Maine Democrats rode their November victories into the State House on Wednesday, electing their own to the Legislature’s two top leadership positions as well as to the offices of attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.
Lawmakers voted unanimously to re-elect House Speaker Sara Gideon to another two-year term at the rostrum and chose Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash as Senate president. The House and Senate also voted unanimously to elect state Rep. Aaron Frey — a Bangor lawyer — to succeed Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills as attorney general and to re-elect Matt Dunlap as secretary of state, a position the Old Town Democrat has held since 2013.
The one divided vote of the day — the opening session of the 129th Legislature — was over who should serve as state treasurer. After a secret ballot, sitting Treasurer Terry Hayes lost her bid to continue overseeing the state’s banking and financial services to former lawmaker Henry Beck of Waterville. Democrats had nominated Beck for the position while Hayes — an independent who finished third in the three-way race for governor — was nominated by Republican lawmakers.
Apart from the constitutional officer elections, Wednesday was largely a day for pomp and circumstance at the State House. Newly elected lawmakers, as well as returning members, crowded the House and Senate floor with their children or other family members, posing for pictures and greeting one another.
Jackson and Gideon will lead chambers with solid Democratic majorities when the Legislature convenes for the 2019 session Jan. 2. On that day, they will also witness Mills being sworn in as Maine’s first female governor and the first Democrat to occupy the Blaine House since Republican Gov. Paul LePage took office in 2011.
During speeches to their respective chambers, Jackson and Gideon talked about the need for bipartisan collaboration after several contentious years that included a brief government shutdown in 2017 and the longest legislative session in Maine history earlier this year.
“We have to reset, and we have the ability to do that,” Gideon said.
Gideon said that while each of the House’s 151 members represents a district with a unique set of challenges, all lawmakers share a common purpose that should guide their work in the State House despite political differences.
“The reality is that every one of us represents all of the people of Maine, and in everything we do, it is incumbent on us to remember that,” Gideon said.
Gideon will be serving her second two-year term as House speaker in a chamber that has been controlled by Democrats since 2013. She is also one of a record 60 women serving in the 151-member House.
Gideon clashed repeatedly — and publicly — with LePage as well as different House Republican leaders than the lawmakers chosen to lead the caucus this session. In her remarks, Gideon thanked the new House minority leader, Rep. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford, adding, “I feel already we have worked (together) with such honesty.”
Jackson, on the other hand, inherited the Senate president gavel from Republican Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, who was credited with working toward compromise in the narrowly divided chamber despite criticism from LePage.
Like Thibodeau, Jackson brings a blue-collar background to the job and experience representing more rural areas of Maine.
During his speech, Jackson recalled his own unconventional rise from working as a logger in far northern Maine to becoming Senate president. Known for his speaking skills and ability to rouse progressive crowds, Jackson said he entered politics because of the moments in his life when he saw “government failed the very people it was supposed to serve.” Those moments included his October 1998 action — along with a group of other northern Maine loggers — to barricade a logging road border crossing into Canada in October 1998 to protest Canadian loggers who they said were taking jobs from Mainers.
Jackson pledged to be “a different leader for a different age” and said lawmakers should set a goal to “show people what government can and should be.”
“If buildings like this one, places where people with power make decisions for those without, had better served us in earlier days, I would not be here today,” Jackson said. “If the government had succeeded in years past rather than scoffing at the issues affecting everyday people, I would have had no need to run for office. The reality is health care is too expensive in this state and this country. Property taxes are out of control. And the cost of job training programs and higher education is out of reach of far too many Mainers.”
But Jackson said he senses more goodwill between the two parties than at any time in recent memory and called Sen. Dana Dow, the Waldoboro Republican chosen by his party as minority leader, “a true friend” with whom he shares culture and values. In that same vein, Jackson broke with the decades-long tradition of seating Democrats on one side of the chamber and Republicans on the other and, instead, will seat senators by region.
“We aren’t siloed at home,” Jackson said. “We deal with everyone in our community as we should, as someone we care and think about.”
Maine’s outgoing Republican governor was notably absent during lawmakers’ final gathering of his term — a day when Democrats reclaimed both chambers of the Legislature.
LePage’s office said he was undergoing back surgery Wednesday. So for the first time in more than a century, lawmakers were administered their oaths of office by the head of Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley urged lawmakers to work collaboratively on issues.
“The challenges are enormous, but the opportunities are similarly vast,” Saufley said.
The constitutional officer elections went largely as expected.
Frey, a Bangor attorney elected last month to his fourth and final consecutive term in the House, beat four other Democratic contenders to capture the Democratic nomination for attorney general. The 39-year-old said prior to Wednesday’s vote that, as attorney general, he would prioritize addressing Maine’s ongoing opioid addiction crisis, improving relations with the state’s sovereign Indian tribes, reforming the criminal justice system and resisting Trump administration changes that would be detrimental to Maine.