U.S. Sen. Susan Collins speaks Friday at the Maine Republican Party convention in the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The Maine Republican Party kicked off its convention Friday by amending the party platform to call for a ban on sexually based material, transgender identity and “critical race theory” in public schools.

The 1,800 delegates gathered in the Augusta Civic Center for the two-day event also loudly rejected an effort to remove the party’s one woman-one man definition of marriage during a rowdy, 90-minute overhaul of the 1,500-word document.

Liz Caruso, one of two Republican candidates for Maine’s second congressional district at the Maine Republican Party convention in the Augusta Civic Center, Friday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

While demands for federal term limits and voter identification were added to the platform, it was the convention’s belief that “woke culture” has infiltrated public school classrooms that fueled most of the changes that delegates made to the state party platform on Friday.

Elizabeth Caruso of Caratunk, who is seeking the Republican nomination in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, urged delegates to join the “red wave” of parents storming the school boards and voting booths across the nation to protect children from “pornographic sex training” and gender confusion.

“We can’t trap our children in classrooms and force radical ideology on them,” Caruso said to audience applause. “The attack on our children’s physical, emotional, mental and scholastic development must end. It’s abuse. Republican lawmakers must fight this battle and win.”

The original motion called for a prohibition of public school curriculum that promotes medical or surgical gender transition, likened classroom teaching of non-binary genders to child abuse, and sought the prohibition of sexually based material of any kind prior to fourth grade.

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But delegates voted from the floor to expand the prohibition of sexually based material through 12th grade, a move that some within the party worried would prevent the teaching of high school biology, not just sex education, and possibly expose the party and its candidates to public ridicule.

VAGUE LANGUAGE ON SEX ED

The platform debate was a boisterous, chaotic affair, making it difficult for even the voting delegates to understand an amendment’s intent. For example, is the amendment that bans sexually based materials of any kind in schools targeting sexually explicit novels, sex education or human biology altogether?

The language is vague enough that delegates exited the debate disagreeing on what they had just done.

If it is a threat to sex education, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England finds that troubling.

“Sex education gives young people age-appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships, without being shamed or judged,” Amy Cookson, the agency’s director of innovation and external communications, said in a written statement.

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“In short, sex education works,” said Cookson, noting that sex education looks different for different age groups in the classroom. “It gives young people the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of good health and happiness, and it sets them up for success in a diverse society.”

Dr. Demi Kouzounas, Chairwoman, Maine Republican Party introduces the county party chairs Friday, April 29, 2022, at the Maine Republican Party convention in the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Republican leaders privately noted that the party platform is not proposed legislation, more of a list of hopes and dreams, but few wanted to comment on specific amendments. Overall, the platform debate showed that Mainers are passionate about the fall elections, party spokesman Jason Savage said.

“We absolutely understand the concern party members and voters have about the safety and education of their kids, and we’re glad we provided a forum for a robust discussion today,” Savage said. “These are not always easy issues to discuss.”

But Quinn Gormley, executive director of MaineTrans.Net, said the platform changes, although vaguely worded, sent a clear message, and one that was familiar from the years spent battling anti-trans policies of former Gov. Paul LePage’s Republican administration.

“It’s frustrating to see a party, to see elected officials, doing their best to be a role model for the bullies of a vulnerable population,” Gormley said. “These kind of statements don’t keep kids safe. It’s not affirming trans kids that constitutes abuse. Denying their existence, that is abuse.”

BID TO BAN ‘IDENTITY POLITICS’

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Delegates also voted to add a new section of the platform that supports a statewide code of ethics for K-12 public school teachers that bans racial profiling, racial stereotyping and racial scapegoating, or what amendment author Shawn McBreairty dubbed critical race theory.

“The majority of Maine has no idea what is happening in these cult-like, government-run K-12 schools,” McBreairty said. “It’s time for accountability. Morals and family values have been stripped away from schools and been replaced by identity politics and kiddie porn.”

Two years ago, McBreairty led a parent protest in Cumberland when that school district denounced white supremacy in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. McBreairty called it critical race theory; the district insisted it was not.

Critical race theory is based on the idea that race is a social construct, and that racism is inherent in a society’s policies and even its institutions, not just a result of individual prejudices. Advocates claim it examines how racism has shaped America, while opponents say it pits races against each other.

Dr. Demi Kouzounas, Chairwoman, Maine Republican Party introduces the county party chairs Friday, at the Maine Republican Party convention in the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Maine does not have a state-mandated curriculum, but schools must align their curriculum and their instruction with state standards across every subject area. State officials say those standards do not include critical race theory, which is a political construct, not an educational one.

Officials lament that the term has turned into a derogatory catch-all for any lesson that mentions race.

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In some states, like Virginia, critical race theory has played a prominent and decisive role in elections ranging from local school boards to the governor’s office. In Maine, the issue hasn’t proven to be a big vote-getter, although Republican delegates think that’s about to change.

Delegates also added new language requiring voters to prove they are a legal U.S. citizen when they register to vote and have state-issued photo identification, with proof of residency in the voting district, when they register or cast a vote. They also bolstered the party’s opposition to ranked-choice voting.

REMOVAL OF MARRIAGE CLAUSE FAILS

The only platform amendment that failed was the removal of the one-man, one-woman marriage clause of the amendment, largely because of religious objections.

“We receive our rights in the constitution from God,” said Alicia Collins of Sidney. “We are conservative because we believe in our Christian values. If we take the definition out, then I believe we are dishonoring God.”

Delegates who wanted to strip the marriage definition said most Republicans no longer oppose gay marriage, and reminded people that it was the law of the land. Some went so far as to say that such a welcoming attitude is in keeping with the party’s Christian values.

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In her speech at the Maine Republican Party convention on Friday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins raised concerns about illegal immigration, mask mandates and allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Republicans are great defenders of freedom and personal liberty, so let’s stop encouraging divisive language in the platform that no longer reflects the actual law or majority opinion of our own party,” said Dean Martin of Hallowell.

Ex-Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson – who lost her 2020 race against Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth for state Senate – called the marriage plank a strategic mistake and said it is costing the party members, and maybe even elections.

“Every person in this room knows or loves somebody who is gay,” Anderson said. “For us to deny them an opportunity to form a lasting bond is, I believe, an error. This party needs to expand. We talk about being a large tent for personal freedom and that is what we should be.”

COLLINS FOCUSES ON FREEDOM AND INFLATION

The platform pyrotechnics had wrapped up by the time Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins addressed the convention in the afternoon. She focused on freedom and inflation in her 15-minute speech, which ended with Collins tossing camouflaged hats into the audience.

Seemingly unaware of what had happened in the arena just a few hours earlier, Collins took aim at the proposed Maine Democratic Party platform, which mentions the Jan. 6 insurrection and blames “fringe political factions” for “pitting neighbors against neighbors.”

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“Well, my friends, maybe we should buy them a mirror,” Collins said to applause.

She brought up controversial Democratic positions, such as defunding the police. She raised concerns about illegal immigration, mask mandates and allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections – the latter of which is under consideration in Portland.

“Do you want to force Americans to wear masks on airplanes, while immigrants illegally flood across our southern border unchecked?” Collins said rhetorically, to which an otherwise lukewarm audience roared “No!” “Then this would be a good year to vote Republican.”

Collins did not respond Friday to an emailed request for reaction to the state party’s platform changes.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.


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