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Rachel Talbot Ross becomes 1st Black House speaker in Maine's history

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross acknowledges applause after being sworn in as the first Black woman to serve as Maine House speaker, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross acknowledges applause after being sworn in as the first Black woman to serve as Maine House speaker, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland made history on Wednesday by becoming the first Black lawmaker elected as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

After being nominated by her Democratic colleagues last month, Talbot Ross won unanimous support from the full House on Wednesday during the opening day of the legislative session. Talbot Ross has represented the city of Portland in the House for six years and is a longtime campaigner on civil rights, social justice and criminal justice reform issues, both in Portland and around the state.

Addressing the House as speaker for the first time, Talbot Ross urged lawmakers to work together on issues such as housing affordability, poverty, educational access and improving the state's relationship with the Wabanaki tribes. The Democrat also noted that the 131st Legislature is the most diverse in the history of the state.

“Each of us, 151 lawmakers, are here to represent the varied and at times seemingly diverse interests of people from every part of our beloved state, where we live, work, raise our families and worship,” Talbot Ross said. “We are here to shine a light on the problems facing our state and to seek solutions. But we are also here to realize opportunity and put our value for the common good into action, illuminating the best path forward to a just, healthy and equitably society.”

But Talbot Ross also used part of her speech to pay tribute to family members who came before her, including her father Gerald Talbot, who was elected as Maine's first Black lawmaker 50 years ago. The newly elected speaker called her father “a clear, guiding light and a role model” as she watched him spend all day at the State House, have dinner with the family in Portland and then head to work for late-night shifts. Talbot Ross’s father, along with numerous other members of her family, were in the House chamber or balcony watching the proceedings.

"I am a proud, ninth-generation African-American Mainer,” Talbot Ross said. “I stand before you today and I want any child in our state to know that this, today, this is possible."

Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, recalled in a floor speech nominating Talbot Ross how the Speaker-elect had pulled her own bill that she had worked on for several year so that one of Stover’s bills could receive funding.

“This is the type of leader that Rachel is,” Stover said. “She has spent a lifetime putting others before self. She has put the needs of the (Democratic) caucus before self. It goes without saying that as a sole African American woman out of 151 legislators, she has endured sacrifice and put this body before self. She has put her beloved Maine before self.”

The 62-year-old formerly headed the NAACP in Maine as well as Portland's equal opportunity and multicultural affairs program. She is the fourth woman to serve as speaker. And all three of her predecessors — Libby Mitchell, Hannah Pingree and Sara Gideon — were present for Wednesday's ceremony.

Gov. Janet Mills administered the oath of office to more than 180 newly elected lawmakers as their family members looked on or, in some cases, sat in their parents' laps Wednesday at the Maine State House.

“I look forward to working with every one of you,” Mills told senators after administering the oath in that chamber. “My time is your time. For the next few months, we will accomplish a great deal together, remembering what the people told us for the last few months . . . 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.”

Democrats retained control of both the House and Senate during last month's elections. In the Senate, the chamber voted unanimously to re-elect Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to preside over that chamber.

During his post-election speech, Jackson pointed to the economic crisis facing many Maine families this winter as they struggle to afford heating oil and kerosene or to pay their electricity bills. Jackson urged lawmakers to immediately pass a nearly $500 million emergency relief bill that would send $450 relief checks to more than 800,000 taxpayers.

“They don’t expect us to wave a magic wand and solve every problem overnight,” said Jackson, a professional logger. “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 do things better.”