AUGUSTA — State Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant apologized Thursday for comments he made about conservative Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough, who he said last week was attempting to “soften her edges” with a bill aimed at helping victims of human trafficking.

“I made several ill-conceived remarks last week about Rep. Volk’s proposed legislation,” Grant said in a statement issued by the party. “I apologize to Rep. Volk and to those working on this important issue.”

Three conservative women’s groups — the Concerned Women for America of Maine, the Republican Federation of Women and the Informed Women’s Network — are expected to gather in the State House Hall of Flags on Thursday to push Democrats on the 10-member Legislative Council to reconsider the bill when they hear appeals on Nov. 21.

Volk’s bill, which was rejected without explanation by the Legislative Council last week, along with about 300 others, has become a line in the sand for House Republicans.

GOP lawmakers and party activists have decried the decision by the Legislative Council, which consists of six Democrats and four Republicans, to reject Volk’s bill even more loudly than they’ve protested the body’s “no” vote on House Minority Leader Ken Fredette’s bills on welfare reform, a top Republican priority.

The bill would expunge prostitution convictions from the records of victims of human trafficking. A nationwide advocacy group, The Polaris Project, has endorsed the bill as a key step for the state in addressing growing instances of human trafficking.

Some in the Republican party have accused Democrats of “waging a war on women” — a charge often lobbed at the GOP — or of trying to deny a victory on women’s issues, usually the domain of the political left, to Volk, who is deeply conservative.

In an interview last week with MPBN, Grant said Volk, who represents a swing district, and the Republicans were pushing the bill to score easy political points: “This is a Republican party and a conservative legislator who is desperate to try to realign a gender gap that their party faces at the polls, and a representative who needs to kind of soften her hard edges,” Grant said.

He also questioned whether human trafficking was “an issue at all here in Maine.”

GOP Party Chairman Rick Bennett said the comments were “patronizing and sexist,” and immediately called for Grant to apologize. On Thursday, Grant said he had since done more research and had a change of heart.

“Since that interview, I have looked into the matter further and now understand that the issue of human trafficking does occur in all 50 states, including Maine,” he wrote. “I also understand that there are proactive steps that advocacy groups have presented to state legislatures to ensure that the law deals with this issue aggressively, and also fairly to the victims.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, has said the bill was denied because the Legislative Council needed more information before accepting it for the second session of the Legislature, which is reserved for emergency bills.

“I am rather stunned that Democratic leadership killed this bill to address a major issue facing women,” said Volk in a statement last week. “I had been contacted by women from both parties about co-sponsoring the bill and there seemed to be a lot of interest, but for some reason Democratic leadership did not consider it a priority.”

Democrats have also signaled they may have a change of heart when Volk appeals.

“I certainly support the merits of this bill to help victims rebuild their lives. Since our initial vote, Rep. Volk has made a very strong case for the sense of urgency and need for this bill,” said Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland in a release issued after Grant’s apology. “The Legislature has a process for approving, denying and appealing bills, and Rep. Volk is doing exactly what she should be doing by making the best case she can.”

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