Maine’s Senate President battles for his job — and potentially Democratic control of the chamber
FORT KENT – It's a sunny but chilly weekday afternoon and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson is hunting for votes along a stretch of rural roads not far from the Canadian border.
Jackson, whose Senate district is so large that Rhode Island could fit inside it several times, has represented parts of Aroostook County for nearly two decades. And nearly four years ago, he became the first Aroostook resident in more than six decades to be elected by his peers to preside over the Senate chamber, a position that ranks him second only to the governor under Maine’s Constitutional hierarchy. But the 54-year-old is now fighting to keep his seat against a freshman Republican lawmaker, Rep. Sue Bernard of Caribou, who is hoping to continue the County's gradual conversion from reliably Democratic to a place that voted for Donald Trump twice.
“It’s just funny because when I first started, I ran in this House district and I was a Republican, and everybody was telling me that I couldn’t win as a Republican,” said Jackson, a logger who got into politics after a high-profile dispute with landowners and forest products companies along the Maine-Canada border. “And now 18 years later, I’m a Democrat and they say you can’t win as a Democrat. And nothing’s changed for me. I’m still pushing the very same things as when I started.”
Republicans hoping to flip the Maine Senate from blue to red this year are taking aim at Jackson in what has become the most expensive legislative race in Maine history. The two parties and outside groups have spent more than $900,000 on the race to date, with the vast majority of that coming from Democrats hoping to defend both Jackson’s seat and their majority status in the Senate.
The outcome of the Senate District 1 race could determine which party controls the chamber and, by extension, the ability of Maine’s next governor to get their policy agenda through the Legislature.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is facing a stiff challenge from former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is hoping to be elected to a third, non-consecutive term. For his part, Jackson has had frosty relations with both Mills and LePage but has also worked with both at other times on key issues.
“I’ll work with anyone and I think I’ve demonstrated that,” Jackson said over coffee before heading out for door-to-door campaigning. “But I do have policy differences. I’ve served with Baldacci, I’ve served with LePage and Mills, and they’ve all vetoed probably more of my bills than anyone else’s, so. Actually, I know that for a fact,” he added with a laugh.
Bernard declined multiple requests for an interview on the race. But the Republican has significant local name recognition because of civic involvement and from her years as news anchor and then director at Presque Isle’s WAGM television station.
“It was a privilege to work for you then and I want to serve you again in the Maine Senate,” Bernard says in a video ad for her campaign. “I am running to protect Maine businesses and to increase the workforce to help the county grow. And to lower your household costs. I was born and raised here and would be honored to represent our home and you in the Maine Senate.”
It’s a high-stakes, high-profile race in a rural corner of Maine that isn’t accustomed to such large campaigns. And the race has gotten feisty, particularly in advertising. In one recent radio and television ad, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is the national GOP group focused on state legislative races, accused Jackson of siding with “far-left liberals while running the Maine Senate” and voting “to raise taxes on everything from groceries to health care.”
The Republican group also sought to link Jackson to the “Defund the Police” campaign in a revival of an earlier attack on him.
Tensions flared over the summer when the Maine Republican Party began distributing lawn signs that resembled Jackson's but read “Vote Troy Jackson! Defund the police.” Republicans justified their criticism of Jackson by pointing to a national group, The States Project, that strongly supports Jackson and that he once called “our strongest ally.” A spinoff of that group did offer model legislation several years ago for states considering whether to explore diverting funding from law enforcement agencies to other social programs.
But Jackson never supported the “defund the police” movement and points out that funding for law enforcement increased significantly during his time as Senate President.
“It costs a lot more to counteract a lie than it does for them to just throw it out there,” Jackson said. “I mean, $50,000 a lie and then you’re out there chasing that down. And that’s the same thing here. I waste so much time countering the [expletive]. I mean, my record is my record. You know, hit me on that. That's public and without dispute. But this made-up thing about being anti-police . . .”
In an unusual move, the state’s largest police union, the Maine Fraternal Order of Police, dubbed the attacks against Jackson as "misinformation" and defended him as a “long time, consistent supporter of Maine Law Enforcement, whether at the State, County or Local level.” But the union isn’t endorsing either candidate in the race and also described Bernard as a “strong supporter of Maine law enforcement.”
Even after nearly two decades in office, Jackson is hard to label. He's unabashedly progressive on organized labor and other issues but has consistently won the NRA’s endorsement for opposing gun control. He admits to struggling with abortion but has come fully around on same-sex marriage.
For her part, Bernard has said she’ll do a better job representing Maine’s business community, particularly farmers and the forestry industry. Her message of reining in government spending and reducing red tape resonates with Don Tardie of Ashland, a former forest products executive now involved with economic development.
“She definitely has the pulse on the important issues within our region,” Tardie said in a phone interview. “She understands the importance of keeping Northern Maine competitive within our regional economy. . . . We’ve got to be competitive up here. And right now we are facing some serious headwinds and costs that may not make this region competitive in the future. And we need somebody that can address those global issues and represent us in a way that we can have lasting solutions.”
Jackson, meanwhile, is Aroostook's first Senate President in six decades. It’s a position that allows Jackson to set the legislative agenda and elevate issues important to his political base or constituents. This year, for instance, Jackson led the effort to prevent the closure of nursing homes for veterans in Caribou and Machias.
“I mean, the difference is I am the Senate President from Aroostook County and if she wins, she won’t be,” Jackson said. “It’ll be somebody from southern Maine.”
In the road outside of Fort Kent, Jackson received polite to positive responses from most people who answered the door. He knew many of them by first name, like Steven Dumond who greeted Jackson and son Chace from his porch.
“He’s been in office and with all of the things that he’s done with Governor Mills, especially for people of the valley here, I just believe he’s the man for the job,” Dumond said. “And he’s supported all over the place. He used to work in the woods and for the lumber industry, he’s done a lot . . . you name it, he’s right on top of things.”