AUGUSTA, Maine — Former state Sen. Phil Bartlett, who was one of the youngest-ever Senate majority leaders, was chosen Sunday as the Maine Democratic Party’s new chairman.
Bartlett’s election was of little surprise, though he did have a challenger, Melissa Sterry of Augusta, who has unsuccessfully sought the chairmanship in the past. What was a bit of a surprise for some was the election of Peggy Shaffer of Vassalboro, who was former Senate President Libby Mitchell’s chief of staff, as the party’s vice chairwoman.
Bartlett, 38, of Gorham, replaces former chairman Ben Grant, who resigned earlier this month from the post he had held since 2011. The leadership change comes on the heels of a disastrous election for Democrats in Maine, who lost the 2nd Congressional District seat to Republican Bruce Poliquin, lost the governor’s race to incumbent Republican Paul LePage and lost majority control of the Senate, where Republicans now hold 20 seats to Democrats’ 15.
Bartlett, an attorney and partner in the firm Scaccia, Bartlett & Chabot in Sanford, served eight years in the Maine Senate, ending in 2012 when the state’s term limit law prevented him from seeking re-election. He served as Senate majority leader from 2008-2010.
Bartlett is also one of Maine’s two members of the Democratic National Committee. The chairmen of the state political parties are automatically national committeeman, which means Maine now has Bartlett’s former spot on the national Democratic committee to fill.
He acknowledged that the party has some rebuilding to do. In an interview Monday with the BDN, Bartlett, a Tufts University graduate who earned his law degree at Harvard Law School, said that Democrats’ losses earlier this month resulted from effective campaign rhetoric by Republicans and were not a wholesale rebuke of Democratic ideals.
“I think it’s important to be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions,” he said. “There was clearly a national wave that buoyed Republicans. In Maine, the Republicans did a better job of tapping into the emotions of Maine people. That doesn’t change the fact that all over the state people are working hard, playing by the rules and still struggling to get by. Democrats really need to get back to their core message.”
Bartlett said that message includes ensuring a secure retirement, making it possible for children to have better lives than their parents and nurturing an economy where ample good-paying jobs are available.
“These are all things that Democrats have been fighting for for a long time,” said Bartlett. “I think we all have tremendous respect for the governor, for his personal story and for his tenacity for pursuing the policies he cares about. While we have different views for the best way forward, we certainly hope we can work together. The people of Maine desperately need us to move out of the economic doldrums we’ve been stuck in.”
Schaffer was elected vice chairwoman over incumbent Pam Fenrich. She is a small-business advocate in the Secretary of State’s office. Further down the ticket, Heidi Brooks of Lewiston was re-elected as party secretary, Betty Johnson of Lincolnville was re-elected treasurer and Kurt Keef of Hermon was elected vice treasurer.
Party spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said about 85 party members voted for the Democrats’ leadership team on Sunday at the Gov. Hill Mansion in Augusta.
Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the party, said conversations about how to create more electoral success for Democrats in Maine continued on Sunday.
“Our state committee had a thorough and thoughtful meeting [Sunday] about lessons learned from the past election,” said Casale in a written statement. “We look forward to charting a new path forward in the months to come.”