Friday, December 13, 2013
By JANICE COOPER
YARMOUTH - Steve Mistler's article ("Failed recruiting bill succeeding as political wedge issue," July 21) does a good job of describing the misuse of legislation in this polarized age. As a participant in this episode, I would like to add some telling details and correct some impressions.
The bill was Gov. LePage's idea, and it was introduced late in the session by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette.
At the public committee hearing on the bill, Rep. Fredette deferred questions to the only other speaker on behalf of the bill, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. Neither had any information about specific Maine schools barring military recruiters, in uniform or not.
Several state education organizations testified that the bill was "unnecessary" and "duplicative" (particularly since federal law requires that recruiters be provided access to our schools). No recruiters, school officials or anyone else testified that the bill would solve a known problem. Not surprisingly, the Education Committee voted against the bill.
In floor debates, representatives on both sides of the aisle spoke of their own service, their high regard for the military and the value of military service as an avenue of advancement for young people with few other options. There was unanimity on this score.
The only real issue was whether the bill, which would mandate specific action by Maine schools, was necessary if all secondary schools were already allowing uniformed recruiters on to their premises on the same terms as other recruiters.
As I said during the debate, the first thing I learned from my more seasoned colleagues was to seek new laws and regulations only when there is a proven need for them. No matter how well-intentioned the proposal, Mainers don't like to be told what to do, particularly if they're already doing it.
To view this bill as a test of patriotism, I said, is a mistake. We all love our country, and every one of us and our families have sacrificed for its preservation.
In the final debate, rumors of bans on uniforms were described, but there were no names, no facts. To bolster the case for the bill, a representative shared some of the contents of an email to Bowen, the education commissioner.
The representative, Corey Wilson, claimed that the email's author, Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Hannibal, listed several schools that barred recruiters from wearing uniforms. I have seen that email, and it says no such thing.
A few schools, including one in my district, Yarmouth High School, were called out for imposing more stringent requirements on military recruiters. Again, not true, as the Press Herald reported. My superintendent told me that the recruiter who comes regularly to Yarmouth High School was appalled by the accusation.
So what do we have? Intentional misrepresentations of facts or, at best, rumors, used to create a firestorm of anger from those who are suspicious of educators and government, still angry about the way returning service members were treated after the Vietnam War or otherwise ready for a fight about who loves our country more.
I have voted this year in favor of a number of measures that will benefit veterans, include scholarships, fee waivers and access to affordable health care coverage. I agree that Vietnam-era veterans were unfairly treated for serving in an unpopular war, but we have learned from our mistakes, and in any event, this has nothing to do with the recruiter bill.
I am one of the Gang of 20 (or is it 40?) legislators who received a personal note from the governor telling me that my actions were shameful and show "disdain" for military service. The representative who misrepresented or misread the contents of the Hannibal email called me "disgusting" for changing my vote.
The truth is, I spoke against the bill twice on the floor; my one (of three) inconsistent votes was either an error (my button had been malfunctioning) or a mistake on my part. I take responsibility for that error, but it was clear where I stood, and my vote was no calculated maneuver to curry favor.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hannibal, when called by my superintendent, still could cite no specific offending schools. Last I heard, he wasn't returning phone calls.
In sum, what we have here is a manufactured crisis and a phony test of patriotism. The real issue is: How should a legislator decide how to vote?
When I ran for this office, my only pledge to voters was to base my vote on the facts, and I remain true to that promise. It may not have been the safest political course, but it is the one that I believe is best for good policy and a strong democracy.
The question remains whether facts matter enough for voters.
Rep. Janice Cooper is a Democrat from Yarmouth.