Feb. 1: Mills' Nominees (Mostly) Cruise Through Senate

Feb 3, 2019

In the latest weekly edition of Maine’s Political Pulse, our political team — Steve Mistler and Mal Leary — spoke with Deputy News Director Susan Sharon about the new administration taking shape in Augusta.

SHARON: This week, Maine lawmakers have been taking up the nominations of Gov. Janet Mills’ cabinet appointments. And so far, nine of them have received smooth sailing and been confirmed by the Senate. But one nominee in particular generated opposition from the Penobscot Indian Nation and the tribe’s supporters, and that’s Jerry Reid, the governor’s choice to head the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Steve, why was the choice of Reed so controversial? Refresh us on the background of this appointment.

MISTLER: Reid comes to DEP by way of the attorney general’s office, and the attorney general’s office has been responsible for litigating legal disputes between the Penobscot Nation and the state over water issues, and the Penobscot River in particular in regulatory jurisdiction and trying to resolve those issues. So he has sort of been the face of this litigation at least in the eyes of the Penobscot Nation, which is vigorously opposed to the state’s position, and that also extends to Mills because she was the attorney general prior to becoming governor. And so from their perspective, at least the way they discussed it Thursday, they see Reid as an inappropriate appointment to the DEP, in terms of the fact that he has pushed to not have sustenance-level water quality standards on that river, and also that it just sends the wrong signal at a time when Mills has said that she’s trying to repair tribal relations.

SHARON: To that end she just recently appointed a respected member of the Penobscot Nation to serve as her adviser. And in listening to the confirmation hearing, it did seem like members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee were sympathetic to the concerns raised by tribal members about Reid and his history with them. But they did go ahead and endorse him unanimously, is that right?

MISTLER: They did, although you could tell that some of them were reluctant to do that. They seemed perplexed at this choice, even though nobody questions Reid’s qualifications. Sen. Brownie Carson said just as they were ready to take this unanimous vote yesterday that he hoped that the governor was listening to the hearing. He was basically saying, ‘I hope that she heard everything that these people said today.’ Maybe that wasn’t a tacit endorsement on his part of everything that they were saying and alleging during the confirmation hearing, but it was certainly, I think, a comment that he hopes that the governor takes notice.

SHARON: Mal, can this chasm be crossed?

LEARY: I think she’s the one that’s going to set the policy and he’s going to execute it as her commissioner. This is not new among governors and members of their own party, where the governor will come forward and nominate someone, and some committee members on one of the standing committees will go, “Boy that’s really not the best person, but the governor’s nominated them so we will support them.” And I think that’s what we were hearing yesterday with Reid, was there were several people on the committee saying, “He’s really not the best person in our estimation, but the governor wants him so she should get her appointment.” We have that to a lesser degree among some of the other nominations, where people are going, “Well you know is this person really the best qualified? Well I might not think so but because the governor wants this person to be the commissioner of DECD or whatever then we’ll go forward and support them.” This has traditionally happened with governors going back decades.

SHARON: To be clear, Reid did receive support from the state’s largest environmental organizations, and he was one of the nine cabinet nominees overwhelmingly confirmed by the Maine Senate this week. All but one of Mills’ remaining nominees are expected to be considered Friday afternoon.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.