Viewpoint: What has changed on Mount Desert Island? 

By Mariana Sorensen 

Sunday, July 31, was a sad day for our community. A 21-year-old Bar Harbor resident was arrested while exercising his First Amendment rights near the Northeast Harbor house of Leonard Leo. Mr. Leo is best known for his outsized role in shaping the lopsided U.S. Supreme Court that recently overturned Roe v. Wade. Protesters have gathered sporadically on the street in front of the conservative activist’s house since the Roe decision, though their complaints about his work go far beyond Roe. 

Protests and arrests have not been the norm on Mount Desert Island. Republicans and Democrats, residents and summer people – including many high officials in administrations of both parties – have coexisted, even socialized and sailed together, amicably. What has changed? 

The protesters, and the police overreaction, partly reflect the divisiveness that’s tearing the whole country apart. But three things particular to Mr. Leo’s work have led me, reluctantly, to protest outside his property. 

First, as a summer resident, I question why Mr. Leo chooses to be in Northeast Harbor. One protester’s series of signs read: “Maine has Marriage Equality; Abortion Rights; and Environmental Regulations. Why on Earth Would Leo Live Here?” (He is against all three.) It’s a good question.  

As I understand it, Mr. Leo, while in Northeast Harbor, does not retreat from his crusade to shape our courts, limit our freedoms and deny our rights. On the contrary, when buying his house, he told The Washington Post that he planned to use it to extend hospitality “to our community of personal and professional friends and co-workers.” He has hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, and is said to have hosted at least one Supreme Court justice. His house seems to be less vacation home than outpost for his nefarious, dark money operations. If this is where he conducts business, it is an appropriate place to protest that business.  

Second, Mr. Leo, whose job involves using wealth to exert his influence over the rest of us, seems to be bringing that business model to his dealings with the Mount Desert police. He treats them as his own private security force, though he has plenty of his own people protecting his property. He notifies them when he is expecting protesters, and they regularly drive by checking on the protests. Sometimes they just sit in the NEH Fleet parking lot, across the street from his house.  

On Sunday, July 31, Mr. Leo went too far. He pressed the police to arrest an MDI resident for exercising his First Amendment rights. (The 21-year-old allegedly used profanity to insult Mr. Leo on Main Street in Northeast Harbor before the protesters gathered in front of his house.) 

As I (a former prosecutor from another state) read Maine’s criminal statute, such name calling does not constitute disorderly conduct unless the expected response would be violence. In any case, only someone who considers themselves special (because of their wealth or importance?) would call the police and demand the arrest of someone who insults them, even with foul language.  

The sight of the arresting officers being yelled at by their fellow MDI residents for succumbing to Mr. Leo’s pressure was sad. And last Sunday likely will not be the end of the tear in the community fabric that Mr. Leo has started. If the young protester sues the town of Mount Desert for violating his First Amendment rights, the acrimony will continue. If he wins that lawsuit, Leo Leonard will not be on the hook for the judgment – MDI taxpayers will. 

Finally, what makes Mr. Leo and this summer on MDI different are the stakes. The business that Mr. Leo conducts is to remake America by weakening majority rule and degrading democratic norms. And he wants to be left alone to do his dark-money business, using our beautiful island as his backdrop. 

It is hard to know what goes on behind Leo’s tall fence. Guests come and go in chauffeured cars with tinted windows. His doings are, by design, secretive. He is involved in a whole network of organizations, largely funded by money from sources that remain hidden from the public. These overlapping groups fill the bench with judges who then rule on cases brought by related groups, interpreting laws that are unconstitutional when written (with the help of like-minded operatives), seeking to reverse Supreme Court precedent. The ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade is one of these cases.  

There are other laws and cases in the pipeline – ones that could take away the right of gay Americans to marry, that will make it easier to steal future elections, and that will, intentionally, make it harder for many citizens to vote.  

If we aren’t vigilant, a small group of anonymous actors – donating huge amounts of untraceable money to organizations designed to stay in the shadows – will have wrested away all levers of democracy that protect our rights. We need to educate ourselves and our neighbors about where Mr. Leo and his allies are trying to take the country. Please, Google Leonard Leo. 

Mariana Sorensen lives in Northeast Harbor and Philadelphia, Pa. 



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