Battling Islamophobia claims, Maine Republican turns on Dems and the press

Photo: Sarah Rice for The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the span of less than a work week, the announcement of a bill to stop female genital mutilation (FGM) in Maine has devolved into a bitter battle over Islamophobia between the bill’s sponsor and a respected civil rights organization. The sponsor, Republican state Rep. Heather Sirocki, claims that Democrats are blocking her legislation and orchestrating a PR campaign against her. Sirocki also accused 50 States of Blue of preparing an “attack piece” and propagating “fake news” after receiving a straightforward request for comment.

Maine lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as the governor, are trying to join the federal government and nearly half of U.S. states in banning FGM — a cruel, misogynistic ritual forced upon young girls and women which involves cutting or removing the clitoris and other external female genitalia, and which can cause death or permanent injury and trauma for the unwilling participants.

It might seem surprising that efforts to end such an obviously inhumane practice would be controversial or partisan — yet somehow, Maine has found a way to make partisan controversy out of it.

'Am I hate motivated? I repeat- I hate child abuse, and I want to protect these vulnerable little girls. If that falls into your definition or SPLC’s definition, or the Maine democrat’s definition of a hate group, I will wear that mantle, and I will not back down from my position.'Rep. Heather Sirocki, in an email to 50 States of Blue

According to the World Health Organization, FGM is mostly practiced in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut. But the practice also occurs in the United States, often in communities of immigrants from those 30 countries (although not exclusively; for instance, FGM was also a common medical “treatment” for many female sexual and psychological conditions in the 19th century and even well into the 20th).

Many civil rights advocates argue that any efforts to criminalize FGM are not only redundant, but also racist — that both federal and state authorities already have the tools they need to prosecute FGM, and that passing further targeted measures is nothing more than an attempt to demonize immigrants of color.

Maine Democrats and Republicans have introduced two competing bills to ban FGM in the state. But while Rep. Sirocki’s Republican bill is harsher and also punishes parents who have their daughters cut, the controversy isn’t so much about the bills’ differing content. It’s about who supports them — namely, an anti-Muslim hate group that backs the GOP bill — and about whether, as Sirocki argues, partisanship is getting in the way of attempts to stop child abuse.

The hate group controversy

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a report on February 5 alleging that in promoting her anti-FGM bill, Sirocki sought the support of ACT for America — which the SPLC has identified as “the largest anti-Muslim hate group in the United States.”

According to the SPLC, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that tracks hate groups nationwide, ACT “works with elected officials to pass anti-Muslim legislation at the federal and state level. The organization is most known for promoting unnecessary and sometimes unconstitutional ‘anti-Sharia’ legislation across the country.”

The SPLC reported that it had obtained emails showing Sirocki was in contact with both the Norway, Maine chapter of ACT and the group’s national headquarters, requesting their support with a February 6 press conference announcing the bill. That press conference was attended by Gov. Paul LePage and other state GOP luminaries, including Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason.

SPLC also reported that Jared Bristol, the head of the Norway ACT chapter with whom Sirocki corresponded, signs his emails with this quote attributed to himself: “Islamophobia is not a phobia because fear of Islam is rational. Islam is evil.”

Sirocki defended herself against the SPLC report to local media by claiming that she didn’t know much about the group and was merely responding to emails asking about the bill.

Jared Bristol, the head of the Norway ACT chapter with whom Sirocki corresponded, reportedly signs his emails with this quote attributed to himself: 'Islamophobia is not a phobia because fear of Islam is rational. Islam is evil.'

Sirocki made similar claims to 50 States, but referred to a call from ACT rather than an email. “A spokesperson for ACT America became aware of my bill and called me to offer support a few weeks ago, as did many other people,” she said in an email. “I made them all aware of the presser and encouraged attendance.”

On February 8, the SPLC published a follow-up piece chastising Sirocki for attempting to downplay her interaction with the group given that she had actively and specifically sought ACT’s attendance at the press conference, a claim Sirocki denied.

The same day, Sirocki gave an interview to a Bangor radio station explaining the background and details of her bill. In that interview, Sirocki accused Democrats in the state legislature, including Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, of working to block her legislation or pulling support to help their party.

Also on February 8, Sirocki kicked off a two-day email exchange with 50 States of Blue by accusing us and our unspecified “cohorts” of “sensationalizing a small issue with the intent of impugning my character.”

How the two anti-FGM bills differ

Sirocki, a former dental hygienist and resident of Scarborough, says she hates child abuse.

That’s why she says she first introduced a bill in March 2017, LD745, to criminalize FGM, and why she has doggedly pursued a second version of the legislation after her original attempt went down by a single vote along party lines.

The Maine chapter of the ACLU said last year that it supported an amended version of anti-FGM legislation that included outreach and education. The civil rights organization had opposed the original version of the bill presented by Sirocki because it saw the legislation as an attempt to demonize a specific group, and “redundant” due to existing laws that already carry severe penalties for committing FGM.

“This bill is nothing more than an attempt to single out behavior that is commonly attributed to certain religious and ethnic communities as different from other forms of abuse,” the ACLU said in June.

The differences lie in whether there should be penalties for parents, and whether the bill should include an associated community outreach program.

On February 5, Sirocki submitted an updated version of the bill into the legislative record, with Mason as its Senate co-sponsor. This new proposed legislation is referred to as the “Governor’s Bill,” having been presented with LePage’s cooperation and backing.

Both Sirocki’s bill, LD1819, and the competing Democratic bill, LD1822, make it a class A crime, punishable by up to 30 years of incarceration and a fine of $50,000, to perform FGM on a woman under 18 for nonmedical purposes. But the differences lie in whether there should be penalties for parents, and whether the bill should include an associated community outreach program.

The Republican bill adds an extra Class B crime, punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a $20,000 fine, “if the person who performs the female genital mutilation is a parent, guardian or someone who has immediate custody of the female individual.” The bill further criminalizes transporting a girl out of the state to undergo FGM, and prescribes medical license revocation for any Maine doctor who performs FGM.

The Democratic bill, according to the legislature’s summary, “authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services to institute a community outreach program regarding female genital mutilation for specific communities in which female genital mutilation of minors might be practiced that provides support services, training and educational materials.” The bill was presented on February 6 by Rep. Barbara Cardone of Bangor with the co-sponsorship of Sen. Dawn Hill and Reps. Charlotte Warren, Catherine Nadeau, Donna Bailey, and Rachel Talbot Ross, who are all Democrats.

Maine Democrats believe existing federal and state statutes already provide options for prosecution of FGM. The Republican bill, by contrast, outlines more specific state criminal criteria and penalties.

Sirocki made this point during a February 8 interview with the George Hale/Ric Tyler Show on WVOM, a Maine radio outlet that also broadcasts conservative syndicated programs, including those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

“The prosecutors have said very clearly they think they need a law, a very specific law, in order to make sure that they can prosecute this,” Sirocki said on the show. She added that while FGM is “very illegal” on the federal level, 26 other states have made it illegal because there also needs to be a state statute to pursue a case against practitioners.

“You need to codify both in order to prosecute,” Sirocki said. She further claimed that the Democratic bill’s provision for an education and outreach program is unnecessary, because there are already approximately $250,000 in annual federal grants available since 2016 for community outreach in Maine.

'I am unaware of any incidents of (FGM) occurring in Maine and ... if there were any, I would be the first to prosecute such outrageous acts under the provisions of Maine’s Criminal Code.'Maine Attorney General Janet Mills

“The immigrant community is aware that it is illegal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent reaching out into the community,” Sirocki said. “The education outreach program exists right now, today, without an additional one through the Department of Health and Human Services in Maine. We can do another outreach program if you’d like. The problem is we don’t have state laws prohibiting this horrific crime.”

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who is running for governor, said she does not see the need for a new statute, because FGM is already covered by existing state laws against assault of a child and aggravated assault.

“If the Legislature believes there should be a specific crime to address this particular act, they certainly may enact such a measure,” Mills told the Portland Press Herald. “But I think it would be accurate to say that I am unaware of any incidents of this practice occurring in Maine and that if there were any, I would be the first to prosecute such outrageous acts under the provisions of Maine’s Criminal Code.”

LePage contends otherwise, citing treatments for FGM complications under MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, that totaled $385,000 in 2017 and $338,000 in 2016. “People ask, ‘Is this happening in Maine?’” LePage said during the February 6 press conference for the GOP bill. “The answer is simply, ‘Yes.’ Doctors and nurses in Maine have seen the brutal results either on the examining table or in the emergency room after it has gone horribly wrong.”

Democrats Cardone and Warren side with the attorney general, reiterating that there have not been documented cases of FGM in Maine — and that most of the hospital bills LePage mentioned were for treating women who underwent childhood FGM in other countries.

Sirocki denies anti-Muslim sentiment, but questions remain about her ties to anti-Muslim group

Both Sirocki and Mason have said that FGM is a cultural issue and not one specifically tied to Islam or practiced by Muslims.

During the Republican bill’s public rollout on February 6, Mason said, “I would like to make it clear that this is very much a cultural issue and not a religious one and is very much a practice that cannot be tolerated on Maine soil.”

Sirocki has also stressed in her public comments that the bill is intended to protect children from a violent practice, not to demonize Muslims. On the George Hale/Ric Tyler Show, Sirocki said that FGM is “a cultural practice and not a religious practice.” In Sirocki’s February 8 email to 50 States, she included comments made on her Facebook page and at her press conference stressing that view.

Again, Sirocki told 50 States that ACT for America reached out to her first, and insisted that she does not know much about the group.

Yet the SPLC noted that this isn’t the first time Sirocki’s goals have aligned with those of ACT.

“In 2011, [Sirocki] co-sponsored LD 1076, a model anti-Sharia law bill,” the SPLC wrote. “ACT is one of the main groups pushing unnecessary anti-Sharia measures including Maine.”

The SPLC also posted a copy of public testimony sent to her and other lawmakers that suggests Sirocki was aware of ACT as early as May 2017.

The Southern Poverty Law Center noted that this isn't the first time Sirocki's goals have aligned with those of ACT.

In a document dated May 5, 2017, Jared Bristol provided written testimony in support of Sirocki’s first FGM bill. Bristol addressed his letter to the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, and to individual legislators including Sirocki.

Bristol (the man who, according to the SPLC, has an email signature reading “Islam is evil”), introduced himself in his letter as “the chapter leader of the Norway, Maine chapter of ACT! for America.”

“It was ACT here in Maine that brought this bill before you,” Bristol wrote. “FGM has been federal law since 1996 and State law in 24 other States. We are very hopeful that Maine will be among those who set the right example in this matter. So goes Maine…”

Bristol’s letter also included a link to an article about FGM on Jihad Watch, a website that claims to be “dedicated to bringing public attention to the role that jihad theology and ideology play in the modern world.” Jihad Watch has been labeled an “Internet hate site” by the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the site’s director Robert Spencer has been classified as an “anti-Muslim propagandist” by the SPLC.

“ACT for America is listed as an anti-Muslim hate group because it pushes wild anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, denigrates American Muslims and deliberately conflates mainstream and radical Islam,” the SPLC states on its website. “While ACT claims to disavow racism, ACT members and chapters routinely espouse racist views.”

‘Am I hate-motivated? I hate child abuse.’

Sirocki told 50 States on February 9 that the SPLC should not have the final word on the matter:

I hate child abuse. Do those who join me in hating child abuse belong to a “hate group”?

So what makes the “Southern Poverty Law Center” the arbiter of what constitutes a hate group?

The SPLC defines a “hate group” as one with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

SPLC’s President Richard Cohen testified in December 2017 that its assessment of hate is based on opinion, not objective criteria.

Cohen did not, in fact, testify that the SPLC uses no “objective criteria” when it classifies hate groups. When Rep. Scott Perry accused Cohen and the SPLC of basing their classifications on “only your opinion,” Cohen responded: “Well, it is our opinion. It’s an opinion that I think has a tremendous amount of credibility.” Cohen then said Perry was “incorrect” to argue that SPLC has “no empirical evidence or data to back it up.”

Sirocki continued:

I don’t know much about ACT for America, but they reached out to me because they wanted to help support a bill that prohibits a horrific form of child abuse. They indicated that they want to help protect all little girls, regardless of race or skin color.

Yet Sirocki herself does identify immigrant culture as a culprit in FGM. She wrote in her February 9 email to 50 States:

In the meantime, little girls have their genitals hacked from their bodies with reused razors and without anesthesia, and we brush it aside because hey- “Immigrant parents do not practice female circumcision with the intent to harm their child, or because they are mentally ill. They are doing it out of concern for the future of their daughters.” yeah. right.

Sirocki included a link to an article titled “The racist roots of the French FGM crusade,” posted by Shifting Sands, a British website opposing FGM. She ended the message by stating:

Am I hate motivated? I repeat- I hate child abuse, and I want to protect these vulnerable little girls. If that falls into your definition or SPLC’s definition, or the Maine democrat’s definition of a hate group, I will wear that mantle, and I will not back down from my position.

Sirocki accuses Maine Democrats of playing politics

Sirocki said in her radio interview that the bill she presented last year had support from the leadership of both Maine House Republicans and Democrats, but that then “the ACLU came in and for some reason really stonewalled this bill,” causing its failure by a single vote.

Sirocki added that “the bill started off not being partisan,” but Maine Democrats dropped their support because the bill was sponsored by a Republican. She recounted comments she said an unnamed Democrat made to her: “Well Heather, you know how it is: you might have a really great bill but you just don’t like the sponsor.”

“So apparently they liked me well enough to co-sponsor the bill, and then they didn’t like me because I’m a Republican? I guess that’s what this has turned into,” Sirocki said. “And then it became a very personal attack on me as the sponsor, redirecting the anger against me personally rather than looking at the merits of the bill.”

'The Maine Democrat Party seems to have taken this on as a personal animus against me'Rep. Heather Sirocki

“Everybody agrees this is a horrific form of child abuse and yet here in Maine, the Maine Democrat Party seems to have taken this on as a personal animus against me,” Sirocki added, noting that Democratic Rep. Catherine Nadeau contacted her about a separate bill Nadeau had proposed on FGM. “We came to agreement, but when [Speaker Sara Gideon] saw what we had drafted, she became very angry, pulled the bill back, and sat on it.”

Asked why Gideon would block the bill, Sirocki responded, “She didn’t like the content. She didn’t like that we were looking to criminalize the parents as well as the cutting. And that is the crux of the problem.”

Sirocki was then asked if partisanship in Maine’s capital of Augusta has become so charged that a bill cannot be passed even when it has co-sponsors and supporters on both sides.

“Partisan politics is very highly charged in Augusta and it needs to stop,” Sirocki said. “We need to be debating bills on the merits of the bill, not who can put a feather in their cap and not who can claim victory and claim sponsorship over a bill. The current sponsor of the Democrat bill told me, point blank, last year she switched her allegiance on my bill, her support on my bill, because, ‘Hey, you’re termed out now, aren’t you?’ And I said yes. And she said, ‘I plan on putting this bill back in.’ And sure enough, here she is.”

Sirocki was asked if that was because the Democrat wanted to make sure the bill got through, or because she didn’t want Sirocki, as a Republican, to get credit for a solid piece of legislation.

“My view was that she wanted credit and the Democrat Party wants credit, quote unquote,” Sirocki said. “And they also have egg on their face because we have roll calls to show that so many Democrats voted against this and they know they need to fix this. But they’re passing a bill that goes halfway.”

Sirocki reiterated her claims about Democratic roadblocks in her February 9 email to 50 States:

Why are strong bills unanimously supported in other states and in the US Congress, but it has become a partisan issue in Maine? Why did 100% of the democrat leadership all co-sponsor my bill last year and then the House Democrats abruptly pull an about face?

Gideon and Nadeau did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Maine Democratic Party Chair Phil Bartlett told 50 States of Blue that Sirocki’s comments were “misguided,” and said that “Maine Democrats look forward to working with their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see FGM totally abolished.”

“Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike share an unwavering desire to see FGM banned under state law,” Bartlett said. “We do, however, have honest disagreements over the most effective approach to ensuring that the bill not only bans – but leads to the complete eradication of – such an abhorrent practice in our state. Unfortunately, the only person who seems to be concerned with politics or with getting credit is Representative Sirocki.”

Sirocki to 50 States: ‘I am not sure why I am bothering to respond to you’

Sirocki did not limit herself to criticizing the Democratic Party, other state legislators, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On February 8, I emailed Sirocki asking her to give 50 States of Blue a brief explanation of her bill in her own words, as well as a response to the SPLC’s allegations about her connections to ACT for America.

This was the opening of Sirocki’s first reply:

I am not sure why I am bothering to respond to you, since you and your cohorts seem hell-bent on sensationalizing a small issue with the intent of impugning my character and questioning my motives in order to divert attention from the real issue at hand- preventing child abuse of a most horrific form and sending a strong message to the perpetrators.

I tried to address her concerns in a follow-up email:

My intent is not now, nor was it when I first contacted you, to impugn your character. But it would be irresponsible of me to ignore the reports by other news outlets, and the articles published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarding your contact with ACT. It would also not have been fair for me to write about those reports without first asking for your response, which is why I appreciate your reply email and will print your comment that ACT contacted you to offer support.

However, the SPLC came out with a follow-up article yesterday [February 8] claiming you are trying to “distance” yourself from ACT following its publication of emails between yourself and ACT. This new story indicates you have “played down” your “collaboration with the group” when speaking to news outlets. Therefore, I would like to offer you an opportunity to respond directly to the latest SPLC article.

Sirocki responded:

It is such a shame that people that are “blue” like you are blinded with hate of me and Gov. LePage more than they hate child abuse.

‘Let me help you out with your attack piece’: Sirocki’s unsubstantiated allegations against her opponents

It was then that Sirocki added allegations that her opponents had taken out Facebook advertisements against her:

Let me help you out with your attack piece. Have you reached out to Suit Up Maine (Maine ACLU connections); they are paying for Facebook ads to attack me….

Suit Up Maine and the ACLU of Maine both told 50 States that they did not purchase Facebook advertisements against Sirocki.

“The ACLU has not paid for or posted anything on social media referring to Rep. Sirocki or the FGM bills,” said Rachel Healy, communications director for the ACLU of Maine.

Karin Leuthy, co-leader of Suit Up Maine, also denied the claims of negative ads.

“Suit Up Maine did not purchase any Facebook ads or pay to boost any post regarding Rep. Sirocki or her bill,” she told 50 States on February 10. “Suit Up Maine is not engaged in fundraising, nor do we accept any money from anywhere. We request to see any ad that she claims as having originated with our group, and would appreciate Rep. Sirocki acknowledging her mistake and false accusation.”

Leuthy clarified that Suit Up Maine shared a link on its public Facebook page to a Portland Press Herald article about Sirocki’s connection to ACT for America, but Leuthy said it was not “boosted” in any way except through visitors sharing the post.

“Still visible to anyone on our public page, the post was shared multiple times and attracted even more attention after Rep. Sirocki commented on it, with Suit Up Maine members seeking further comment from her on a number of important questions regarding her bill. Rep. Sirocki has yet to answer those questions,” Leuthy said.

Leuthy added that her organization does not have any formal ties to the ACLU.

“We are an independent, all-volunteer, grassroots group of Maine constituents. None of our admin team work for the ACLU or any other advocacy organization,” Leuthy said. “Rep. Sirocki could easily have learned all of this by reading our ‘About’ page on our website.”

Sirocki’s email continued:

…and while you are it, what about Rep. Charlotte Warren, Chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee, who has lied to at least one reporter? I am sure they can help provide a bounty of non-factual information to balance out your fake news piece.

50 States contacted Warren, who responded:

It is understandable that Rep. Sirocki is uncomfortable with the attention being paid to her working with hate groups. In an effort to distract from that fact, she is leveling accusations against me. I stand by my statement, that Rep. Sirocki refused to meet with community members. Furthermore, I extend an invitation once again. There are many members of the communities she’s targeting who have requested the opportunity to meet with her. They are happy to come to the state house in hopes of reaching understanding and common ground.

Sirocki addressed these meetings with community members in her radio interview, saying:

Apparently it gets printed widely that I have refused to meet with the immigrant community on this issue. I met very publicly with them in the Cross Café [in Augusta]. So I would like to set that record straight, too. So for all the Democrats out there who are listening: yes, Heather Sirocki did meet with the immigrant community and when we sat down and talked they wanted an outreach and education program only; no criminalization at all.

Sirocki went on to make clear that she was not persuaded by the immigrant community members’ wishes. “I would like to point out again and remind the immigrant community, and all affected communities here, that we need to protect children,” she said.

Meanwhile, anti-FGM legislation is still pending in Maine

In danger of becoming lost in the noise of accusations and arguments is the focus of the competing pieces of legislation in Maine: female genital mutilation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that FGM is “a violation of the human rights of girls and women.” The WHO website notes that the procedure, typically performed on females between infancy and 15 years old, “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.”

In an article marking International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6, the United Nations called FGM a “cruel practice,” but also noted that the practice is in decline worldwide.

Sirocki maintains that her overriding desire is to pass legislation that will protect children in danger of becoming FGM victims. Supporters on her Facebook page urge her to continue fighting for her bill’s passage. The governor and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle clearly want some version of anti-FGM legislation.

In a final email exchange on February 9, I wrote:

Dear Rep. Sirocki,

Thank you for your response to my follow-up email. I will do my best to make sure your views, as you have expressed them to me, are presented in the article.

Sirocki replied:

I have no doubt that you will do your best.

And so goes Maine.