AUGUSTA, Maine — Bedraggled and bleary-eyed, members of the 126th Legislature scuttled out of the State House early Thursday morning after the House and Senate recessed. Lawmakers will return this week to tackle the last bits of unfinished business for the session, including a promised budget veto from Gov. Paul LePage. But with the exception of that brief revival, the curtain has dropped on the 126th’s first act.
Until a budget’s in place, it’s too early to declare overall winners and losers for the session. Instead, let’s assess the 126th Legislature on how its members added to the State House’s legacy for political theater.
Here are a few lawmakers whose performances stood out during the first session:
Sen. Dawn Hill (D)
The Democrat from Cape Neddick struck a power chord on behalf of all legislators, not just those in her party, when she muted Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to address the Appropriations Committee after he showed up unannounced at a May 19 meeting of the budget-writing panel. By doing so, she asserted the Legislature’s equal stature with the executive branch in the process of enacting a budget.
Hill’s more nuanced leadership as Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee played a key role in that panel’s ability to reach unanimous bipartisan agreement on a compromise budget that won two-thirds support in both the House and Senate at a time when state government is wrestling with its most trying financial and political challenges in decades.
She’s not showy, but Hill accomplished what she set out to achieve in a way that accumulated respect from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Doug Thomas (R)
While some Senate Republicans’ comments in opposition to majority Democrats’ proposals came off as petty and petulant, Thomas consistently peppered his floor speeches and committee comments with wit and passion that enlivened the debate, often steering it to conclusion. Even those who disagree with his conservative positions have to admire Thomas for his flair and clarity in advocating for what he believes is best for rural Mainers.
Sen. Seth Goodall (D)
Senate Democrats are a far more homogenous group than their House peers, but the fact that they almost always voted as a unified bloc throughout the session is a testament to the persuasive skills of the majority leader from Richmond. Goodall’s affable but principled approach to legislating allowed him to keep his own caucus in line while adding to his reputation as a consensus builder with his work on a task force that actually came up with some tangible ways to address Maine’s workforce skills gap and his attempts to reach compromise with moderate Senate Republicans on tax reform and key issues that divided the parties. The trust he’s built with Republican senators such as Roger Katz and Tom Saviello might be enough to keep at least five Senate Republicans on board to help override a budget veto.
In terms of political theater, Goodall fulfills the role of director more than that of player. His departure at the end of the session to lead the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Northeast regional office will deprive the Senate of a unifying presence.
Rep. Kenneth Fredette (R)
The Newport Republican’s odd and embarrassing “man brain” speech about Medicaid expansion will continue to provide fodder for political opponents, but it can’t overshadow the fact that he became one of the State House’s most influential power brokers this session.
Despite slipping into minority status, House Republicans stood toe-to-toe with Democrats throughout the session, seizing the initiative on gun rights and parlaying veto override votes to their advantage. In just his second term, Fredette adeptly managed his caucus, keeping them consistently relevant in the struggles between LePage and Democratic legislative leaders by occasionally breaking with the governor on veto votes and other matters.
Service on the Appropriations Committee during his first term seems to have given Fredette important perspective on the value that compromise brings to the legislative process. His next big test as House minority leader will be whether he can keep enough House Republicans from caving to pressure from LePage and reversing their votes to sustain the governor’s expected veto of the compromise budget that passed the House and Senate with veto-proof margins the first time around.
Rep. Diane Russell (D)
The Portland Democrat has gained a reputation for sponsoring ultra-liberal legislation that has no chance of passing, exemplified by a silly “sell the Blaine House” bill this session. However, she’s mastered the use of social media to push her proposals closer to passage. A House member who forged an alliance between liberal and libertarian faction to come within four votes of sending a recreational marijuana referendum to the voters, as was the case this year, can’t be dismissed.
Rep. Corey Wilson (R)
The first-term Augusta Republican, an Iraq war veteran, found himself in the middle of a political firestorm in February when controversy erupted over his bill proposing to exempt information about concealed weapons permit holders from the state’s Freedom of Access law. Republican legislators, LePage, Maine Republican Party leaders and gun-rights advocates seized on the BDN’s request for information about permit holders throughout the state to enact emergency legislation based on Wilson’s bill. An amended version of the bill, shielding personal information from the public, was enacted at the end of April.
Wilson also tangled with Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a veteran Democratic lawmaker who chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on which Wilson serves. And he spoke up from the House floor last Wednesday when he felt House Speaker Mark Eves was rushing through a veto override vote on Medicaid expansion.
But Wilson’s voting record shows him to be anything but a lockstep Republican. He was one of a handful of GOP legislators to support Medicaid expansion, and his votes on other issues aligned with Democrats more often than almost any other Republican House member.
Wilson’s independence and willingness to share perspectives that differ from partisan orthodoxy make him a maverick worth watching.
Of course, the drama germinated in the House and Senate is little more than backyard community theater compared to the big show that came from the governor’s office throughout the session. Although he rarely emerged from behind the curtain, LePage occupied center stage throughout this year’s legislative session.
On with the show.