EASTPORT, Maine — Washington County Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Monday that the GOP takeover of the Blaine House, the state House of Representatives and the Maine Senate means a new focus on job creation and common sense.
With his election as Senate president Friday, Raye became the first Washington County senator to hold the seat since the late Sen. Harold Merchie of Calais won the post in 1932.
Sitting Monday in Raye’s Mustard Mill in Eastport, which he operates with his wife, Karen Raye, the new Senate chief reflected Monday on what this plurality now means to the county and state.
“The eyes of Maine are upon us [Republicans],” Raye said. “This is a tremendous opportunity and an awesome responsibility. Common-sense solutions are what have been missing in Augusta.”
As recently as 2002, Washington County primarily was represented by Democrats — that year, there were five Democrats and one Republican representing the county in Augusta.
Over the past eight years, however, Raye said the county has shifted due to its dissatisfaction with Augusta. The entire Washington County delegation now is Republican.
Raye was re-elected last week to a fourth term representing Senate District 29 — 60 towns and cities in Washington and Hancock counties.
He garnered 71.3 percent of the vote, defeating his challenger, a Democrat, by a vote of 9,849 to 3,965. Raye’s winning margin was the largest of the 20 GOP senators who were victorious in Nov. 2 elections.
This year marks the first time Maine has elected a Republican governor, a Republican majority in the state Senate and a Republican majority in the state House since 1962. Because Maine does not have a lieutenant governor, the Senate president is next in the line of succession to the governor’s office.
Raye pledged to work closely with Gov.-elect Paul LePage on key issues, but to remain deeply rooted in Washington and Hancock counties.
“The only way things are going to happen in Augusta is for the Legislature and the governor to work in partnership,” he said.
Raye said that partnership would be all about creating jobs and an open-door business atmosphere.
“Maine needs to become a welcoming place for business,” Raye said. “We need to tackle Maine’s regulatory process that now strangles business and looks at business as the enemy.”
He said that does not mean Augusta will become soft on environmental protection.
“The problem is that the economy and the environment haven’t been balanced for years. You can preserve the environment and still welcome business,” he said.
Raye said there has been a pattern in Augusta of complete disrespect of property rights. A glaring example of that, he said, can be seen in the debate over liquefied natural gas in Washington County.
“The LNG issue goes back to 2004 in Washington County,” he said. “Here we are, six years later, and we are still limping along through a regulatory morass, despite both Robbinston and Calais overwhelmingly favoring LNG development. Meanwhile, the Irving Corporation in New Brunswick already has their facility up and running.”
Raye said Maine needs to provide answers to business inquiries and get applicants answers.
“Now, we are sending the signal to business that if you come here, you are in for it.”
Raye said he was not promoting a carte blanche attitude for business development.
“I’m not saying look the other way and let them do something awful. I’m saying we need balance,” he said. Maine is now considered the worst state in the country for doing business, according to Forbes magazine, Raye said.
Beyond job creation, Raye said the state’s budget crisis needs to be a priority.
“This must continue to dominate the agenda,” he said. “Maine has been in the red over the last several cycles, but it has not been done in a way that is based on thoughtful priorities. It has been based on getting something together that the governor will sign.”
An “elephant in the room” is also Maine’s welfare system, which Raye said needs a complete overhaul, as well as the Dirigo Health program, which he called “by every measure, a failure.”
“Unfortunately, we are going to have a struggle when dealing with the federal government,” Raye added. “President Obama has tied the hands of state government and I think we are going to see state legislatures and governors across the country start to push back.”
Raye said his new position as Senate president will keep him in Augusta for many hours and weeks, but that he will always be rooted in Washington County.
“Washington County is so much of who I am,” he said. “It has shaped me.”
He said he is excitedly optimistic about the county’s future. “We now have people in county government, in towns and cities and in the Legislature that are all rowing in the same direction,” he said.
Although Washington County has seen many proposals for growth slip away, Raye said there is much to build on. He pointed to an $8 million expansion at the Port of Eastport; the new private investment of $64 million in the Woodland Mill LLC, formerly Domtar; innovative tidal energy research in Cobscook Bay that is being watched internationally; the rebound of the aquaculture industry and broadband expansion led by Axiom Technologies in Machias.
“I have always been concerned for Maine’s focus in America,” he said, “but I will also never forget Washington County’s place in Maine.”
Raye said the previous Democratic majority in Augusta has been insensitive to rural Maine. He said the legacy of school funding “is a horror to rural Maine.”
People in Washington County want jobs, Raye said.
“They want an economy that will support them and their families.”
Raye said he could drive around the Eastport area and point to home after home where the homeowners’ children have left the area for employment.
“We’ve been exporting our youth for decades, and that must stop,” he said.
Raye promised he would reach across the aisle and “would provide a degree of fairness not always present in Augusta toward the minority party.”
“I intend to lead by example,” Raye said. “Common-sense solutions have been the Republican theme, and that is what has been missing in Augusta.”