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A historically diverse group of Maine lawmakers are sworn in for a busy session

Mana Abdi, Deqa Dhalac
Robert F. Bukaty
State Reps. Mana Abdi, D-Lewiston, left, and Deqa Dhalac, D-South Portland, attend their first session of the Maine Legislature, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. They are the first Somali-Americans elected to the Maine Legislature.

The 131st Maine Legislature kicked off its first session on Wednesday, with celebratory gestures toward history and the triumph of Democrats who held their majorities for the third consecutive election.

But amid its historic achievement of diversity — including the first Black woman elected as Speaker of the House in the Legislature's 202-year history — major challenges loom.

Already, the legislative session has been consumed by one problem it aims to fix.

Mana Abdi and Deqa Dhalac became the first two Somali-Americans elected to the Legislature this fall and they're among five Black members that will make this Maine Legislature the most diverse ever.

Yet Abdi, a Democrat from Lewiston, entered the State House Wednesday just like the hundreds of other private citizens who stood in the rain as they made their way through security screening for the swearing-in ceremony.

"You're official now, though," a reporter remarked as Abdi reassembled her belongings near the welcome center.

"Yeah," she said, smiling.

The affordable housing crisis is one of the reasons Abdi says she ran for the Legislature.

And the issue was also top of mind for the Maine Council of Churches as its members held a vigil one floor up in the Hall of Flags to raise awareness about homelessness.

It wasn't clear if the faith leaders' singing of "Amazing Grace" could be heard nearby in the governor's office, but at that moment, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills was negotiating with Republican leaders over the details of a bill partially designed to prevent more homelessness by providing $22 million in emergency housing assistance.

Mills would emerge from her office about an hour later with her security detail and senior advisors.

There was no deal yet on a $474 million energy and housing assistance proposal that Mills had asked lawmakers to pass Wednesday as an emergency — something that hasn't happened on swearing-in day in nearly three decades.

But the State House bells were ringing and that meant it was time for Mills to ascend the marble stairs and head to the Maine Senate to administer oaths of office to the 35 newly-elected senators.

The first woman elected governor of Maine entered the jam-packed Senate to a standing ovation.

It was an acknowledgement of her own triumph just a month ago: a resounding election victory and a second four-year term.

After swearing them in, Mills gave the senators a brief pep talk, telling them that Wednesday marked the beginning of their service to Maine people.

"Wherever we went, we heard from the people of Maine. Now let's put those thoughts and concerns and observations to work for the benefit of everyone," she said.

Mills then hugged Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson, who prevailed after a tight race for re-election this fall and on Wednesday sealed his third consecutive term as President of the Maine Senate.

The fifth generation logger from Allagash is just the sixth Senate President from Aroostook County and the first to serve in that capacity for three consecutive terms.

And Jackson wasted little time going to work as he used his acceptance speech to urge fellow Senators to back the governor's emergency energy and housing assistance bill.

"Mainers aren't asking for the impossible," he said. "They don't expect us to wave a magic wand and solve every problem overnight. Really all Maine families are asking is that we fight for them, that we represent them. And we owe it to them to do everything in our power to make things better. And I honestly think that starts today."

A new chapter in the state's relations with Native American tribes also began Wednesday — at least that's the hope of Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana.

Dana joined other leaders from Maine's Wabanaki tribes in the State House hallways to honor what they described as their champions in the Legislature.

Dana and other tribal leaders hope to convince Gov. Mills to take another look at the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, an agreement that has prevented Wabanaki nations from enjoying the same benefits as hundreds of other federally recognized tribes.

"And I do have hope for that. You know she (Mills) has pledged to keep speaking with us and working on some things," Dana said. "We've got some things done already. Our best case scenario is having her onboard with the amendments we'd like to see in the settlement act. So it comes down to real hustle and advocacy and educating these lawmakers."

While Maine's tribes are hoping Mills will soften her stance on the settlement act, one of their biggest advocates now leads the Maine House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Portland Democrat Rachel Talbot Ross became the first Black woman to become Speaker of the House, an achievement that came 50 years after her father, Gerald Talbot, became the first Black person ever elected to the Maine Legislature.

She was 12-years old when she watched her father get sworn in as a House member.

"I remember when he first started I was sitting in the gallery and looking down. Little did I imagine that 50 years later I would be standing here with you today," Talbot Ross said.

Talbot Ross made history after Republican House leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, of Winter Harbor, moved that the House back her nomination unanimously.

"Mr. Clerk, I move that the House cast one vote, one ballot for Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, for Speaker of the House," he said.

Faulkingham extended that courtesy despite the fact that the Republican caucus he now leads faces yet another legislative session in the minority and calls from outside the State House to play political hardball with Mills and the Democrats.

That may happen.

There's a new two-year budget to negotiate and a wide assortment of other partisan squabbles await.