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Mainers have spoken. Here's what's next in state politics

Janet Mills
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who was elected to a second term on Tuesday, speaks to reporters, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Portland, Maine.

The 2022 election is over and most of the results are settled. It’s time to clear out the campaign notebook.

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$3 million and little to show for it

Groups working separately from the gubernatorial candidate campaigns spent over $20 million this year, but one in particular might be wondering whether its prolific spending was worth it.

Maine Families First, a front group for the national American Principles Project, spent nearly $3 million attacking Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Several of its ads falsely claimed that Mills supported raising the state’s gas tax, but its most specious and inflammatory messaging asserted that the governor was indoctrinating Maine school kids with LGBTQ teachings and pornography using books like “Gender Queer.” The basis for this claim was a link on the Maine Department of Education website that acted as a reference guide for educators. That link was to the to American Library Association, which at one point had included “Gender Queer” in its monthly recommendation of books.

APP attempted to parlay the link into its larger indoctrination narrative, running ads during the New England Patriots game right before Election Day that depicted parents reading sexually explicit passages from “Gender Queer.”

The goal of the campaign was to replicate the success that APP had during last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, where parent angst over public school curriculum proved to be a decisive issue in Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory.

However, the effort in Maine appears to have had little to no effect on the outcome. Mills dominated former Gov. Paul LePage in Portland suburbs and surrounding communities and she won in traditionally conservative leaning areas like Gray — precisely the locations that APP needed to be susceptible to its messaging if LePage was going to make inroads.

APP’s effort here was part of a broader campaign in which conservative groups spent more than $50 million targeting transgender issues. According to the news site Semafor, that spending is now being questioned by some conservative activists and party officials in other states like Michigan, where APP was also engaged, because there’s no evidence it helped Republican candidates.

APP’s effort in Maine was financed entirely by Thomas Klingenstein, chairman of the Claremont Institute. Klingenstein has connections to Maine and family here. Shortly before the election he wrote a post titled “Ban Pornography in Maine Schools” for the site Minding the Campus explaining that his Maine connection was one of the reasons he financed the campaign.

Elections spur leadership changes, including a historic first

Democrats in the Maine House made history this week while Republicans opted to shake things up after falling far short of their ambitious 2022 election goals.

When the 131st Maine Legislature convenes in Augusta next month, Portland Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross is poised to become the first Black lawmaker elected to serve as speaker of the house — and only the fourth woman to preside over the chamber in more than 200 years. Democrats nominated her on Thursday and she is expected to be officially elected speaker by the full House on Dec. 7

A Portland Democrat, Talbot Ross has been active in civil rights and social justice issues for decades. She headed Portland and state NAACP chapters and served as Portland’s director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs. She also led the push to create (and now chairs) Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations, which is tasked with addressing “structural racism” in Maine. And for the past two years, she led the unsuccessful effort to pass a tribal sovereignty bill.

Talbot Ross made history two years ago when was chosen by Democrats to serve as assistant majority leader, or “whip.” But her historic ascension to Maine’s third-highest elected office — behind the governor and Senate president — is in many ways a continuation of the ground her father, Gerald Talbot, began breaking 50 years ago when he became the first Black person elected to the Maine Legislature.

Maine’s House speaker and Senate president help set the legislative agenda and have significant control over what issues are given top priority (or none at all) in their respective chambers. Talbot Ross is definitely more progressive than newly re-elected Democratic Gov. Mills. But so was outgoing House Speaker Ryan Fecteau as well as his predecessor, Sara Gideon, who served during Mills’ first two years as governor. So it’s unclear how, or if, those dynamics will change.

House Democrats also elected Rep. Mo Terry of Gorham to serve as House majority leader and Rep. Kristen Cloutier of Lewiston to serve as assistant majority leader.

Down the hallway in the Senate, Democrats kept the same slate of leaders after maintaining their 22-13 majority in the chamber. Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash was nominated to continue serving as Senate president — a position he’s held for four years — while Sens. Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic and Mattie Daughtry of Brunswick will stay on as majority leader and assistant majority leader, respectively.

Across the aisle, however, Republicans wiped their slates clean just days after not only failing to gain control of either chamber but losing a bit of ground in the House.

Republicans selected Sen. Harold “Trey” Stewart of Presque Isle and Sen. Lisa Keim of Dixfield as their leaders. They’ll replace Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner and Sen. Matt Pouliot of Augusta, who opted not to seek the posts after the election.

At just 28 years old, Stewart is ambitious and a potential rising star within the Maine GOP. Last year, the recent law school grad withdrew from the 2nd Congressional District race to allow former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin to run for his old seat. Poliquin lost (once again) to Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in a ranked-choice runoff this week. Serving as Senate minority leader will certainly elevate Stewart’s profile.

Finally, House Republicans chose Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Rep. Amy Arata of New Gloucester to head their caucus this week following a lively contest that initially saw five people vying for the minority leader post. Faulkingham is a lobsterman and Arata runs a property investment company and a mechanical engineering firm with her husband.

Both are conservative. But Republican House members passed up some more conservative — or at least more controversial — candidates in choosing Faulkingham and Arata as leaders. In brief comments after the election, Faulkingham said, “The Republican Party has been branded by our opposition — and now it is time to brand ourselves.

No lazy break-in period

There’s no shortage of major issues that will confront lawmakers from the moment they enter the State House.

Heating oil is at record prices headed into a winter when many Mainers — especially senior citizens and lower-income families — are already struggling to afford to pay for groceries and other necessities. Many are predicting it will be a deadly season.

Mills has pledged to work with lawmakers on some form of relief, perhaps as early as next month. But nothing official has been proposed yet and winter is pretty much upon us.

Electricity prices are also a top concern. This week, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved so-called “standard offer” bids that will result in Central Maine Power and Versant customers seeing the supply side of their bills jump 49% and 41%, respectively, starting in January. That averages out to a jump of about $32 and $24 each month for those utilities’ customers.

The massive price increases are largely due to rising global prices for natural gas, which is used to generate more than half of New England’s electricity.

Once again, the Mills administration and lawmakers are pledging action, but have yet to outline any specifics.

“I have directed my Administration to examine every solution possible to this crisis, and we will be preparing a proposal for the Legislature’s consideration next month to help Maine people with the significant hardship caused by high energy prices this winter,” Mills said in a statement. “We must ensure that Maine people have support and security to heat their homes and keep themselves and their families safe.”

And then there is the alarming situation in Maine’s court system.

The commission that provides free attorneys to low-income defendants in Maine — which, as a reminder, is a constitutional obligation — has been warning for years now that it lacks enough lawyers to meet demand. Well, the commissioner’s director as well as Maine Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill are using words like “crisis” to describe the situation.

Maine relies entirely on private practice attorneys to represent low-income defendants, although the state is currently hiring five public defenders. The ranks of private attorneys willing to do the work has plummeted from more than 400 to about 160 in less than three years.

The situation is particularly dire in rural counties like Aroostook and Washington, where a judge recently ordered three defendants released from jail because there were no attorneys available to defend them.

Earlier this fall, the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services asked lawmakers to convene a special session to approve an emergency infusion of $13 million to increase the hourly reimbursement from $80 to $150. But to date, the Legislature has shown little urgency.

Recounts

Three State House races will undergo recounts in the next week or so.

The Senate District 20 race between Republican Eric Brakey and Democrat Bettyann Sheats is one of the recount contests. Brakey, who has held the seat previously, leads Sheats by 184 votes, according to unofficial results. Their contest was also heavily targeted by outside groups to the tune of $533,000, the vast majority of which came from Democratic PACs backing Sheats or opposing Brakey. The district covers part of Auburn.

House District 88, also representing part of Auburn, will also undergo a recount. Democratic candidate Kathleen Shaw leads Republican James Sorcek by 55 votes, according to unofficial results.

The third recount will determine whether Democratic candidate Dana Reed or Republican Barbara Bragshaw will represent House District 106, which covers part of Windham. Bragshaw holds a 26-vote lead, according to unofficial results.

The recount schedule has not yet been released by the Secretary of State but the hand counts likely occur over the next couple of weeks because the new Legislature will be sworn in Dec. 7.

None of the contests will affect control of the House or Senate. Democrats retained control of both chambers after Election Day.

Wednesday was the deadline for campaigns to request recounts.

Marriage equality bill advances

The U.S. Senate this week advanced a bill providing federal protections for same-sex marriages.

The legislation was backed by Democrats and 12 Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins, who is a lead sponsor. Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King also backs the bill, calling it “a historic, long-overdue step” in a written statement.

Democrats are fast-tracking the proposal while they have full control of Congress. The Senate voted 62-37 on Wednesday to end debate on the bill, an important step because it avoids the possibility of a filibuster. The Senate was expected to advance the bill further on Thursday, setting up a House vote that will be needed to send the bill to President Joe Biden.

The bill is an overhauled version of Democratic legislation designed to preempt any ruling by the conservative-controlled U.S. Supreme Court that could reverse the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that ruled that the right to marry is guaranteed for same-sex couples because of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses in the U.S. Constitution.

Collins and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, are the lead sponsors of the amended version, which was designed to garner GOP support by assuaging concerns that federal protections for same-sex marriage might infringe on objections to those unions by religious groups.

“It would help promote equality, prevent discrimination, and protect the rights of Americans in same-sex and interracial marriages,” Collins said in a statement. “It would accomplish these goals while maintaining — and indeed strengthening — important religious liberty and conscience protections.”

However, those religious liberty protections aren’t strong enough, according to the Christian Civic League of Maine, which encouraged its members to urge Collins and King to oppose the bill.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.