PORTLAND, Maine — Barry Hobbins, a Democrat with more than two decades of past legislative service, won a unanimous committee endorsement Tuesday to serve as the state’s next utility ratepayer watchdog. The vote advances his nomination, by Gov. Paul LePage, to the Senate.
The unanimous committee support signals what should be an easy road to Senate confirmation, which would give Hobbins a four-year term as Maine’s public advocate.
In the role, Hobbins would lead an office of attorneys and staff to represent low-income, residential and small business utility customers in cases that come before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The position pays about $120,000 a year, plus benefits, according to the state’s “open checkbook” website.
Hobbins’ long tenure in the State House showed Tuesday afternoon, as legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle turned out to support his nomination. They lauded his ability to compromise, crediting him with work to pass a wide-ranging energy bill in 2013, dubbed the Omnibus Energy Act.
His career in Democratic politics spans almost all of his adult life. Upon his nomination, he said “you would think that would foreclose any opportunity for someone like me to be appointed by a Republican. [LePage] looked beyond all that, and quite frankly, I’m glad that he did.”
As an attorney, Hobbins spent time lobbying for clients including AT&T and he’s spent years raising funds for political causes, but he told committee members Tuesday that the relationships would not have a bearing on his work as public advocate, if confirmed.
Prominent Republicans turned out to support Hobbins’ nomination Tuesday, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, and former Sen. Edward Youngblood of Brewer.
The nomination also got a nod from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, who opposed Hobbins’ successful 2010 bid to lead the Democratic minority in the Senate.
“Instead of holding that against me, I think he actually tried harder to build trust,” Jackson said.
Hobbins returned to private law practice since losing a primary contest to Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco, who was a House Representative at the time. Chenette also testified in support of Hobbins’ public advocate nomination Tuesday.
Hobbins would replace Tim Schneider, whom LePage appointed to the position in 2013 out of private practice at the Portland law firm Pierce Atwood. Schneider’s office led a legislative compromise on solar policy last year, which prompted solar skeptic LePage to call Schneider’s appointment one of the “worst decisions in my life” in a radio interview.
The governor’s office on Tuesday struck a more conciliatory tone.
“Tim has thoroughly and fairly and independently represented Maine ratepayers,” said Kathleen Newman, the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
Hobbins said that he would respect the positions the Office of the Public Advocate already has staked out in bills before the Legislature and in ongoing cases before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
“I am not going to inject myself in this session into these issues that the public advocate has already taken a position on,” Hobbins said.