Reeling Democrats to choose new leaders

Posted Jan. 21, 2011, at 7:41 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 24, 2011, at 10:46 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Democratic faithful will gather in Augusta on Sunday to choose new leaders as the party attempts to regroup and recover from losing the Blaine House and control of the Legislature last November.

While Democrats nationwide suffered at the hands of voters in November, Democrats’ losses in Maine were particularly acute. Maine was one of only two states where party control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature flipped.

The upheaval has caused considerable soul-searching among party activists in a state widely viewed, at least in recent years, as having a strong Democratic lean.

Three people will vie for the position of Maine Democratic Party chairman during a meeting of the Democratic State Committee, to be held at the University of Maine at Augusta. The winner will succeed John Knutson, who is not seeking re-election.

All three candidates — Benjamin Grant of Portland, John Hanson of Bangor and Melissa Sterry of Augusta — acknowledged that the next chair faces considerable challenges.

Each candidate also attributed last November’s losses to a combination of factors, including national resentment toward the majority party during tough economic times and some tactical or strategic mistakes in the Maine campaigns.

“We lost a big megaphone when we lost the Blaine House, the Senate president and the House speaker” positions, said Grant, a Portland lawyer who previously held various positions as a party staffer. “So the next party chair has to step up and help elected officials carry that message.”

Grant, 33, hopes his ties to the labor community as well as his experience in political organizing will help him win the chairmanship. Grant is a lawyer at McTeague Higbee, a law firm that specializes in labor law and workplace issues.

He also has teamed up with former Attorney General Janet Mills — a well-known Democrat and former lawmaker — who is running for the vice chair position. The key, he said, will be to bring back the former allies that did not vote Democratic or did not vote at all, as well as to make sure the party has the financial resources it needs in 2012.

“The next chair will have to come in ready to make changes but foremost ready to listen,” he said. “We have some healing that needs to happen.”

Hanson also has deep ties to Maine’s organized labor community, beginning as assistant to the president of the Maine AFL-CIO in the 1970s. Hanson taught labor relations at the University of Maine for more than 30 years, including serving as director of the Bureau of Labor Education.

After retiring in 2005, Hanson worked as executive director of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades.

“My entire life has been in labor, in one way or another,” he said.

Hanson said the party obviously did not do an adequate job of explaining the complicated tax reform bill that was overturned by voters last year and, according to people on both sides of the aisle, helped defeat some Democratic incumbents. But the party also failed to motivate voters — and particularly young voters active in 2008.

“What we need to do is regroup, reinvigorate the party and get people involved,” Hanson said.

Sterry said that, if elected, she would bring a lower-profile approach to the party chair position. Instead, Sterry said, the chair should work hard behind the scenes to ensure that the average Democratic voter as well as local elected officials are the public face of the party.

An Army veteran who was injured during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, Sterry also has worked in disaster response for the American Red Cross nationally and internationally. She is an advocate for veterans, and works to raise awareness about the potential health hazards of exposure to depleted uranium from military explosives. She currently serves as chair of the Democratic State Committee’s finance committee.

Sterry said her major focus as chair would be to make sure those core Democrats from the past — such as environmentalists, union workers and local “mom-and-pop” business owners — have a voice and a place within the party.

“I’m not the driver of the race car,” she said Friday. “I’m the mechanic of the race car.”

In addition to the chair and the vice chair, Democrats also will elect a secretary, a treasurer, an assistant treasurer and membership of the executive committee.

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