Maine guests for Trump speech reflect a divided union

Good morning from Augusta, where it’s a relaxed mid-winter Monday at the State House, with many eyes cast toward President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

The president’s first State of the Union speech comes at the end of a year of decidedly mixed results for the president, ranging from his failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and secure funding for a southern border wall to his success in pushing through major tax cuts that are just taking effect now. With the stock market soaring and unemployment rates dipping in most areas of the country, a major focus of the speech is expected to be the relatively strong economy.

No one, including maybe Trump’s own staff, knows what he will say until he says it. That leaves us in a game of political posturing in advance of the speech, with politicians working to send messages through the people they invite to the speech. Democrats across the country have invited immigrants to attend the speech, in protest of Trump’s efforts to reform the country’s immigration policy.

Historically, State of the Union addresses have been relatively polite acts of political theater, with lots of pomp and circumstance and congressional deference to the chief executive. Acts of defiance are usually saved for other times or come across as gentle in nature, usually no more than members of the opposition choosing not to stand while clapping. But Trump’s speech comes at a time of historic partisan gridlock in Congress and after his bruising campaign and first year in office. He will pack the room with guests who support his agenda. Members of Congress will send subtle messages about how well it will be received with their choices.

Trump’s  guest list follows some of the major issues of the past year. There are several sexual assault and harassment survivors, businesspeople who have benefited from tax cuts,  and several people from Puerto Rico, where 450,000 people remain without power four months after Hurricane Maria. Roll call has the makings of a comprehensive, though many senators and representatives aren’t on it, including Maine’s congressional delegation.

Maine’s two U.S. House representatives have ended the suspense. Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District announced Friday that his guest is 20-year U.S. Navy veteran Joy Lewis Asuncion of Belfast. Since retiring from the Navy in 1994, Asuncion has been heavily involved in veterans’ causes, including serving on the Honor Flight Maine board of directors, being a Maine Troop Greeter and serving as Maine’s ambassador for the Women and Military Service For America Memorial. Asuncion is also a member of Poliquin’s Veteran Advisory Panel, which he established to advise him on issues germane to his membership on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Trump is expected to use Tuesday’s speech to push for more military spending, and Poliquin’s guest seems to reflect his support for additional defense spending.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District is drawing attention to immigration issues with her pick. Pingree announced Friday that she has invited Christian Castaneda of Portland, who is one of 800,000 people caught in the middle of a debate about the Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals program. Known as a “DREAMer,” Castaneda could face deportation in March unless Trump and Congress can agree on a path forward for the program. Mixed up in that debate is Trump’s demand for funding for the southern border wall. Castaneda visited Washington, D.C.. earlier this month. The fate of DACA and people in Castaneda’s position remains a key sticking point for Democrats, who have made it a focal point in negotiations to keep the federal government open after Feb. 8.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have not yet announced their guests, but we’ll keep you posted.

More work for lawmakers

Legislative leaders voted Thursday to allow more bills to be considered this session. Among them is a proposal that would elevate the charge for a registered sex offender photographing minors without their parents’ consent and a bill to make distribution of certain photographic images subject to indecent conduct charges. Overall, the council — which must approve any new bill proposals as emergencies before they can move forward — was stingy about adding to the Legislature’s workload. You can see the full list of what made it and what didn’t by clicking here.  

Maine GOP denies involvement with anonymous ‘news’ site

However, the party’s statement didn’t address the fact that its fingerprints are on it. The Maine Republican Party waited until late Friday afternoon to issue a statement denying involvement with the Maine Examiner, an anonymous website that may have tipped the 2017 mayoral race in Lewiston. But the statement came two days after the party’s executive director, Jason Savage, was tied to metadata within the site. The Maine Democratic Party has called for an investigation from the Maine Ethics Commission, which is set to hear the complaint on Feb. 22.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are out until Tuesday. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will take testimony on a bill that would provide $5.4 million for the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport next year while the Department of Corrections generates a report about how closing it would affect Maine’s prison system. In 2017, Gov. Paul LePage announced he wanted to close the facility. That committee seems to be where most of the action is today, with deliberations on another bill later this morning that is still under development to create the Uniform Act on Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking.

Reading list

  • Susan Collins said that President Donald Trump should ‘never’ discuss the Russia investigation. The Republican senator from Maine told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the president “would be best served by never discussing the investigation — ever.” That was a response to a New York Times report that Trump wanted Special Counsel Robert Mueller fired, but dropped the matter after his top lawyer threatened to resign.
  • Maine’s school funding formula is equitable, but it could better help poor students. Over the years, Maine has tried to send more money to poor districts by devising the formula and later tweaking it. But while it has provided districts with similar per-pupil funding levels, wealthy areas are still raising more in local revenue to aid schools and researchers think Maine should “consider new ways” to directly aid poor students.
  • Some Maine farmers are ‘a little bitter’ about being hit with new federal food safety rules. That’s how one Dresden farmer explains the reaction to the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, which was passed under former President Barack Obama to prevent foodborne illnesses. The new requirements are being implemented for large farms starting this month.

Solved: The case of the speaker’s smashed table glass

In early July 2017, when state government shut down because of an impasse in budget negotiations, the tension at the State House was as high as it’s been in recent memory. Nerves were frayed, eyes were bleary and during a news conference in House Speaker Sara Gideon’s State House office, the glass surface of a conference table was smashed.

Given the circumstances, the spider web of cracks, held together temporarily with some tape, looked like it could have resulted from a moment of boiled-over frustration. Gideon told reporters at that news conference that it was an accident. It turns out now that it was, but it was one of the poetic kind.

“I was never going to tell this story,” said Gideon, sitting down with Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau and me last week for an interview.

As it turns out, it was Thibodeau who broke the table and yes, it was an accident.

“I sat on it,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how easily it shattered. It was after a intense meeting but it was an accident.”

Here’s his soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.