Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Straight from Peaks to NYC

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It startled even her. Becky FitzPatrick, a Portland cut-paper artist, heard through the grapevine that someone from the Ralph Lauren company was trying to get in touch with her. And when the call actually came, she was again startled to learn why the company was calling.

“Most of my work is small 2-D,” she says, including a piece in the just-completed “Body Parts” show at MECA’s June Fitzpatrick Gallery. But the giant clothing-maker wanted to talk about The Wishing Room, her second-ever piece of installation art, which had been shown at the Sacred and Profane festival on Peaks Island last fall.

The piece, assembled with the help of fellow artist Lisa Pixley, involved hanging hundreds of white paper birds from the ceiling of a large space inside the harbor’s former fort. Visitors were invited to walk through and among them. Ralph Lauren wanted something similar.

It turns out that “the wife of one of the windows team members at Ralph Lauren in New York City,” had had her picture taken with her kids in among the birds. When her husband saw the pictures, he wanted to see more, thinking perhaps a similar work would be good for a smaller display in the store.

“They didn’t even know who I was,” FitzPatrick laughs, noting that Sacred and Profane works are installed anonymously. After seeing more of her work and talking to her at some length, the company brought FitzPatrick to New York for a week to put together her first-ever show in the city. She and a windows crew of full-time and freelance Ralph Lauren workers pulled four all-nighters — installing 600 birds above Ralph Lauren-clad mannequins in the store’s four main windows at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 72nd, a block from Central Park, in the heart of the city’s fashion district. It will be on display for the next six weeks. And FitzPatrick — catching up on her sleep — is now back in Maine, hoping to find more installation work.

Sidebar: The League: A short history

Published in the Portland Phoenix

APRIL 2004 After six weeks of prep work, Justin Alfond (who later becomes the full-time state director of the League) and local activist Jo Horn host a League kickoff event, a book launch for How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, edited by two of the national leaders of the League of Young Voters. Fifty-six people attend.

OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2004 League members help Falmouth Democrat John Brautigam campaign door-to-door against Portland Republican David Elowitch for a Maine House seat representing parts of both towns. Brautigam wins by 55 votes. (See “The Year in Citizen Activism,” by Alex Irvine, December 24, 2004.)

2005 Members get more involved in local issues, including the Portland School Committee’s debate on whether to ban the distribution to students of fliers from discriminatory groups like the Boy Scouts of America, and a proposal to allow Portland high-school students to remove their personal information from records released to the US military for recruiting purposes. Members also help coordinate the college-campus campaign of Maine Won’t Discriminate, successfully defeating an attempt to overturn the state’s gay-rights law.

FEBRUARY 2006 The Portland group changes its name from the League of Pissed Off Voters to the League of Young Voters, with the intent of attracting more members and more grant funding.

MID-2006 National organizations step up funding to the League, for its efforts in connecting with people who are not registered to vote and getting them informed and voting. The Maine Blueprint Project, a coalition of activist organizations, asks if the League will help fight the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a tax-reform bill, on college campuses. League organizers notice that young people — whether college students or not — tend not to know much about TABOR, and launch a widespread campaign to inform voters and oppose the initiative.

NOVEMBER 2006 City Council and School Committee seats in Districts 1 and 2 are filled by first-time candidates, all four of whom are under 35. TABOR fails. The League claims partial credit for each of those results, even though both successful School Committee candidates beat League-endorsed opponents.

JANUARY 2007 A group of Republican legislators introduces a bill to bar college students from voting in the towns where they live while attending college. The League backs a proposal from Portland Democrat Jon Hinck for “instant runoff voting,” a change to the present electoral system that would result in an election’s winner being the person most favored by the largest number of people. Both bills die in committee.

APRIL 4, 2007 The League is honored at the Maine State House, with a proclamation by the governor as well as resolutions by both houses of the Legislature.

INTO THE FUTURE League representatives may be included in discussions of youth issues with state legislators, nightlife policies with Portland city councilors, and other consultative groups. And the League will work to publicize the requirement that landlords disclose apartments’ energy-efficiency data to prospective tenants.

Sidebar: Celebrate with them

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The League is hoping to get enough members and fans together to TAKE A BUS UP TO THE STATE HOUSE on Wednesday, April 4, to represent young people’s political power and energy in the halls of state government. Visit their Web site,, to sign up.

After the trip to Augusta, come back to Portland and stop by City Hall, where the city council will be talking about studying a revised formula-business ban and having an elected mayor, and may make its own PROCLAMATION OF LEAGUE DAY IN THE CITY, if councilor Dave Marshall’s request is approved.

Their REACT FILM NIGHT is held at 6:30 pm every third Thursday of the month at the League offices, on the second floor of 1 Pleasant Street in Portland. (But in April, it's moving to Wednesday, April 18, and will be at SPACE Gallery. The League likes to keep members on their toes.) Their “REAL DEAL” ISSUE-BASED DISCUSSIONS are at 6:30 pm on the second Tuesday of the month at the Reiche School in the West End.

Speaking youth to power: The League of Young Voters heads to the State House

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A hip-hop artist will perform in the halls of the State House on April 4. Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said to explain what lawmakers will experience when the League of Young Voters heads to Augusta to receive the traditionally staid honors with which state government rewards public-interest achievements.

Yes, the League is getting their very own day at the State House — a building League state director Justin Alfond regularly refers to as “our house” — including a proclamation from the governor and laudatory resolutions passed by the House and the Senate. It’s the sort of honor that Alfond and his fellow Leaguers seriously considered before deciding to accept — weighing whether it would be too legit, too mainstream, just too downright stuffy to mean much to a group of civic-minded 20-somethings and 30-somethings who really just want political power for themselves.

The group, formed in early 2004 (just in time to really hit its stride in the ’06 election), is a hybrid political-action group. They mix national political idealism with local activism — taking people who are upset at the direction the country is going and turning their energy to making reforms at the local- and state-government levels. They combine grassroots-style door-to-door campaigning (just like old-time politicians) with software that tracks who reads their e-mail messages and Web postings (just like multinational marketing companies). They get young people out for an evening of hip-hop, spoken-word acts, and art exhibits, and mix in some politics to produce what may be the truest representation of a “political party.” And they cross traditional lines between what activists call “education” (teaching people about the democratic process and informing voters about candidates) and outright advocacy (picking issues behind which to throw their youthful backing).

What the League learns here, and in five other pioneer League states (California, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), will be applied nationally in the coming years, says national organizing and training director Rob “Biko” Baker. The League is working toward a national political takeover, saying on its Web site, “We want a progressive governing majority in our lifetime.”

Data mining
The League’s ability to develop that depends in part on their capacity to motivate people to participate, often using art or music to draw people in.

The Portland League has fit in very well with the city’s hip-hop scene, says SayLove, a hip-hop artist who helps to organize League events. “Hip-hop has always been a social-political movement,” she says, noting its beginnings in efforts to divert inner-city young people from gangs and into more productive, creative activities.

“You really have to find a unique way of grabbing someone’s attention,” says 29-year-old Portland city councilor Dave Marshall. He used his paintings to great effect in his own election bid, setting up a display in Monument Square with both art and campaign information, attracting people with his art, and then engaging them in a political discussion.

But the real muscle behind League efforts is provided by a technology-driven campaign that allows grassroots activity to be measured, quantified, trialed, and refined over time.

As progressive political organizations strive to measure their effectiveness (useful for getting grants from foundations, which are increasingly looking for detailed results of funded projects), they are having to find ways to differentiate themselves from spam e-mails, from the deluge of text messages and cell-phone voicemails, from unsolicited MySpace messages, and from any number of other intrusions attempting to grab young people’s attention. The League is no exception, and indeed is leading the effort in Maine politics.

The systems they use are similar to those commonly applied in corporate public-relations campaigns, which can determine how many people receive an e-mail message, how many actually read it, how many of them follow a link in that message, and how people move around an organization’s Web site.

The measurements aren’t static. With each new e-mail message, each new posting on the Web site, each tweak of a message or page’s design, the results change, letting League organizers constantly fine-tune not only their messages, but also the messages’ presentation, to get maximum attention from as large a group of people as possible.

One recent e-mail, for example, asked in its subject line, if readers were “down with OPP?” — both a reference to League pet project Opportunity Maine (a student-loan-payment tax-credit initiative) and to a 1991 rap song by Naughty By Nature whose refrain asks whether a listener is willing to cheat on his or her lover. The tone and brief content of that message put off Jeff Ferland, a 22-year-old who ran for the Maine House as a Republican last year but ended up withdrawing from the race and endorsing a Green Independent opponent. (Ferland says he may run again, but most likely as a Green.) He says messages like that make it “hard to take them seriously.”

But while it was an honest attempt to convey information to League members, it was really just another trial balloon — if not enough people read it or responded to it, the League will adapt, again.

They are missing a key piece of information, though, one that has an important bearing on the League’s grip on politicians’ attention. Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state for elections, says there is now no convenient way to gather demographic data on new-voter registrations or to determine the demographic makeup of voters (such as their ages) under the state’s long-held system of election record-keeping. A new statewide computerized system that is “80 percent complete” will allow that to happen, because it will capture voter participation in the same database that will include a voter’s birth date. The Portland city clerk’s office doesn’t track voter ages, either. So the League is left with anecdotal data to make a guess at how many more young people have signed up to vote, and how many actually went to the polls.

Even without that data, League efforts are getting broad notice. US representative Tom Allen says the League is “an increasingly important voice for younger voters,” who, he points out, are bearing the brunt of casualties in Iraq, are the least likely to have health insurance, are struggling to pay for higher education, will pay for most of the massive national debt now being incurred, and have “the most to lose” as global warming becomes more severe.

Governor John Baldacci, who was 23 when he first was elected to the Bangor City Council, talks about his own efforts to bring young people into government — including working closely with student interns and encouraging young people to talk about Maine’s future — as a way of saying the League’s efforts are important.

Councilor Marshall, who represents “the youngest district in the city,” the West End, acknowledges the support he had from the League and from young voters generally, in defeating two older candidates.

When League candidates win, “there’s sort of an expectation of reciprocity,” he says. Indeed, Marshall says he will nominate League communications director Brian Hiatt to serve on the city’s formula-business task force. It goes both ways: Marshall says if he ends up needing a petition drive to get a citywide vote on whether to have a directly elected mayor (an idea that has League backing), he would look to the League for manpower to gather signatures. (The League has a couple hundred active volunteers in Maine, according to Baker, the national organizing director.)

Marshall shouldn’t count too definitively on their support, though it’s likely to arrive if needed. Alfond notes that the League’s method of decision-making is largely by committee, whether by an 11-person steering committee (which includes staff and community volunteers) or by a vote of the active members (those who spend eight hours or more with the League over the course of a year). So if enough of them don’t like the idea, Marshall will be on his own.

Ferland, the former Republican, says that committee-style approach results in too little coherence for the group overall. As an example, he cites the League’s opposition to TABOR, rather than “why what issue came up.” Because the complaint was that “people won’t get aid from the state anymore,” the League missed the larger point, Ferland says, that “people are having trouble because the state isn’t functioning.”

But that’s part of the point for the League — making sure that what they’re doing is what actually interests people, even if it doesn’t always fit into a predetermined plan. And what happens next isn’t clear, even for League leaders.

More young people, like Marshall and others at the city level, may continue to get involved: Maine House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, who first won election at age 25 and is now 30, observes that several legislative leaders are younger people — like Jeremy Fischer (D-Presque Isle), who is the House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and fellow Appropriations member Emily Cain (D-Orono), who are both 27. House Minority Leader Josh Tardy (R-Newport) squeaks into the “young” category, too, at 38.

And while Alfond correctly notes the general prevalence of left-leaning votes among people under 30, Maine House Speaker Glenn Cummings (D-Portland) says his research showed that people under 18 are more conservative than their slightly-older peers, except in the area of environmentalism. He says he used that information to convince wary Republican legislators to allow 17-year-olds to vote in Maine primary elections, if they’ll turn 18 before the November general election date.

What will happen in Augusta on April 4? Alfond is planning to have hip-hop and spoken-word artists perform, to display visual art created by young people, and will bring “youth culture” to the halls of power. He smiles when asked how he thinks lawmakers will react, and hedges: “I think it’s going to be quite different.”

Portland Democratic representative Anne Haskell, who made the initial request for League Day at the State House because of the League’s efforts to get involved in politics, laughs, “I bet it’s going to be real interesting.”

Baldacci hopes that his peers — and those lawmakers older than his 52 years — will “realize that they have as much to gain, if not more, from younger people” than vice-versa. (He also notes “there will be a lot more rhythm than there is otherwise” in the State House.)

Pingree thinks the reception will be warm. “Older people in Maine love having young people get involved,” she says. Many of them are still serving in part because no one else has been willing. She sees “a real interest — almost desperation” among older Maine leaders to turn over the reins to younger people.

And those younger people may, 30-odd years from now, be in the same position. Haskell makes an analogy between recreation and politics — some things, when you start them early enough, become “lifetime sports.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Corrections Department obstructs free press

Published in the Portland Phoenix

This week is Sunshine Week, a time when media organizations around the country draw attention to state and federal Freedom of Information laws, to remind citizens and government workers about the importance of government openness and accountability. Maine’s law guaranteeing open government is called the “Freedom of Access” law, a name that is especially poignant in view of the Corrections Department’s restrictive attitude toward the media.

A national press organization — as well as several statewide ones — are joining the criticism of the Maine Department of Corrections, which has over the past several months attempted to block reporters from contacting inmates, in the wake of a series of Portland Phoenix articles (based in large measure on interviews with inmates) exposing mistreatment, poor healthcare, and lack of official accountability in the Maine State Prison — and particularly in its Supermax unit.

The criticism is based primarily on a proposed revision to the prison’s media-interview policy, drafted by associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord and Diane Sleek, the assistant attorney general who represents the department. Ironically, Sleek is paid by the people of Maine to uphold the law — including its provisions that government be open to public scrutiny — while at the same time defending the Corrections Department’s actions, including those that seek to bar scrutiny of the publicly funded agency. (Sleek has objected to my calling her job duties a conflict of interest, but has not responded to my question asking which piece of her job I inaccurately described. The fact that she holds a job in the AG’s office speaks for her responsibility as a public official; her actions on behalf of the Corrections Department clearly demonstrate her opposition to public oversight of the agency.)

Sleek has even defied a judge’s order to move a mentally ill inmate out of the Supermax and into the state’s mental hospital, saying she would keep him in prison until the end of his actual prison sentence — for another ten years — before sending him to get the medical care a judge ordered (see “Arbitrary Imprisonment,” by Lance Tapley, July 21, 2006).

After months of not responding to requests to interview prisoners, in mid-December, the department gave longtime Portland Phoenix contributing writer Lance Tapley a new form he would have to sign before being allowed to talk to inmates. The new rules were so obviously unconstitutional — including allowing prison staff to read a reporter’s notes from an interview — that the Maine Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (of which I am vice-president) began coordinating a letter from objection from other Maine press groups, including the Maine Press Association and the Maine Association of Broadcasters.

A Maine Public Radio story in mid-January about the complaints broke the news that the governor — who has for months refused to comment to the Portland Phoenix about the prison series — had ordered Sleek’s boss, attorney general Steven Rowe, to revise the media policy in accordance with the state’s constitution and laws. That promise forestalled the sending of the protest letter, but not for long.

After weeks of delay, the department issued a draft of a revised policy, adding more restrictions — including attempts to completely ban video and still cameras and audio recording, and trying to control both the content of interviews and how the material gleaned in them might be used. Several restrictions sought to give prison officials the right to control the content, substance, and nature of both questions by reporters as well as answers from inmates.

The new draft has raised even more objections than the previous attempts by corrections officials to limit reporting on their agency and on their official acts. It has already been protested by the Maine Civil Liberties Union. (The Phoenix wrote a letter as well, arguing that the entire policy was still so blatantly unconstitutional that it should be scrapped and rewritten from scratch.)

More letters are in the works, from SPJ, MPA, and MAB, and the national office of SPJ.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Sidebar: This one won't fail

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When he’s describing Ocean Properties’ plans for a public market at the end of a 1000-foot pier off Commercial Street, Bob Baldacci, the governor’s oldest sibling, sounds a heck of a lot like someone promoting the old Portland Public Market, which closed in 2006 after years of charging tenants elevated rent for low-traffic space.

He talks about an emphasis on local sources of food, how attractive it will be to residents and visitors, how much support for local merchants there is in Portland, how handy the nearby parking will make it as a stop for people shopping downtown. All of which were true at the previous market, but the attractiveness never outweighed the hassle — it was a block off Congress Street, the free parking was always empty, and nobody ever stopped down there just for fun.

But Baldacci's picture changes right at the end: fishermen will be able to unload the day’s catch right at the market, supplying both the restaurant and the merchants. Those merchants will be wholesalers as well as retailers, meaning their sales volume could be far higher than the Public Market’s pedestrian-dependent vendors. (The slow demise of the Portland Fish Exchange could even cause some businesses to move to the new space.)

It might be just the ticket. Or it might be just like its predecessor, doomed to fail from the beginning.

Park it: Both proposals for the Maine State Pier are missing something big

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you believe the Portlanders who worked on the Olympia Companies proposal for redeveloping the Maine State Pier, the competition between their outfit and Ocean Properties, led by former US senator George Mitchell and Bob Baldacci, is simple: big money versus local ideas. Which isn’t entirely true.

Both firms have local ties, and connections elsewhere, and are backed by incredibly wealthy men. The Two Big Names (respectively, the cousin and brother of the governor) have teamed up through Ocean Properties, a New Hampshire-based firm (owned by a billionaire Mainer whose company is paying a lower business-tax rate than if it were based in Maine), backed by firms from Portsmouth, Portland, and Yarmouth. The Portland-based Olympia Companies (led by a multi-millionaire Mainer) have assembled a collective of nine firms from Portland and two from Massachusetts to do the planning work.

If you believe the local daily paper, the two proposals are largely the same and equally good. That’s not entirely true, either.

The ideas submitted in response to the city’s request for plans to repair and refit the Maine State Pier into something that enhances the city’s waterfront both economically and aesthetically have similar budgets ($90 million for Ocean and $91 million for Olympia) and similar ideas for how much area should be dedicated to retail, hotel, open space, cruise-ship terminal operations, ferry loading, and other uses.

But even on paper, the plans are radically different. And each of them has a major flaw that may prevent either from ever actually turning the decrepit and collapsing Maine State Pier into something other than an ugly remnant of Portland’s working waterfront.

Olympia’s plan shows full-color vistas, including a projected view from the intersection of Commercial Street and the Franklin Arterial that has a wide grassy swath leading down to the water between curved building facades and a clean, convenient ramp for cars to get on the Casco Bay Lines ferries. (Imagine! the picture seems to say aloud, if you could see the water from Commercial Street without looking through dingy alleys or vast parking lots!) This is a view to kill for.

Ocean Properties opens its plan with a three-color sketch of a big-box-store-like “public market” (see the sidebar for why the gov’s bro says this one won’t fail) with an 80-car parking lot right in front of it. Real nice. Just what we need — another parking lot smack on the waterfront. To make matters worse, Olympia’s view from Commercial and Franklin all the way down to the water is, in Ocean’s plan, a 350-space parking garage (that brick facing will look great).

For one project, the parking makes everything ugly; for the other, there’s no such worry. It makes choosing easy for the public, and for councilors, right? Not so fast.

Parking is precisely the difference between the two projects: Ocean Properties’ plan includes that giant garage and the street-level parking lot, for a total of 430 parking spaces, of the 608 the project would use at peak capacity under city guidelines. (The city allows developers to build fewer spaces than their projects would appear to require.) This will no doubt be the subject of major community objection, because parking is ugly.

Olympia’s proposal doesn’t raise that kind of concern. It’s a beautiful plan, but partly because it has no parking at all. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Olympia’s plan does include an unspecified but very small number of “short-term on street parking” spaces for people to drop off or pick up ferry passengers, or pop into some of the businesses in the new development. But the company admits its project would use 440 parking spaces at peak demand under current city guidelines, which would require the company to build as many as 220 new ones as part of the project.

The company has, however, set aside $13 million to spend finding parking, possibly, its proposal says, “with long term leases in either the Casco Bay Lines Garage or the Ocean Gateway Garage.”

That’s a nice idea. Except that the Casco Bay Parking Garage (which is not owned by Casco Bay Lines) has a seven-year-long waiting list to get even one reserved parking space. And the 700-plus-space Ocean Gateway Garage is not yet built, but is sized to accommodate the tenants and visitors in the Ocean Gateway project, so relying on that garage to lease out a large portion of its spaces may be a bit wishful.

The only remaining option will be — you guessed it — building a parking garage. Thirteen million is plenty for a big one: at the going rate of between $15,000 and $20,000 per space to build a parking garage, it could be between 650 and 870 spaces — significantly larger than the city-owned Spring Street garage next to the Cumberland County Civic Center, which has just over 500 spaces.

So Portlanders — and specifically the city councilors — are left to decide between an ugly-but-practical project backed by big names that will not significantly improve Portland’s waterfront aesthetics, or a beautiful project that will require a big shiny new parking garage somewhere nearby. Where, exactly, would it go? That’s a choice we can all look forward to.