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A Look At The Behind-The-Scenes Campaign To Replace Secretary Of State Matt Dunlap

Darron Cummings
AP Photo
In this July 8, 2017 file photo, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap speaks during a voter registration meeting at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference in Indianapolis.

There are no TV or radio ads, or any of the other traditional trappings of a campaign for a statewide office. But behind the scenes, several candidates are seeking to replace Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who is termed out.

Maine Public State House Bureau Chief Mel Leary spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the race.

Flaherty: How long does Dunlap have, and also, what is a behind-the-scenes election?

Leary: Dunlap has till the end of the year to serve as secretary of state. He has served the four consecutive terms under our term limits law, so he can’t run again. This is one of those unique political processes that only the state of Maine has. We have statewide offices created in the state constitution that are elected by the Legislature, not by the voters. The Secretary of State is one of those. And already there are a half dozen Democrats seeking their party’s nomination, because they believe Democrats will have the majority of the 186 House and Senate members that do the actual election of the constitutional officers. Campaigning mostly on the phone relies heavily on personal relationships between candidates and the lawmakers, because everyone running is a current lawmaker, is term limited or has served in the Legislature in the past.

Is that a requirement that you have to be in the Legislature or have served it in the past? Or is that just coincidental?

It is absolutely not a requirement. It just is coincidental this time out. And it’s been pretty much traditional. Most of the folks who have been elected have served in the Legislature at least, if not being term limited out.

Are any of these candidates people that we’ve heard of? Are they well known?

Probably the best known is Portland Rep. Matt Moonen. He’s currently the majority leader in the House. But there’s also Winthrop Rep. Craig Hickman and Portland Rep. Erik Jorgensen. And then you have Yarmouth Rep. Janice Cooper, also term limited. And former state Sen. Justin Chenette from Saco. Probably the least well known among the current lawmakers that are making phone calls and thinking about running is former Freeport state Rep. Tom Bull. He served about 20 years ago in the Legislature. But interestingly enough, he’s the only one with real experience in the secretary of state’s office. That’s where he works now, in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

So some of these people are currently in the Legislature. What happens to them if they become secretary of state? What happens to their seat?

Well, in all these cases, they are term limited. So they’re not going to be around for the Legislature that actually does this election. They will be former legislators when the vote takes place in the first part of December. So that’s really not an issue on the table.

*Everyone you have mentioned is a Democrat. Are no Republicans running?

Well, there may be some Republicans that run later, but the numbers right now favor the Democrats winning the House, where most of the votes are located — 151 of the 186. But if for some reason it becomes close, and say a few independents are elected, and they could decide control of the House or Senate or both, then I think you’ll see several Republicans jump into the race. And if the margins are really close, there’s also a possibility of lawmakers from one party voting for the nominee of another party. A lot depends on who’s actually elected, and whether they’ve committed to support any of the candidates that say they’re running.

We’ve been talking about secretary of state, but we have other constitutional officers like the attorney general, right?

We do, but no one has yet surfaced as a candidate against Attorney General Aaron Frey, or State Treasurer Henry Beck. But it’s still early in all of this out of the spotlight election, so to speak. The voting won’t really occur in the new Legislature until it convenes in December. And if the past is any indicator, some of those running now will drop out of the race, and others that are not out there actively campaigning but might be thinking about it will jump in based on the actual election results.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.
Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.