Maine’s Occupy movement is maturing. A year after it emerged in Portland’s Monument Square, its activists are transitioning from protesting to politicking, from camping to canvassing, from criticizing the government to campaigning to be the government.
But the young movement’s political inexperience is also on display. For example, if you want to occupy the school board, putting forth a candidate best known for taking her clothes off in public is not the savviest approach. Likewise, if you want to remove state legislators who don’t share your liberal values, targeting the most liberal and powerful lawmaker in town could be considered counterproductive to the cause.
To wit: Occupy activist Asher Platts’ campaign against Democrat Justin Alfond, the assistant minority leader of the Maine Senate. Republican John Brown in running as a write-in in the race.
A real estate developer and scion of one of Maine’s wealthiest families, Alfond, 37, may be associated with the 1 percent, but it’s hard to argue that he shares any of their views. Groups that advocate for workers’ rights and economic justice, like the Maine People’s Alliance and the AFL-CIO, have consistently given Alfond a 100 percent rating for the votes he’s cast in Augusta over the past four years.
When an explosive device was tossed into the Occupy encampment in Lincoln Park last October, Alfond joined the rest of Portland’s lefty state legislative delegation to voice support for the protesters. “People are fed up with the shrinking middle class and frustrated by policies that help those at the very top at the expense of everyone else,” Alfond said in a statement at the time.
So why try to take out a sympathetic state lawmaker dedicated to advancing your agenda?
“It’s great to be a progressive leader,” Platts said in a recent interview, “but I think we can go further to the left than that.”
Case in point: the Alfond family’s foundation has set up a program to give every baby born in Maine a $500 college scholarship; Platts wants Maine’s public universities to offer those kids free tuition.
But the main reason Platts is running is simply because he can. “I was sick and tired of people saying, ‘I don’t vote because there’s nobody worth voting for,’” he said. “My philosophy is, if you don’t think there’s anyone worth voting for, you should run for office.”
Platts, who’s 29 and running as a Green Independent, picked the state Senate race because he’d been living in a sublet apartment earlier this year and wasn’t sure which electoral district he’d be residing in come November. Senate District 8, which includes the peninsula and off-peninsula neighborhoods to the south and west along Brighton Avenue, encompasses the areas where young people like Platts — a musician who strings together several jobs to make ends meet, including a blog called The Punk Patriot — can find affordable housing.
Platts grew up in Maine but moved around quite a bit, and his family lacked the financial security his rival’s had. He said his experience being raised in a low-income household makes him a more passionate advocate for the disadvantaged. “Every time I would get injured or sick, [my parents] would have the conversation about whether or not they could afford to bring me to the doctor or bring me to the emergency room,” Platts recalled. “That’s not a conversation parents should have to have.”
“This issues in my platform — I’ve lived them,” he continued. “I’ve seen how important they are. For a lot of people, it’s life and death.”
Alfond supports universal health care, but Platts said the senator has not been “as bold of a leader” as he could be on that issue and others, like campaign finance reform. Both contenders are running as Clean Election candidates, but Platts supports full public financing of elections. He also advocates for creation of a state bank to hold Maine’s tax revenue and make no-interest loans to municipalities and public projects.
Platts has very little chance of winning this race, but that doesn’t mean his candidacy is pointless or will have no political effect. Just as Tea Party activists on the other end of the spectrum have been successful in pulling established Republicans to the right, Occupy insurgents like Platts can tug mainstream Democrats to the left.
Granted, Alfond doesn’t have to be tugged very far in that direction, but without a force exerting influence from the liberal wing, Dems tend to drift into the muddle of the moderate middle, where many a worthy idea has been diluted to death (see health care, tax and campaign finance reforms).
Platts may not deserve this Senate seat, but he certainly deserves to be heard.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.