AUGUSTA — In an upset victory, the Maine Legislature elected former state Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield to the post of state treasurer Wednesday night.
Hayes, who left the Democratic Party in late November, was elected as an independent and nominated by Republicans. She won the two-year post over incumbent Neria Douglass, an Auburn Democrat and former state senator.
State Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, a former speaker of the House, spoke highly of Hayes, noting he worked with her when she served as assistant minority leader in the House four years ago.
“She was fair, she was honest and she was level-headed,” Nutting said. He said he and Hayes often had very different political views. “She worked with the leaders from both parties to do what was right for her constituents and the state of Maine,” Nutting said.
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, spoke in support of Douglass, saying she was an innovative state treasurer and was working on several programs to help businesses and citizens by finding ways to lower bank fees.
She said Douglass has been a nationally recognized leader and had worked to lower the state’s interest rates and improve its bond rating, which informs how much those who lend large amounts of money to government charge in interest.
Rotundo recently served as the House chairwoman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. She said that role allowed her to work closely with Douglass.
“Neria understands that strategic economic investment in our state is critical to growing jobs,” Rotundo said. “She knows how to bring bonds to market that ensures the best deal for our taxpayers.”
Hayes’ election over Douglass was somewhat of a coup for Republicans who did not offer a candidate for the post but threw their support to the independent.
Douglass, who has served two years in the post, was first elected treasurer in 2012 when Democrats recaptured majorities in both the House and Senate. But with Republicans taking the majority in the Senate back this fall and with fewer Democrats in the House, Hayes was able to cobble together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans that saw her gain the majority of 184 members of the House and Senate who were voting Wednesday.
“I’m sure some people were surprised,” Hayes said after the vote. “But I was not that surprised.”
Hayes, who also worked on the campaign of independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler, said she intended to hold the office as an independent and promised to work fairly with both parties and Gov. Paul LePage.
Hayes said she met with Republican leaders in the Legislature prior to announcing her campaign and said they were persuaded not to run a candidate of their own in the race.
She said she has some new ideas for the office, which is largely an administrative position that deals with financing the state’s borrowing packages in collaboration with the governor’s office. Hayes said there is no good way to see what kind of return Mainers get in terms of job creation or economic growth that comes from borrowing large sums of money for public construction projects such as roads, bridges and buildings.
She said Republicans and Democrats frequently debate state borrowing, with Republicans saying its simply debt and Democrats saying its economic stimulus and job creation. She said there’s really no easy way to see who is right.
Most of Maine’s bonding is first approved by voters during statewide elections.
“I think we should make (the return on the investments) easier to find and believe we can do that with existing resources,” Hayes said. She said it’s not that she or anybody believes borrowed money is being misspent or misused but that there’s no easy way to see if it isn’t.
“One of the things that’s a priority for me is to make that information connection so that when we are having bonding discussions, we are accountable to the voters for what we do with that money,” Hayes said.
Democrats, who retained a majority in the House, said the division within their caucus on the treasurer vote was not a sign of weakened discipline but more a sign of loyalty to Hayes from some in the caucus who Hayes recruited or helped their election.
House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he didn’t see the vote as an indication his caucus wouldn’t hold the line on tough issues when they were in disagreement with Republicans.
“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk for (Republicans),” McCabe said. “I think if you know Terry’s personality, you know she’s a pretty independent person. She’s going to take the job and she’s going to do the job that’s at hand. I wish her well.”
McCabe said he didn’t think Hayes would have any problems working with lawmakers but did say he thought she might have problems working with LePage.
In 2013, LePage withheld issuing bonds or borrowing money that was approved by voters until he could reduce the state’s overall debt load. That move was criticized by some Democrats who said it hurt the state’s ability to stimulate the economy, create jobs and allowed some state infrastructure to deteriorate when it didn’t have to.
LePage and his staff have made it clear that the governor has tried to keep state borrowing at a pace the state could afford as well as to build up state reserves.
Democrats were successful in re-electing Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Orono and Attorney General Janet Mills of Farmington.
Maine is the only state where the Legislature elects its constitutional officers, including the attorney general, secretary of state and the treasurer. About a third of all states elect their constitutional officers. In other states, there is a mix of elected and appointed constitutional officers, including some states where the governor appoints the officers.
LePage has voiced an interest in reforming Maine’s system but efforts in the Legislature to do so have been unsuccessful, including a 2013 bill sponsored by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden.
Cushing’s bill called for the statewide election of the secretary of state and treasurer every two years and the attorney general every four years. The bill failed in both the House and Senate with predominantly Democrat opposition.
Christopher Cousins of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.