TOPSHAM, Maine — After a legislative session that highlighted cavernous fissures among Republicans, followed last month by Gov. Paul LePage’s arguably most damaging and divisive comments yet, forces that would put more Democrats in the Legislature appear to be aligning, with one exception: a policy agenda that resonates with voters.
Democratic legislative leaders hopeful of securing significant House and Senate majorities in November sought to launch a new narrative Tuesday about their vision for the future of Maine. Dubbed “ A Better State of Maine,” the policy rollout was wide-ranging and touched on some of Maine’s worst problems: aging roads, inadequate broadband service, a high cost-of-living for middle-class families and the grim reality that too many of Maine’s young people move elsewhere to make a living.
Lawmakers kept their comments rooted in generalities.
On economic development:
“We have heard over and over again about the need for a skilled, trained workforce that is aligned with the needs that we have,” said House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick.
On transportation infrastructure:
“For the sake of business, for the sake of tourists and for the sake of residents, we need to repair, rebuild and replace our roads, bridges, rails, airports, seaport and multiple-use facilities,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick.
“When the market got to places or towns or roads that were not connectible, we stopped,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport, who highlighted incremental progress made in recent years with the ConnectME Authority. “Without this infrastructure, we do not participate in the global economy.”
“We need to develop engineering plans that can modernize our grid,” said Gideon. “That means the ability to stop building transmission lines … and [creating] the ability for more people to control their energy costs by building their own energy sources.”
And on it went, through home and college affordability, early childhood education and more affordable home ownership. The goals were clear and plentiful. Details on how to achieve them were not.
When the 90-minute presentation reached the question-and-answer phase, some in the audience said they were looking for more specifics.
“I want to applaud the Maine Democrats for putting on this presentation,” said Richard Rudolph of Portland. “However, I think you need to be more specific in terms of how we might go ahead and achieve some of these goals.”
Robert Galloupe of Brunswick said most of the issues that were discussed have been the cause of years of consternation amid failed efforts to correct them.
“Some people had good points, but it’s all stuff that’s been kicked around before,” he said. “It was not invigorating, shall we say. There’s nothing new here.”
Jill Ducharme of Wayne, who is running for the Legislature as a Democrat, asked what’s almost always the hardest question for new policy initiatives: “Where is this money going to come from?”
Democrats are trying to shift the political conversation from politics to policy. Though Democrats can claim recent progress on some issues — and victories for stopping some Republican initiatives they don’t support — they have been kept largely on defense during LePage’s tenure. When they are not playing defense, they are often sitting back while LePage ignites more controversies.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland said LePage has attracted too much attention — and not the right kind.
“We’ve just had probably the worst month in our state’s history, and I think people want to get back to the issues,” he said to reporters after the event. “We’re doing this because we think the people of Maine want to hear something of substance.”
They’re trying to avoid another “anti-LePage” campaign. That sort of messaging worked in 2012, when Democrats stormed back to majorities in the House and Senate, but it backfired mightily in 2014 when LePage was re-elected with more support than ever and Republicans made major gains in the Legislature. On Tuesday, there were ample opportunities to attack LePage and some of the legislative Republicans who have supported him, but Democrats passed on the opportunities.
When Eves brought up how international energy conglomerate Statoil was shooed out of Maine in 2013, he didn’t mention LePage, whose influence led to the offshore wind project’s demise.
Gideon said attacking now complicates compromise later.
“We know that if we want to get any substantive work done for the people of Maine, it has to be done together,” she said. “Every time we leave a legislative session, if we want to come back and do our jobs in the future, we have to press the reset button.”
Eves said the strategy is to strike a positive tone and to rise above “partisan bickering.”
“I’m sick and tired of that, and I know my neighbors are, and I know the entire state is,” he said.
LePage and Republicans are winning on election-winning messaging. While Democrats have spoken in big-picture terms, Republicans have been more specific and for the most part lined up behind LePage on policy. Their aggressive focus on welfare reform in advance of the 2014 re-election caught the attention of Mainers and vaulted LePage to re-election. When LePage hosts his public town hall meetings, he is very specific about both his goals and proposals for reducing the income tax — though it can be and is argued that he ignores the revenue side of that equation — stripping away regulatory burdens and lowering energy costs.
Democrats said now is the time to present a vision. Details and implementation are for later. They said some of their proposals are under development; others will be developed when the new Legislature is seated.
“Right now what we’re looking at is a first step. It’s a vision,” said Hill. “Then we will start to develop a more detailed plan. Then once we have a plan, we can talk about funding for it.”
John Richardson of Brunswick, a former Democrat representative who was elected House speaker in 2005, said Democratic successes a decade ago — including vast Democratic majorities from 2009 to 2012 — derived from a message and policy agenda that resonated with middle-class voters. Richardson, a lawyer who also serves as a television commentator on Maine politics, said it’s now LePage who lacks a comprehensive vision.
“The high-level ideas that were presented last night are ideas that are not new but are ideas that have not been talked about for quite some time,” said Richardson. “A lack of a comprehensive plan from the LePage administration has opened the door for the Democrats to discuss again what plans they have for the middle class. … The message I thought was very well crafted, but the details remain to be seen.”
Richardson said he expects that part of the reason Democrats are trying to reconnect with middle-class voters is because polling data shows that those voter are up for grabs, but he said there is more work to be done.
“I do think more information is necessary to convince those voters who are sitting on the fence about who they are going to support in the fall,” he said.
Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist, Bangor Daily News political columnist and frequent critic of LePage, said with the governor leading the state party and Donald Trump at the top of the national GOP ticket, 2016 has the makings of a banner year for Democratic candidates. But not all is as it may seem, he said, and Democrats are to blame for not articulating a winning vision.
“You can ask any voter on the street what the Maine Republican platform is, and they’re going to get two-thirds of it right,” said Dutson. “Ask the same thing about the Democrats, and most people aren’t going to get the concept. … The Democrats are still working in a pre-LePage, pre-Trump time period. They just have a very difficult time connecting, particularly to rural Maine voters.”
Results in recent Maine legislative elections bear out Dutson’s observation. Democrats have dominated races in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor while losing ground in more rural districts, highlighting the fact that the party can no longer count on unions and Franco-American millworkers to deliver legislative majorities
There are less than 50 days left before the election to see if a repackaged vision can win back old voters or attract new ones — at least more effectively than recent efforts with titles such as “A Better Deal for Maine” and “Maine Made,” which languished as policy documents and did little to raise voters’ confidence in Democrats.
The Democrats’ road show is scheduled to continue next month in Bangor.