Maine state Senator Chloe Maxmin (D-District 13) delivered the keynote address to the Radically Rural summit in Keene, New Hampshire, September 21. The following excerpt from Maxmin’s address discusses the loss of kindness in local politics, which she says is fomented purposefully by national polarization. The speech covers Maxmin’s experience running successfully for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2018 and a seat in the state Senate in 2020. Maxmin and Canyon Woodward are authors of Dirt Road Revival (which Skylar Baker-Jordan reviewed for the Daily Yonder). Olivia Weeks also interviewed Maxmin for the Yonder’s Path Finders newsletter (subscribe here).
Between 2018 and 2020, I felt like there was this precipitous drop in kindness and civility. I could feel it when I went to talk to people. And it was so tough to see it happen because one of the reasons I moved home [after college] is because I loved the kindness that I was raised with, these really beautiful values and the acceptance that I felt growing up in Nobleboro [Maine]. We were trying to build a politics that unites, but the voter doesn’t see that. They just see another horrible politician knocking on their door while they’re feeding their kids, and they want you to go away.
But here we are being really earnest, being like, “No, we really are different. We really want to do something different.” And I found that as those dynamics devolved into more anger and more divisiveness, those dynamics got really difficult for me to deal with. I used to think to myself, I just have to disarm with kindness. … The only thing that could create a calmer situation – where you could potentially have a conversation – was kindness. Sometimes this worked really well for me.
One time I was talking to a Republican and he asked, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”
I said, “I’m a Democrat.”
He said, “No way. Get out of here.”
I asked, “Can you please just talk to me?”
This was late 2020, and I was just desperate for some kind of conversation that was kind. We ended up having such a wonderful and authentic conversation and he said, “I just might vote for you.”
On voting day, he sent me a picture of his ballot, where I was the only Democrat that he voted for.
Another story that was really formative for me was in 2018. I was canvassing in the town of Jefferson, which is one of the most conservative towns in my district. I went to this guy’s house. He was in his garage working on his snowmobiles. He came kind of storming out and I said, “Hi, I’m Chloe, I’m running for state rep.”
And he said, “I just have one question. Do you believe in Medicaid expansion?”
I said, “Yes I do,” because I’m honest to a fault.
And I remember it so clearly. He said, “You can leave now,” pointing out towards the road.
At first, because I’m also too kind to a fault. I thought, “Oh nice, he agrees with me, what an easy conversation.” But I read his body language over the ensuing few seconds, and I realized his body language was saying, “Get off my property, please.”
I was so taken aback at how that kind of anger came out of nowhere in literally 30 seconds. I said, “Hold on a second, can you just tell me what you’re thinking? I just would love to know, even if you don’t vote for me, I’d love to know why you don’t support Medicaid expansion.”
And he told me this story about how he grew up in the same house that he was living in without any electricity, without running water. And he had worked so hard to build a good home for him and his family. And part of that ethic for him was paying for his own healthcare. He just didn’t believe in government healthcare. And so while I do believe in government healthcare, I had so much respect for his story and where he was coming from.
We ended up having this amazing conversation, and he did vote for me. And I went back in 2020 and I was so nervous that I had lost his vote, but he said he would vote for me again. And it worked.
Those are just a couple examples where if you can just take the time to listen with kindness, you can really get somewhere that otherwise there would be no conversation starter.
But even still, I felt like these are outlier memories for me. The majority of my experience I felt that things are getting so bad. We cannot even have conversations about the most important fundamental issues in our communities. One time I drove up to a door and the guy was sitting in his car and he rolled down his window and he was like, “Are you a Republican or a demonic?” I was like, OK, I think this conversation’s done now.
There was another time when I drove up to a door, someone was in a second story window. They opened the window and they said, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” And I said, “I’m a Democrat.” And they shut the window instantaneously. And I’ve learned that house walls are very thin. I could hear the husband ask her “Who was that?” And she was like, “It’s a Democrat.” Oh gosh, she just sneered it.
There was another time, this was one of my least favorite memories. I knocked on a door. The person opened the door, saw me, and then shut it immediately in my face. I think I yelled at her through the window, “That’s so rude. You don’t even know me.”
And I heard her say to her husband, “It’s Chloe Maxmin.”
… I would get so frustrated with [unkindness] that I would start to kind of shame people and say, “This is really not how we should treat each other in our community. You don’t even know me, aren’t you even going to have a conversation?” I just couldn’t stop myself.
One person even posted on Facebook that I started yelling at him in his driveway that he wasn’t being nice enough. So the word got around.
But the point is that the forces of divisiveness have trickled down into these beautiful communities. And I think these forces are intentional and they’re manufactured. They’re built to divide us. And I think it’s really the scariest place that we can be as a society and as a democracy where we are so divided that we cannot even have conversations. Because the challenges that we’re all going to talk about at this conference [Radially Rural], they require political solutions. And that requires the people we elect and the people in our communities to be able to just talk with one another in a kind and compassionate way.
I think it can look pretty cool and pretty inspiring. We can bridge those divides. …
I think I hold onto my values as someone who prioritizes social justice and racial justice and climate justice in my work. And I really feel like the best way that I can do that is by making sure that these divides don’t get bigger and bigger. When we can agree to disagree, when a conversation is more important than a vote, how far can we go?
I think ground zero for this work is rural America. Not only because we’re ground zero, we are ground zero for so much kindness and compassion and community.
But also because we have a lot of political power these days. Our voices as rural people are really influencing what’s happening at the state level and at the federal level. We can choose, will the next generation of politics be divisive and nasty? Will they continue to tear us apart? Or will it be kinder, maybe a little bit more peaceful and maybe a little bit more hopeful? I think it’s truly up to us. I know that there is space for this kindness to prevail. And I also know that it’s not easy. It is much easier said than done, but I think it is the most radical way forward.
Chloe Maxmin represents District 13 in the Maine Senate. She is from Nobleboro, a town of about 1,800 in Lincoln County.