AUGUSTA, Maine — With Maine voters growing more attentive to the November elections, the people running for the State House have their eyes cast a bit further into the future to when the new Legislature chooses its leaders for the next two years.
Although the most major development come November will be which party controls the House and Senate after the election, the people who will serve as House speaker and Senate president — and their assistants — will take on heightened significance.
Those leaders will play key roles in determining Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy, as they will set the legislative agenda during his last two years in office. If Democrats prevail, they will be positioned to stifle LePage’s agenda. If Republicans win majorities — and they find common ground with LePage that eluded GOP leadership in the Senate during the past two years — they could help cement LePage’s place as one of the most influential and disruptive governors in Maine history.
Six months before legislators elect new leaders, which usually happens in early December, one thing is clear: Republicans aim to keep their current leadership team intact while Democrats, because of term limits and other factors, will usher in new leaders.
Why is this important?
They decide what’s debated and who wields power on committees. Legislative leaders have a front seat at the table in crucial negotiations over policy and budget decisions. As members of the Legislative Council, they control the flow of after-deadline and second-session bill requests. They negotiate committee assignments for all other lawmakers and assign seats in the chambers of the State House, which are hotly contested by some.
They become the voice of their party in the State House. From a wider perspective, they are the figureheads who are most visible to Mainers, most of whom likely would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of the Legislature’s 186 members.
They’re ambitious. Some legislative leaders use the exposure they gain through leadership positions as a springboard to another office, such as House members trying to move to the Senate — which Skowhegan Democrat Jeff McCabe is trying to do this year — or for future gubernatorial or congressional runs. The race for leadership positions now could be a preview of a 2018 gubernatorial slate that is still far from clear.
They help other candidates. One of the chief jobs of a legislative leader isn’t carried out at the State House. It’s helping fellow party members succeed in elections. This is done through organizing, campaigning and by raising funds to buy ads and influence voters.
They’re responsible if things go wrong. If a party loses majority control of one of the legislative chambers, incumbent legislative leaders bear a lot of the blame — fairly or not. That often means they are out of leadership, though there have been exceptions. Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, for example, retained the top spot for his caucus in the Senate in 2014 after Republicans took over the majority there, but it was only after several speeches by fellow senators who said Alfond should be supported despite the election results.
How do we know who will run for leadership?
Technically, we don’t. When the elections happen, anyone in the House or Senate can submit his or her name for consideration. Typically, the votes are cast anonymously. Candidates have to be nominated by others and after they give their speeches, the voting begins. They’re campaigns that begin and end on a single day.
The balances of power in the House and Senate are crucial because, among other reasons, whoever has the majority has an extra leader with a lofty title: “Senate president” or “speaker of the House.” In all, there are 10 positions in legislative leadership. With the current split majority, seats on the Legislative Council are divided evenly, 5-5.
Well, actually, we do kind of know. People who want to be legislative leaders usually are open about it, especially with other members of the Legislature, long in advance. However, the most tangible sign that someone has his or her eye on the prize is whether they’re running what is known as a leadership political action committee. Leadership PACs support either Republican or Democratic candidates with direct financial contributions. This year, those contributions will intensify later this summer. There are currently more than 30 active PACs run by sitting lawmakers, according to data kept by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
So who’s running?
Senate Republicans staying put. Everyone on the Republican side has more time left under Maine’s term limits, and all of them are running leadership PACs. While it is possible for some changes to occur — especially if the GOP loses control of the Senate or gains the majority in the House — the Republican candidates are likely to remain the same if they’re all re-elected. That means Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport will be back, though he could be demoted to minority leader if Republicans lose the majority in the Senate, which some are predicting is possible if not likely.
Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon and Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Newport will be back. Also running PACs among sitting Republican senators are Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth, who is entering his fourth term if re-elected, and first-term Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn.
Brakey, who is holding a fundraiser with LePage on Monday, could emerge as a challenger if the governor succeeds in his avowed effort to elect Republicans more likely to march in step with him.
House Republicans staying put. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester are both running PACs, but so are some other influential Republicans. They include Reps. Jeff Timberlake of Turner and Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, who hold influential posts on the Legislature’s budget and health committees, respectively. Also running PACs are Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick, Nathan Wadsworth of Hiram, Jeffrey Pierce of Dresden and Matthew Pouliot of Augusta.
The Democratic picture is less clear.
Many of their leaders in the House are termed out or running for another office. House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick is termed out and House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan is running for the Senate. Among the current leaders, that leaves Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport in line to be the next speaker of the House if Democrats maintain the majority there. Two House members who have considerable influence and who have been leaders in the past or at least shown interest — Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco and Rep. Mark Dion of Portland — are running for the Senate.
People running leadership PACs and who possibly are interested in leadership positions for the House Democrats are Reps. Jared Golden of Lewiston, Craig Hickman of Winthrop, Charlotte Warren of Hallowell and Andrew McLean of Gorham. Also lurking as a possibility for a leadership position is former House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who is running against Republican Rep. Brian Hobart to return to the Legislature this year.
It’s the same situation in the Senate. With Alfond termed out, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick could be in line to take his place — or perhaps become the next Senate president, if her party gains the majority. However, former Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, who has raised plenty of money in his bid to return to the Senate, is also a likely candidate for Senate president. He is a former legislative leader who gained statewide notoriety and a loyal following among many Democrats for being one of the most vocal opponents of LePage.
Also running leadership PACs are legislative veteran and former Secretary of State Bill Diamond, the senator from Windham, as well as Sen. Nathan Libby of Lewiston. Dion and Hobbins also could factor into the leadership elections if their bids for the Senate are successful.
Isn’t it a bit early to be thinking about new legislative leaders?
Perhaps. After all, we haven’t been through the primary yet, not to mention the general election. However, leadership campaigns for the 128th Legislature have been ongoing since the day leaders were elected for the 127th. With voters focused on who they’ll support in November, lawmakers have their eye on another prize — one that could come with a gavel and a springboard to higher office in the future.