Within hours of Gov. Janet Mills issuing her “stay-at-home” rules last month, a state Senate hopeful in Auburn denounced them as “pseudo-martial law.”

Matt Leonard File photo

This week, before she announced Tuesday she would ease some of the restrictions soon, Republican Matt Leonard added that she’s “gone full totalitarian.”

It’s an increasingly commonly expressed viewpoint by GOP candidates and officials who argue the economic shutdown imposed by Mills and many other governors in response to the coronavirus pandemic went too far.

State Sen. Ned Claxton, an Auburn Democrat and retired physician, said it is difficult to know how government should respond during a crisis so novel.

“We sailed off the edge of the map. We don’t know what’s out there,” said Claxton, the incumbent Leonard hopes to defeat in November.

Mills, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, has imposed policies urged by public health experts in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, which can cause COVID-19 disease. The measures so far appear to have been successful in the effort to ensure Maine’s hospitals can treat those who come down with the disease.

The policy appears to have wide support across the country, with polls showing about two-thirds of Americans are content with the response of governors to the pandemic, a much higher percentage than the president or Congress can cite.

Claxton said most Mainers generally agree with what Mills has done but he also sees a rising number of restive voices who want people to have more autonomy in what they choose to do.

Tim Lajoie, a Republican who lost a mayoral race in Lewiston last year, said Tuesday on Facebook that the Legislature has “been shamelessly derelict” in its failure to rein in the governor.

He said it’s allowed her to wield “autocratic and authoritarian powers without opposition” and “to make decisions that are harmful for Mainers.”

Lisbon state Senate hopeful Martha Poliquin, a Democrat, said everyone is trying to figure out on the fly how best to deal with the pandemic. She said she understands that many are “frustrated, scared and tired” of the difficulties involved.

Poliquin said that Mills has taken a “thoughtful and measured” approach that has helped hold down the number of Mainers sickened by the disease.

“She’s doing a great job,” said Katey Branch, a Democrat running for state Senate in South Paris, hailing the governor for following the best possible advice in a situation that nobody can control.

State Rep. Larry Lockman, an Amherst Republican who is running for state Senate, posted on Facebook that the “blue state response” to the pandemic “has been ugly, dystopian and un-American.”

“Elected officials have dismissed the Bill of Rights as an irrelevancy, forcibly closed down houses of worship, harassed and threatened worshipers, arrested political protesters, and declared that protests are nonessential,” Lockman wrote. “That is not America.”

Sen. Ned Claxton

In Claxton’s view, though, the criticism of Mills and other governors who opted to have their states hunker down is over the top.

“These are times that have never been seen before,” Claxton said, and Mills is trying to protect people.

He said Maine has “done much better than a lot of places” even if there’s always room to do better.

Claxton said, for instance, he would like to see Mills “include more people in the conversation” about how best to handle the rules and regulations that are needed. Greater transparency would help, he said.

He said he understands why some people have griped they can’t play golf or get some kids out on a baseball field. It would be easy to pull back on restrictions, but perhaps not wise in some cases, Claxton said.

Eric Brakey, a Republican congressional candidate from Auburn, took to Twitter to call on state lawmakers to revise a measure that allowed Mills to issue emergency declarations.

Brakey, whom Claxton succeeded in 2018, said the law essentially makes Mills “the de facto dictator of Maine” when she uses its emergency powers to “suspend laws, override budgets, postpone elections and control all private business” in the state.

Though he’s hearing from more and more people who are fed up, Claxton said he is sure that a majority of Mainers believe Mills has gotten it “pretty close to right” in trying to balance economic and social needs against the dangers associated with the public health emergency.

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