LEWISTON — Nobody would have guessed that a Democratic woman running for a Maine congressional seat would wind up under fire for allegedly pushing a measure that might make pudgy girls feel bad.
The National Republican Congressional Committee’s television advertisement touted the notion recently to worldwide attention and outrage from public health advocates in Maine.
“It is so untrue that it really takes a low moral standard to put an ad like that on the air,” said Emily Cain, a Democrat seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who has held the 2nd District seat since 2014.
“It seems like there’s just no decency left,” she said.
Focused on a 2007 bill meant to address childhood obesity — a growing problem afflicting nearly a third of youngsters — the GOP ad showed women posing with children as they blasted the Cain-sponsored measure as “a violation of our kids’ privacy” and a way to weigh “our teenage girls.” They proceed to wonder what else Cain might support.
Cain said she realized as soon as she saw the “disgusting” ad that she ought to make “a direct, swift and personal response.”
In her own campaign’s ad, Cain looked into the camera and declared that “like a lot of women, I’ve struggled with my weight. It’s hard. It’s very personal.”
She called her foes’ attack “so over the line” because it preyed “on these terrible insecurities” that most women have felt at some time about their bodies.
Dr. Charles Pattavina, president of the Maine Medical Association, called the Republican ad “an irresponsible distortion of the facts.”
Cokie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association, termed it “outrageous and false.”
In a fundraising appeal that asked supporters to “tip the scale” in favor of Poliquin, the Maine GOP’s executive director, Jason Savage, said the unsuccessful bill “would have forced kids in Maine schools, including teenage girls, to line up and stand on a scale to be weighed, and then have their weight reported to the government.”
Savage asked, “This is unfathomable, right?”
But in a prepared statement Giles said that Cain’s bill, which didn’t pass, “took tremendous care to protect our children’s privacy and in fact added new opt-out provisions and privacy guarantees to already-existing school health efforts.”
“Participation was confidential, anonymous and not mandatory. Anyone could opt out,” said Pattavina, chief of emergency medicine at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.
A similar measure proved so noncontroversial that it passed the Legislature two years later without dissent.
The Maine Physicians Action Fund said doctors and public health advocates began working in 2005 with elected leaders on both sides of the aisle “to develop comprehensive initiatives aimed at healthy weight, physical activity and nutrition.”
It said Cain “took the advice of medical professionals and a bipartisan public health commission to sponsor initiatives which received broad bipartisan support in the Legislature,” including gathering data on weight to assist experts trying to figure out ways to help children.
The bill sponsored by Cain, then in the State House, required schools to have “confidential assessments of either height and weight or body mass of all students, by gender, in kindergarten and grades 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9” and allowed students to opt out if parents or guardians provided “a religious, moral, philosophical or other personal objection.”
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Chris Pack, said the bill shows the GOP ad isn’t false. “The bill is only one page long; it is worth reading,” he said.
“It’s obvious that Emily Cain is too extreme and too out of touch for Maine families,” he said.
Cain, though, said the attack is “garbage” because there is nothing in the proposal that would make children or families uncomfortable.
“I am no stranger to embarrassing moments in gym class,” Cain said. “I would never want to put kids in a compromising or embarrassing situation.”
She said the wide attention given to the Republican ad, including stories in The Guardian and New York magazine, is an indication of how wayward the GOP’s attack is.
Cain said that in an election that should focus on candidates’ character, judgment and experience,” this sort of assault instead shifts the attention to “our looks, our dress size and our body mass index.”
“I don’t want to be talking about women’s weight or body image,” she said. But, she said, that’s the depth to which politics has sunk this year.
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