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In November of last year, Maine peace activists began contacting state Rep. Jennifer DeChant (D-Bath) and Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Arrowsic) to voice their opposition to a proposed $60-million tax deal being considered on behalf of General Dynamics subsidiary Bath Iron Works.
“As your constituent, I urge you to reject any tax breaks for General Dynamics,” Mary Beth Sullivan, of Bath, wrote in a Nov. 30 email to Vitelli, cosponsor of the tax bill made available online for the first time last week. “General Dynamics spent $9.4-billion buying back its own stocks between 2013-2016…General Dynamics, like most weapons corporations, gets the vast majority of its operating funds from the federal treasury. The taxpayers are paying the freight from the start.
“Before General Dynamics gets any more state taxpayer dollars it should be required to begin a transition process to build commuter rail systems, tidal power and offshore wind turbines to help us deal with our real problem – global warming.”
The message was among several emails disclosed by Vitelli in response to a Maine Freedom of Access Act request filed by a reporter last month with the intent of gaining greater insight into the development of the Bath Iron Works tax bill. A similar notice was sent to DeChant, who acknowledged its receipt but has yet to provide the requested documents.
After hearing from Sullivan, Vitelli forwarded her constituent’s email to DeChant, accompanied by the message: “Jennifer, Are you getting these?”
“Yep,” DeChant emailed back. “I am responding ‘Thank you for your feedback.'”
Vitelli replied, “Good idea. Do you know what spurred this action?”
“Likely they saw the bill title,” DeChant wrote. “They are trigger happy over corporate greed. Interestingly I share those concerns too. They are among the people demonstrating against war machines of BIW/GD. that is where we differ. Better to have discussion early to keep communication clean as possible.”
In response to an email seeking comment on this story, DeChant erroneously denied making the comment.
“I did not say that,” DeChant wrote, “Perhaps you should ask Senator Vitelli. That is not my phrase.”
When pressed and provided a screen grab of the correspondence provided by Senate Democratic Office Chief of Staff Darek Grant, DeChant replied, “Oh. I apologize. I did not understand your question. I meant that people were responding to the bill had not even been released yet.”
In a separate follow up email, she said, “I apologize if that phrase was a poor choice of description. I continue to work with opponents. I understand that this is a passionate issue for people.”
When reached by email, two peace activists said they found DeChant’s use of the term “trigger happy” striking. Both characterized DeChant as a representative who willfully prioritizes the demands of a wealthy corporation over the concerns of Maine taxpayers.
Activist and educator Lisa Savage, who has contacted DeChant via email and has since been blocked from following the representative on Twitter, suggested the pejorative label was ironic.
“My online dictionary defines this phrase as ‘ready to react violently, especially by shooting, on the slightest provocation,'” Savage said. “Since protesters at BIW have for decades maintained a strictly nonviolent approach in opposition to building weapons of mass destruction, the phrase is particularly inapt.”
She added, “Rep. DeChant is a confused neoliberal who can’t quite understand if she’s against corporate greed (as she claims)” or not.
Bruce Gagnon, an activist with Veterans For Peace, appeared taken aback by DeChant’s characterization.
“‘Trigger happy’ for doing what I learned in high school civics class — participating in our nation’s public affairs — democracy,” Gagnon said. “[T]he idea is to create public discussion and let your representatives know how you feel about relevant issues.”
Since stating publicly her intent to extend a $60-million tax giveaway, originally enacted in 1997, DeChant has had an increasingly strained relationship with opponents of the bill.
Tensions escalated in late December when DeChant prohibited video recording of a meeting at Bath City Hall with constituents opposing the deal. The incident was made public in a Dec. 28 article in the Times Record of Brunswick. DeChant has apologized for blocking a videographer, calling her reaction a “mistake.”
Fallout from the meeting is well documented in the emails turned over by Vitelli.
“My response is that it was a mistake,” DeChant said in an email response to Savage she cc’d Vitelli on. “It was a misunderstanding. Human error. I thought it was meeting for 4 people who i did not know invited the camera…Not sure what else I can do but apologize and make sure the situation doesn’t happen again.”
The email disclosures show DeChant and Vitelli both use private Gmail accounts to conduct official business. One email sent from Vitelli’s official legislative account contains language notifying recipients that her messages “may become a matter of public record as indicated in the Maine Freedom of Access Act.”
Vitelli also provided one email exchange from an @main.edu address dated prior to her winning back her District 23 seat in November 2016. Based on her correspondence, Vitelli’s email contact with officials at Bath Iron Works appears limited but congenial.
“Thank you again for your time and for providing [Sen.] Brownie [Carson (D-Harpswell)] and me with such a thorough background on BIW,” Vitelli wrote in a July 2016 email to Bath Iron Works General Counsel Jon Fitzgerald sent from her @maine.edu account.
She continued, “The shipyard has been a presence in my life for the 40 years I have lived in Arrowsic and as indicated I was lucky to have a tour as part of Leadership Maine back a few years. Our conversation with you has given me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of BIW as a business, an employer and an economic driver of our local and state economy. I look forward to future conversations about several of the issues we touched on.”
Carson followed up with Fitzgerald later that day: “Have a great summer, and see you later in the fall. Of course, we need to have success in this election cycle first–so lots of work between now and then.
“Best regards, Brownie.”
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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