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Politics

In Historic Day, Maine Legislature Kicks Off Session At Augusta Civic Center

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Steve Mistler
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Maine Public photo illustration
The Maine Senate (left) and House of Representatives convened Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center.

The inaugural convening of the 130th Maine Legislature was a day of firsts.

The Democratic-controlled House elected the state’s first openly gay House speaker in Biddeford Rep. Ryan Fecteau. It also elected the first Black woman in a party leadership position in Portland Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross and the first woman secretary of state in Shenna Bellows.

And, for the first time in modern history, new legislators took their oaths in the Augusta Civic Center instead of the 188-year-old State House. The alternative site was necessary because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has already fueled partisan tensions and is likely to loom over a difficult legislative session.

As newly elected legislators trickled into the Civic Center Wednesday, they were greeted by a noisy crowd of demonstrators holding “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and banners supporting President Donald Trump. Some held signs embracing the president’s baseless conspiracy theory that the election was stolen from him, others vowed to resist the use of a vaccine for COVID-19 and several shouted at legislators and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

“Stop treating us like second class,” one woman yelled.

“Mills kills! Mills kills!” they chanted.

The scene outside was a contrast to the orderly health screening that legislators and members of the media underwent before entering the 49,000-square-foot building that will double as the State House for as long as the pandemic makes it necessary to keep lawmakers socially distanced.

“I passed the test,” one legislator said after having his temperature taken.

Inside the main auditorium, 151 House members sat at long folding tables draped in white linens to create a mess-hall-at-Thanksgiving aesthetic.

There was a cozier vibe in the north wing of the Civic Center, where 32 of the 35 newly elected state senators were welcomed by Mills — not live or in-person, but by a video recorded earlier at the governor’s mansion.

“And as you’ve heard me say before, in my administration you will always find an open door, an open mind and an open heart. The door looks a little more like a Zoom lens right now, but it is still open to you,” she said.

Typically the governor is the one who swears in new legislators, but not this year.

Gov. Mills announced Tuesday evening that she is quarantining until Dec. 12, because she was likely exposed to COVID-19 when she came in close contact with a member of her security detail, who has since positive for the disease.

Mills, who will turn 73 later this month, will be tested for COVID-19 on Thursday and will soon learn whether she joins the more than 12,000 Mainers who have contracted the disease.

“I’m feeling well and I’m not experiencing any symptoms,” she said in her video message. “But I hope that this serves as another reminder to all of us — as we’ve said all along — that no one is immune from the spread or the impact of this virus.”

The state senators who were sworn in Wednesday probably didn’t need a reminder.

An empty desk was in the middle of the makeshift Senate chamber, which should have been occupied by Republican Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford County. The former chairman of the Maine Republican Party recently announced that he would miss Wednesday’s ceremony because he recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson, who was elected to his second term as Senate president Wednesday, told senators that the pandemic not only affected elected officials in Augusta, but also made their jobs more important than ever.

“When you take away the State House with the marble floors and the towering ceilings and you take away the grand chambers, the purpose of the Legislature doesn’t change. Who we serve and what we were sent here to do remains the same. And we shouldn’t forget that,” he said.

Jackson expressed frustration with Congress, where he said members of both parties have politicized the pandemic while failing to provide additional relief to constituents worried about losing their homes, jobs and businesses — or those who already have.

He said it was imperative for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, of Turner, are also calling for bipartisanship.

But Timberlake, who is backing a new joint resolution that would remove powers that Gov. Mills has used to guide the state’s pandemic response, showed that Republicans and Democrats already disagree over what bipartisanship should look like.

“This Legislature needs to play a key role in the discussion on where Maine is headed,” he said. “We must be the voice of the people in the State House. All of our constituents want, or should I say need us, to find that common ground.”

It appears unlikely that Republicans will be able to convince the Democratic majority to strip the governor of extended emergency powers granted in a bipartisan vote by the previous Legislature.

But GOP legislators, a few of whom cheered on the anti-mask, anti-vaccine protesters as they entered the Civic Center Wednesday, have already made it clear that they plan to challenge the governor’s new orders as she attempts to suppress an explosion of COVID cases and deaths.

Those disagreements are likely to bleed into budget talks and measures designed to provide pandemic relief to Mainers — and Jackson knows it.

As he concluded his acceptance speech, the notoriously thrifty Democrat from Allagash told senators how he’d finally bought a pair of new shoes, only to discover that the box contained two for his right foot.

“And that’s a true story. They’re in the van and I can show you,” he said.

Jackson acknowledged that calls for bipartisanship are a bit cliche, especially on the first day of the new Legislature. But he said they’re called for this time.

“We need each other to get things done,” he said. “Republican or Democrat, north or south, east or west, right or left. We need each other to successfully rebuild and get through this crisis.”

And if they fail, Jackson said, Maine voters won’t forget it.