Independent lawmakers gain clout in Augusta with staff, office space

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Top row, left to right: Owen Casas of Rockport; Denise Harlow of Portland; Kevin Battle of South Portland. Bottom row, left to right: Kent Ackley of Monmouth; Norman Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft; Marty Grohman of Biddeford.

AUGUSTA — A caucus of independent lawmakers is likely to have an outsized influence in the Maine House of Representatives in 2018 given that it could wield seven coveted votes in a chamber closely split between 74 Democrats and 70 Republicans.

The group of six independent lawmakers, bolstered by their own office space and part-time staff, includes three former Democrats and two former Republicans. A member of the Green Independent Party also is caucusing with the group.

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Among the hot-button issues in the upcoming 2018 legislative session, lawmakers will have to figure out how to fund a Medicaid expansion in Maine, make the retail sales of recreational marijuana work and pass laws to address the state’s ongoing opioid crisis.

This month, the 10-member Legislative Council made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, including the Senate president and the speaker of the House, voted unanimously to approve the use of a legislative office space for the officially “unenrolled” members and also authorized hiring two part-time aids for the independent lawmakers: Reps. Denise Harlow of Portland, Marty Grohman of Biddeford, Kevin Battle of South Portland, Owen Casas of Rockport, Kent Ackley of Monmouth and Norman Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft. Also caucusing with the group is Rep. Ralph Chapman of Brooksville who is a member of the officially recognized Green Independent Party. Former Republicans Battle and Higgins and former Democrats Harlow, Chapman and Grohman left their respective parties in 2017.

Harlow said she’s been observing Maine politics for the past 15 years and has never seen five lawmakers leave their party in a single year. Harlow said she was treated respectfully by Democrats but found the partisan politics “stifling.”

The group of independents and Chapman have been working together for several months now, and having dedicated staff will be helpful, she said, pointing out that the office space the Legislative Council approved for them will be shared with American Sign Language interpreters who use the space once a week.

“I’ve always been independent, even as a Democrat,” Harlow said. “My views haven’t changed. It’s just that I felt I could operate a lot better outside of that party system.”

She added that the independent caucus doesn’t always agree on all things, but they do take the time to try to understand opposing viewpoints and work hard to find compromise, especially around policy changes they all agree are sound.

COHORT REFLECTS STATE’S MAKEUP

Maine has an independent streak, with about 40 percent of its voters registered as unenrolled, picking no party to affiliate with, according to data from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

And Mainers occasionally have voted for independent candidates in statewide races. Voters elected independent Angus King governor in 1994, reelecting him in 1998 and then voting to send him to the U.S. Senate as an independent in 2012. And in 1974, Mainers elected their first independent governor in James Longley, who served a single four-year term.

Battle, the former Republican from South Portland who was the first in the group to unenroll in January 2017, said sometimes it only takes a small change in any proposed bill to bring other lawmakers on board, but that kind of compromise often is difficult in a partisan environment where a given party is battling for a win versus a win for the people they govern.

Still Battle, like Harlow, who left the Democrats in May with Chapman, said he always operated as an independent and tried to represent his constituents’ wishes, even above his own personal views. Likewise, he said his leaving the Republicans wasn’t a statement against Republican politics or any specific position they support.

“I have nothing against either party, and I’ve been saying that all along,” Battle said. “Both parties have their understanding and beliefs to serve their constituents, but my observation is they put a little too much emphasis on the party and I think we need to go back to more emphasis on the constituents.”

Grohman, who left the Democrats in September, said he wasn’t attacking either party, but was “looking for fixes and not for fights.”

“I’m not going to discount an idea just because it is not mine,” Grohman said. He said partisan battle lines often prevent solutions that are in plain sight. Grohman said he’s received broad support from his constituents about his decision and suspects that others have as well. But he also said the decision to leave a political party is an individual one and not one he was encouraging others to take just because he did. He also said he was sure the group of independents wouldn’t always be in agreement, but they would take time to listen to one another and consider those views before they vote on legislation, recognizing they do have a certain strength in their relatively small number.

Higgins, the most recent addition to the group, left the Republican Party in October, saying at the time, “The Legislature becomes a partisan arena where the outcomes are measured in wins and losses. Our citizens observe this extreme level of competition and lose faith in our ability as a society to find solutions for the common good. The citizens expect their representatives to work together and capture the best ideas regardless of party and find common-sense solutions.”

A RETREAT FROM PARTISAN POLITICS

The group, if they do end up voting as a block, will hold significant sway not only in bills that need a majority of votes to pass out of the House, but also votes that require a supermajority of two-thirds, including overrides of possible vetoes by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and bills that would be enacted as emergency legislation.

Casas, who was elected in 2016 as an independent, has largely been credited with leading the group and lobbying legislative leaders in both parties to support providing it with the similar resources to those of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including shared staff to help with bill research and testimony, as well as constituent services.

“This gives us the opportunity to take a bit of legislation that we think is very important – and that we’ve watched the parties retreat into their two corners on and take a great bit of legislation and make it divisive – this gives us the ability with good staff and a place to work out of to take some of those initiatives and move them forward in ways that most of the citizens of this great state would say, ‘That’s exactly what we wanted you to do,’ ” Casas said.

He also said that although independents aren’t trying to prompt an onslaught of defections, with staff and space the caucus may be able to create a safe haven for others who reach the conclusion the partisan-life is not for them.

“When someone takes that very bold step (and determines) it’s about results, it’s about nonpartisanship and getting things done and working with everyone on the citizens’ behalf, I think that really resonates with people,” Casas said.

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  • Thomas Knight

    So, party politics is “stifling,” so they leave their parties and immediately form- wait for it- a caucus, which is, of course, a party. Even so, I would like to be able to vote for an Independent. I have had it with parties.