A legislative committee approved the confirmation of Michael Sauschuck as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety on an 8-5, party-line vote despite the opposition of dozens of gun rights advocates who testified at the hearing Friday.
The vote by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, with the Republican members opposing Sauschuck, came after more than five hours of testimony. Sauschuck’s supporters spoke glowingly about his record as Portland’s former police chief, while his detractors criticized his positions in support of universal background checks for gun sales and his opposition to a 2015 state law that allowed adults to carry concealed handguns without a permit.
Sauschuck’s nomination now goes for a final vote before the Democratic-controlled Senate, likely next week. The Windham resident is the only one of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ 14 Cabinet nominees so far to not receive unanimous committee support.
“Chief Sauschuck is an experienced, highly qualified leader and Marine veteran whose work to combat the opioid crisis and implement community policing practices has gained him the respect and admiration of many in the law enforcement community,” Mills spokesman Scott Ogden said in an email Friday night. “Gov. Mills is pleased the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee advanced his nomination and looks forward to him ably protecting the safety of Maine people as the Commissioner of Public Safety.”
Nearly 100 people signed up to testify both for and against Sauschuck, and two additional rooms were booked to accommodate the large crowd. The hearing attracted dozens of police officers from across the state, as well as dozens of people wearing blaze orange vests, sporting NRA logos and carrying signs that read “Stop Sauschuck.” Groups like Gun Owners of Maine rallied supporters to testify against Sauschuck.
Sauschuck said during the debate over eliminating concealed carry in 2015 that he was concerned the new permit-less carry or so-called, “constitutional carry” law would put the public and police officers at greater risk.
Nominee Stresses Personal Liberty
In his opening remarks and responses to questions from lawmakers, Sauschuck acknowledged there were groups that did not support his nomination for his stances on gun issues. He has supported universal background checks for private gun sales and limits on magazine capacities for semi-automatic weapons, among other proposals.
At one point during his opening testimony, an unidentified man burst into the room and accused Sauschuck of opposing an amendment to the Maine Constitution that reads: “Every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms and this right shall never be questioned.”
Sauschuck took the outburst in stride, saying he recognized that different communities in Maine had different opinions on gun regulations. He said his views were formed by his personal background and experience in the military and law enforcement.
“I’ve spent more than half of my life carrying a firearm in defense of people’s rights, whether that’s in the military or law enforcement in several communities,” Sauschuck said. “It’s my goal to facilitate people’s rights, no matter which rights they are. And as a private citizen and as a professional you also have a right to have an opinion on issues.”
Sauschuck’s work on the state’s opioid overdose crisis garnered praise from a range of public health advocates including Jenna Menhert, the executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness Maine.
Menhert said Sauschuck was among the first law enforcement leaders in Maine to embrace policies recognizing the differences between people suffering from mental illness or substance use disorder and criminal behavior.
“What I push is progressive policing – is all of the things that Mike Sauschuck did long before I showed up at his door and asked, ‘Can you do this’ because he was already doing it,” Menhert said. “Maine has a long way to go in terms of innovative policing. There are still police chiefs in this state who think we should treat a person with mental illness the same way we treat a bank robber. There are still police chiefs that believe substance use is not a mental illness. There are still police chiefs in this state who are incredibly sexist. We have a long way to go.”
‘Disconserting’ For Gun Owners
Menhert called Sauschuck’s nomination, “an unbelievable opportunity” for the committee to “give an honorable, trustworthy, fair individual who believes in bringing communities together to find a common ground to be a transformative leader for the public safety community in the state of Maine. This isn’t just another appointment, this is an amazing opportunity.”
But dozens of opponents spoke against Sauschuck for his positions on gun control. Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols was among them.
“I’m not here to argue against the nominee’s qualifications, he is very qualified. He spent years in public service, serving his community and he should always be commended for that,” Nichols said.
Nichols said there were two specific concerns that were causing “anxiety” in Franklin County, including Mills’ position during the campaign for governor that she would support a ban on large-capacity magazines. A position she later retracted. But it’s a position aligned with Sauschuck’s view on semiautomatic assault weapons, his opposition to the state’s concealed weapons laws, his calls for expanded criminal background checks for gun sales and transfers, and his support for red-flag laws that would allow police armed with a judge’s order to temporarily confiscate firearms from an individual suffering from a mental health disorder.
“All this taken together paints a picture that is quite disconcerting to many legal Maine gun owners,” Nichols said.
Others said they feared Sauschuck would advance policies to take weapons from law-abiding citizens, even though as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety he would have little authority to do so. Still, Nichols said Sauschuck would become a top adviser for Mills and likely guide her on gun policy. Mills, however, said in January that she wouldn’t support legislation to require background checks for private gun sales in Maine, after a similar measure was defeated by voters in a statewide ballot question in 2016.
“Many people have shown up today to oppose this nomination due to concerns surrounding personal security and safety,” Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, said in a prepared statement following the vote. “I am a supporter of an individual right to keep and bear arms and have taken an oath to uphold the U.S. and Maine constitutions where this right is enshrined. For that reason, I opposed the nomination.”
Overseeing Concealed Weapons
As commissioner, Sauschuck would oversee the state’s concealed weapons permitting system, even though state law no longer requires a permit. He also would oversee a program that allows some felons to procure a hunting permit that allows them to use a muzzle-loading or black powder weapon under certain circumstances.
As commissioner of Public Safety, Sauschuck also would lead the Maine State Police and the Capital Police, which have jurisdiction over the State House campus in Augusta.
Earlier Friday, the committee held a hearing and voted unanimously to confirm Randall Liberty, Mills’ nominee to be the next commissioner of the Department of Corrections. Liberty is a former Kennebec County sheriff and the current warden at the Maine State Prison. He served in the Army and has worked in law enforcement for more than three decades.
He has a master’s degree in leadership from Liberty University in Virgina and a bachelor’s of science in public administration from the University of Maine at Augusta. He also is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy and the National Sheriffs Institute.