The projected wins by Democrats in the Maine House and Senate are impressive and surprising. But if the party wants to continue its success it must keep rejuvenating itself and project a vision for how the state can improve its economic condition. After their losses in 2010, they know they cannot take their control for granted.
The Democrats gained power in the Legislature with targeted, well-organized efforts in vulnerable districts across the state — and by having Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his policies to run against. In emails, fliers, television advertisements and radio spots Democrats blamed LePage and the Republican Legislature for an “anti-middle class agenda” and for supporting “tax cuts for Maine’s millionaires.” They promised to improve the lives of Maine’s workers.
The truth is that Democrats ran against the Republican Legislature’s record despite the fact that they voted for many Republican proposals. Five of six budgets in the 125th Legislature passed with two-thirds majority support. The Republicans’ signature tax reform package passed the appropriations committee unanimously and gained overwhelming approval: 29-5 support in the Senate and 123-19 support in the House.
The last two years gave Democrats perspective on the minority party’s role in making government work. As the majority party now, they should apply what they learned to engage with Republicans and achieve strong legislative consensus that could overturn vetoes. Their challenge is to outline specific economic policies to pursue and rebuild relationships with Republicans after the campaign.
Of course we didn’t always agree with Republican initiatives, particularly with funding losses that affected Maine’s neediest, such as sharp cuts to Head Start and the attempted reduction in Medicaid services without federal approval. But Republicans must get credit for tackling structural problems in their two years in power and doing it, most of the time, with bipartisan support. They increased the state’s pension-funded ratio, kept debt percentages below the national median and streamlined government regulations with LD 1 (which passed the Senate unanimously and had only three dissenters in the House). They worked with Democrats on changes to domestic violence laws.
So Democrats, when they step back into leadership roles, can build on those changes. They will do well to assign patient, intelligent, consensus-building committee leaders and constitutional officers. After Tuesday’s election, LePage said political leaders “must come together to find solutions to our fiscal challenges that will lead to the recovery of our economy and improve prosperity for hardworking families and businesses.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Democrats and Republicans alike must work to foster the growth of innovative products, find new markets and build an intelligent workforce. This will involve continued collaboration between businesses, government and educators to align labor demands with educational programs. It will require getting employees who lose their jobs access to transition training to help fill openings in growing industries, such as health care.
The Legislature should expand research and development funding to encourage the creation of new technology that will one day lower the state’s energy costs. It can help businesses expand exports of commodities to other countries. It can continue to lower the cost of doing business in Maine, taking into consideration energy and labor costs and tax burdens. It can build an online health insurance exchange, so Mainers can shop for health insurance plans. It can continue to fight welfare fraud.
LePage, meanwhile, must give a little if he wants to put Maine’s interests first. This will be a challenge, considering he has sometimes found it difficult to build consensus within his own party. But altering his strategy to focus on building agreements will show he honors voters’ wishes. For Democrats to affirm voters’ renewed support in the party, they need to convert their campaign messages into positive outcomes for Maine’s middle class. To pass a budget and enact legislation that does so, they will have to adapt their ideological campaign message to a more workable consensus-building approach in the State House. They can now apply the effort behind their strong, targeted campaign attacks in Republican House and Senate districts to economic policies.