AUGUSTA, Maine — Alex Willette, the House Republicans’ second-in-command and youngest-ever member of state legislative leadership, will not seek re-election this November.
Willette, 25, of Mapleton said Friday he’s leaving the Legislature to focus on his blossoming career as a lawyer. He’ll graduate from the Maine School of Law on May 17.
“I plan on staying involved with the party but maybe taking a few years off on the elected side of things,” Willette said in an interview Friday. “I really loved my time with the Legislature, and I’m extremely thankful and grateful for the opportunity to serve … but starting a law practice in Aroostook County when you have to be in Augusta six months out of the year did not seem feasible. There’s just not enough time in the day.”
Willette represents House District 7, which includes more than 10 municipalities as well as several unorganized townships in northwestern Aroostook County. He was elected in 2010, the year Republicans rode a wave to majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in decades.
As a member of the Transportation Committee, he shepherded a bill through the Legislature that increased the speed limit from 65 mph to 75 mph on the stretch of Interstate 95 from Old Town to Houlton.
“I still have constituents thanking me for that one,” he said Friday.
He was elected assistant House minority leader in December 2012, when Democrats regained legislative majorities, and was elected as Maine’s Republican national committeeman last year, which also made him the youngest elected committeeman ever.
Willette is active in #GEN207, the state party’s initiative to increase youth membership in the GOP. He said that after leaving office in December, when his replacement will be sworn in, he’ll continue his work as national committeemen and with other young party activists.
“As I transition out of office, I’m certainly going to increase my involvement with the party, and help spread the message that the Republican Party is the party of young people,” he said. “Our message of economic freedom and prosperity resonates with young people.”
As assistant minority leader, Willette was responsible for “whipping votes,” a term used to describe the process of keeping a party united behind a single message on any given vote. The idea is for there to be no surprises. During particularly close votes, Willette often could be seen pulling lawmakers out of their seats, making his case for why a particular vote should be a “yes” or “no.” He carried a clipboard with a spreadsheet of all his caucus members, with notes on how they planned to vote.
Willette said the role gets a bad rap by media portrayals such as Frank Underwood in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” The fictional Underwood is a stone killer who whips his caucus with manipulation, intimidation and bribery.
“Frank Underwood’s isn’t really my style,” Willette said. “I’m more of a relationship builder. I loved the opportunity to serve as whip. I really maintained great relationships with members of our caucus, and I consider them all part of my family. Having great communication with everybody helped Republicans stick together through this challenging time, with Democrats in the majority.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said he “couldn’t ask for a better teammate.”
Willette’s ability to work with members of an ideologically diverse caucus made him an invaluable asset to Republican leaders not only in the House but throughout the State House, Fredette said.
“Alex has a unique ability to work with everyone in the caucus, the staff in the governor’s office, our Senate colleagues — and do so in a way that was responsible and respectful,” Fredette said. “He really delivered.”
Republican Gov. Paul LePage said in an interview Friday that Willette was an effective leader despite the difficult position of trying to wield legislative power while holding a minority of seats in the House.
“He’s got a long future ahead of him. I understand he’s going to graduate law school so now he’s getting a real job. Now that he’s married, that’s appropriate,” LePage said, with a laugh. “I wish him the very best, and I hope he comes back.”
Democrats and Republicans in the next Legislature will elect leaders in December, after November elections are held in all 151 House and 35 Senate districts.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.