An “explosion of grassroots energy” has taken hold in Maine since President Donald Trump took office. Now women lead the fight against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
When Marie Follayttar Smith stepped up to a makeshift podium in Lobsterman Park in the center of Portland, Maine one Sunday this month, it was far from her first time preparing to share some of the most intimate details of her life with dozens of fellow Mainers, including several strangers.
“I need health care. I need medication to keep my sight,” Marie told the crowd. “We are a country with tremendous resources and our leaders appropriate them based upon American values and American priorities.”
By now, the details of Follayttar Smith’s health struggles have made the national news multiple times since the dawn of the Trump era, when the novice organizer joined with like-minded Maine residents to form Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a grassroots organization dedicated to defeating President Donald Trump’s anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-health care agenda.
In the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, Follayttar Smith has spoken about the neurological condition which, unmedicated, puts her at risk for a coma.
The rally was attended by others who shared their stories of living with what insurance companies call “pre-existing conditions,” which before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) left 130 million Americans at risk of disqualification for health coverage. It was one of dozens of similar actions Follayttar Smith has organized since July to rail against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Follayttar Smith and others cite Kavanaugh’s clear opposition to abortion rights and the ACA as signs of his extremism. Just last year, Kavanaugh praised former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist for his dissent in the Roe vs. Wade case, which affirmed that American women have the right to obtain abortion care in 1973. He also ruled last year that the government was under no obligation to help a 17-year-old immigrant obtain the legal procedure. And the judge has stated that the president, who has already challenged the ACA’s mandate that insurance companies cover people with pre-existing conditions, should not have to enforce parts of the law with which he doesn’t agree.
Maine has been launched to the center of the Kavanaugh debate, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)—who has long identified as pro-choice and committed to defending Americans with pre-existing conditions—considered one of the few Republicans who could vote against the judge’s confirmation.
“A lot is on the shoulders of Mainers,” Follayttar Smith says a week after the protest, assembling herself at a coffee shop near Collins’s Portland office with a stack of 250 handwritten letters. She plans to take the notes, filled with personal stories of Mainers’ own health care struggles and life-saving abortions, to the senator’s staff.
In a recent interview, Collins said she hasn’t heard much outcry from constituents over the Kavanaugh nomination—a claim that outrages Follayttar Smith.
“The nomination was announced on July 9,” she says immediately when Collins’s comment comes up. “We had 150 people in Lobsterman Park the next day. We’ve had weekly drop-ins … We partnered with about 15 to 18 groups that represented 400,000 Mainers at the Save SCOTUS rally in Augusta. We’ve brought in handwritten notes. We’ve met face to face with her.”
As the national movement known as the Women’s March began with the suggestion of one woman who hadn’t previously had a national platform, the fight against Kavanaugh in Maine is being led by women like Follayttar Smith, hoping to reach a woman who could decide the fate of millions of Americans for at least a generation.
“When I go through all the organizers I know around the state—in Lewiston, it’s a woman organizing everyone,” says Follayttar Smith. “Augusta—yeah, a woman. Bangor—yeah, a woman. The emotional labor of the moment is being done by women.”
The efforts of Maine women and the state’s central role in this crucial political moment have not gone unnoticed on the national stage, with Planned Parenthood stopping in Portland on its national Rise Up for Roe mobilization tour.
“I’ve been an organizer my whole life, I have never seen [this kind of] an explosion of grassroots energy across this country fighting back in every possible way,” former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards told the Mainers who assembled in an event space in mid-August. “The number one thing for Susan Collins is hearing from her constituents … because this judge does not represent where the people of America are and certainly not where the people of Maine are.”
While anti-Kavanaugh events have been well-attended in the state in recent weeks, some attendees have expressed frustration that such mobilization is necessary to appeal to a senator who claims to be pro-choice.
“We really mobilized around the [Supreme Justice Neil] Gorsuch nomination and we were very disappointed with the way that she voted,” said April Humphrey, an organizer who works alongside Follayttar Smith, referring to Collins’ decision to vote in favor of Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation. “That was when I realized, even though she says that she’s pro-choice she routinely votes to confirm anti-choice judges.”
Despite the fatigue that can creep in, Follayttar Smith sees it as her responsibility to support Mainers who look to her group for guidance in a political climate in which every week seems to bring fresh outrage over Trump’s policies and proposals—especially when appealing to Collins means sharing personal stories of medical diagnoses and coverage that have saved the lives of many of the Mainers who are now on a first-name basis with the senator’s staff.
“Organizing is mothering,” she says. “It’s not just about getting people to tell Collins to do what they want her to do. It’s about making sure they’re supported while they’re saying it … A lot of the people I speak with are women who are unmasking themselves to share their stories.”
With that she gathers the handwritten notes into her bag, bound for Collins’s office in the hopes that this will be the visit that makes a difference to the senator.