Dec. 7: Maine's New Legislative Leaders Begin To Make Their Mark

Dec 10, 2018

It's Friday and time once again for Maine's Political Pulse, with Maine Public's political team, Steve Mistler and Mal Leary.  This week, Gov. Paul LePage picks an unusual time to schedule surgery, Maine's new Senate President revises the chamber's seating chart, and the most experienced candidates for attorney general are rejected behind closed doors. Filling in for host Irwin Gratz is Maine Public's deputy news director, Susan Sharon.

SUSAN SHARON: Among the dignitaries we know who came down to D.C. this week was Gov. Paul LePage to pay his respects on Monday. But for some reason the governor did not come back to pay his respects to the lawmakers of Maine who are being sworn in. I'm wondering, what you think of that, Mal Leary?

LEARY: Well, his office says he had to come back for long-scheduled back surgery, and that he had told legislative leaders earlier that he would not be there to swear in the new Legislature, that it would fall to the to the duties of the chief justice to do. Of course, you would have to wonder why he would schedule back surgery on a day that is said in the Constitution.

As I understand it this has not occurred since something like 1880, when a governor wasn't present for such an occasion.

LEARY: Well that's a story unto itself, Susan.  That was where we had a revolt underway. The Capitol was under siege with over 2,000 people, and Joshua Chamberlain went to Bangor and brought down Gatling guns to protect the Capitol. That was a very strange time in our history.

One could argue that, you know, there is this feeling that there's not good feelings across the aisle. And this week Senate president Troy Jackson took the unusual step of trying to bridge what could be seen as a partisan divide by rearranging the seating chart in the Senate, which I gather means a Republican and a Democrat now sitting together, where they didn't used to sit that way. Is that correct?

MISTLER: Yeah, there was actually like a line between one side of the aisle and the other - you know an actual literal line. Now Troy Jackson is trying to integrate the membership of the Senate.

LEARY: Leaders in both the House and Senate on the Republican side are saying, "We're not going to be like the past, we're not going to have personal attacks on people. We're going to fight on issues." But, you know, this whole idea that somehow we're going to have kumbaya moments because we're sitting side by side is not going anywhere. Republicans made it clear, for example, Democrats have this long list of major issues they want to address - health care, education, infrastructure - big price tags there. And they're going,  "That's great, within existing resources. We're not going to support any new taxes. We're not going to support any tax increase. We're going to draw a line there on principles that we believe in."

Also this week there was the election of the constitutional officers, which I know you've spent a lot of time covering. When all was said and done, it was kind of unusual because there were five qualified candidates for the attorney general's office. And yet it seems that some of the most experienced people were eliminated in the early rounds. What do you make of that?

MISTLER: It struck me that that took a lot of people by surprise. I mean, I think a lot of folks - including me -  assumed that Meghan Maloney, who's D.A. here in Kennebec County - I thought maybe she would have the inside track on this, on the nomination within the Democratic caucus. Turns out she was among the first to be eliminated. And same with some of the other people that had a little more experience. Instead it fell to a runoff between Tim Shannon and Aaron Frey. I mean I was getting texts on my phone and people were really surprised that Tim Shannon made it all the way to the final ballot. And, of course, this also brings up the idea that this entire process is very opaque. We don't know which lawmakers picked these people, we don't know how the balloting went in the actual election. We don't know, and this may be a case to be made that we ought to so that we can ask them questions about it.

But the bottom line is the reason why and who voted for Aaron Frey of Bangor, who I believe does not have any prosecutorial experience - is a defense attorney. He's qualified for the job, but we don't know what was going on behind the scenes.

LEARY:  this is it politics. He's in the Legislature, in the House. That's how I think he got it. He had far more friends who said, "Yes, I'm going to vote for Aaron."

All right. And so now let's talk about what the big issues are likely to be. We've already seen this week the reformulation of a couple of key legislative committees to get to those big issues. Steve Mistler, what's happening and how unusual is that?

MISTER: If you recall back in 2010 it used to be just the Labor Committee, and then when Republicans came in on a wave election and had full control of state government they immediately added this business and research and economic development element or oversight to that committee. So what they've done is separate that back out, and now you have a Labor Committee. And they took Healthcare and they put that with the Insurance and Financial Services Committee. What it tells me is that Democrats - you could argue that they won the majorities on the issue of health care. They want that to be a priority, so they're going to put that - even if it's rebranding - they're going to put it in a committee and make that a central issue for them in this Legislature, which I think is a smart thing to do.

LEARY: Democrats have been smarting since 2010 when the Labor Committee was abolished. But the issues are still going to be there. Expansion of Medicaid is just one health issue that needs to be addressed in this session.

What else do you see coming forward?

MISTLER:  Well, I think energy, right? Energy is going to be huge. I mean, renewable energy advocates have been basically sidelined for the last eight years.

LEARY:  By vetoes.

MISTLER Exactly. There is an opportunity for them now to address solar policy, potentially wind policy, and either undo the damage that was done, from their perspective, that the LePage administration did, or just be able to move Maine forward on these initiatives.

Originally published Dec. 7, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET.