AUGUSTA, Maine — Dispirited by recent losses but pledging to rebuild, House Democrats elected representatives from Orono and Buckfield as their leaders on Thursday during their first gathering as the minority party in a chamber that they controlled for decades.
House Democrats chose Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, to serve as minority leader and Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield to serve as assistant minority leader or minority whip.
Although the mood in the chamber appeared jovial, as returning members greeted one another and mixed with newly elected representatives, Democrats didn’t hide their disappointment at losing nearly two dozen seats and control of the House to the GOP. Republicans also gained control of the Senate and Blaine House on Nov. 2.
In a speech before the vote, Cain acknowledged that she had marked Nov. 18 on her calendar months ago as the date when she hoped to be elected House speaker. But she added that while Democrats lost control of the House, they have “the knowledge and experience to be an outsized minority” as they continue focusing on such key issues as education, protecting the vulnerable and preserving the environment.
“High-quality leadership is flexible when appropriate and stands fast on principles,” Cain said.
She also pledged to keep her sights on the 2012 election and to help the Democrats offer real alternatives when the two parties clash on issues.
“I ask for your vote of support today and promise to make you proud as we become known not as the new minority but as the re-emerging majority here in the Maine House,” Cain said in the closing of her speech, eliciting loud applause.
As House chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, Cain rose to prominence during the last legislative session for her work to build bipartisan agreement on several recession-wracked budget bills.
The 30-year-old is pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration at the University of Maine and also works part-time as coordinator of advancement at the university’s honors college.
She won the title of minority leader in a three-way race against Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who most recently served as the assistant majority leader, and Rep. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth. Outgoing House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, did not reveal the breakdown of the votes on the secret ballots.
Hayes, who recently was elected to her third term in the House, was running for the minority whip position against Reps. Mike Carey of Lewiston and Sharon Treat of Hallowell.
Democrats entered the Nov. 2 elections with sizable majorities, holding 95 of the House’s 151 seats and 20 of the Senate’s 35 seats. By the time the votes were counted, however, the Democrats had been reduced to just 72 seats in the House and 14 in the Senate.
Throughout Thursday’s leadership elections, Democrats acknowledged they need to learn lessons from the elections but spoke repeatedly and confidently about reclaiming the House in 2012.
Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, who served an unprecedented 10 terms as House speaker, credited Cain with making it possible for Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee to reach unanimous agreement on how to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from state budgets.
But Martin said Cain knows how to get tough during negotiations and will help rebuild the party’s ranks.
“I know she can deliver for us,” Martin said.
In an interview afterward, Cain pointed out that while Democrats lost a considerable number of seats to the GOP, the party still holds nearly half of the chamber.
But Cain said she planned to bring the same bipartisan spirit to her work as minority leader. She also pointed out that she and the Republicans’ nominee for House speaker, Rep. Bob Nutting of Oakland, served well together on Appropriations.
“I believe we will have a good working relationship because we already have one,” Cain said.
Nutting, meanwhile, has been forced in recent days to re-address the fact that a pharmacy he owned overbilled the state and federal governments $1.6 million over a five-year period for products covered by Medicaid.
Department of Health and Human Services records show that the pharmacy repaid $433,188 but that the state and federal governments were forced to absorb the remaining $1.2 million after True Pharmacy filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
Nutting told Maine news outlets that the overbilling resulted from misinterpretation of the reimbursement formula. He said the state’s aggressive pursuit of the case forced him out of business.
Nutting was not the only Maine pharmacist who misinterpreted the billing formula, hearings in 2002 and 2003 revealed. In a Pharmacy Group of New England survey of 23 independent pharmacists, 16 said they used Nutting’s billing formula, according to testimony at the hearings.
Because Medicaid is funded by a 2-1 match with federal funds, the federal government received two-thirds of the money that was returned.
All 151 House members will convene on Dec. 1 to formally elect the House speaker as well as constitutional officers — the state treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.