I’ve seen it change drastically.
TEO: I recently spoke with Vien Truong, CEO of Green For All, about the Green New Deal. Part of our conversation focused on the reality that although much of the conversation is at the federal level, so much of the actual work that needs to be done will likely take place at regional, state and local levels. Numerous pieces of ambitious clean energy and “Green New Deal” legislation are being introduced at the state and city levels across the country. Are you tracking what’s happening elsewhere on this front? What do states bring to the table in this regard? How do your efforts fit into a much larger movement?
REP MAXMIN: First of all, we need everything. We need federal action, state, local, municipal — at every level we’re regulating different things, so we need it all. Right now federal action, I think, is hopeless, so the states better get going. Some states already have, but we have not here in Maine.
Speaking from the perspective of a Mainer, we have a very prideful and independent culture here. We do not like anything top-down. When we’re talking about building a climate justice movement that it is very Maine specific, it makes sense to not just take whatever is happening at the national level and just smush it down onto Maine. That would never work, and it would be a losing game. I really believe that each state should have its own comprehensive climate justice energy policy.
I have been talking with a lot of different folks working on labor/climate bills to kind of get a sense of where we’re matching up, and we’re definitely on par with what the other renewable mandates are, and specifically for the efforts that have heavily involved and prioritized labor. I think there are lots of unique parts about our bill, like who we’ve included on these task forces and the commission, our Solar-on-Schools piece, and how we’re using it as an organizing tool statewide. But all the efforts echo each other to some extent.
I think when some people hear about our bill, how we’re “only” 80% or how it establishes a task force, they say, “But climate change is so urgent, we can’t study it anymore!” There is a whole conversation to be had regarding whether our political system is built to deal with a crisis like this. I don’t think it is at all.
It’s frustrating, but this is the point that we’re at. We have to be intentional and strategic with our policy and how we’re thinking about this transition. I don’t think rushing it through, not thinking about it and not bringing all the right people to the table is going to get us anywhere good. It will just replicate the same problems and improper power dynamics that we’re struggling with right now with the fossil fuel industry. We have a chance to do things right, and I think we should take that really seriously.
TEO: That’s fascinating. It must be really different for you to approach the urgency and immediateness of the response required from the perspective of an elected official compared to the thinking that might have come when you were a 20-year-old climate activist in college.
REP MAXMIN: When I was 20 (and I’m only 26, so it’s not like that was that long ago!) if someone had put forward a bill saying anything less than 100% by 2030, I would have been very frustrated. But what I keep saying to people is that, to me, our Green New Deal bill does match the urgency of the crisis. It matches the urgency of the climate crisis because we’re building a platform for action that is creating actual political power that can actually pass this type of legislation with support from the labor community.
It’s a bill that came from the perspective of my community, which has been completely left behind by the Democrats. My whole focus now is rural politics because I don’t think we can achieve the kind of policy that we want on climate, healthcare, anything, if we’re not broadening our base and really involving people who are struggling with our movement. To me, this is bold, and it is exciting. It’s very different. And I think it can change the way that we organize around these issues in Maine and ultimately everywhere, when we get all the rural communities on board.
My goal with this Green New Deal bill was to take something that’s traditionally associated today with hyper liberal politics and translate it to a rural state and a rural community. I think we did that pretty successfully.
TEO: I don’t believe the Sunrise Movement was around while you were in high school and college but clearly they’re cut from the same cloth as the Divestment movement that you were engaged in. How do you feel about the work that young people are doing today to drive action and policy change?
REP MAXMIN: I’ve always felt so grateful to work with youth organizers because youth is its own kind of expertise. There’s a moral clarity and purpose there that I don’t think exists anywhere else. Unfortunately because of that clarity, youth voices have often been dismissed as naïve, or told “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And we’ve really listened to different voices, and those voices have not served us well. We keep electing older folks, but we keep having the same problem. I think part of what’s happening in our country is that we’re just fed up with politics as usual, and we’re seeking different ways to influence our political system.
I know all the Sunrise folks, I think what they’re doing is amazing. They have absolutely turned the tide on the national climate conversation. That’s the power of young people.
We have our public hearing for the Green New Deal on the Youth Climate Day of Action in Augusta so that all young folks have an opportunity to come testify and actually have their voices heard in front of the committee. Most of these folks can’t vote because they’re too young. So how are they supposed to have a voice? It’s time.