AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine politics in 2020 saw a U.S. Senate race that shattered spending records, a legislative session cut short by the coronavirus pandemic and local governments scrambling to adapt to strained finances and new demands.
In that environment, some political figures showed their staying power and others look primed to take on greater roles next year. From the halls of Washington to the Augusta Civic Center to City Hall in Bangor, here are 10 Maine politicians to watch in 2021.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins
Collins was decisively re-elected this year after a grueling campaign, making her the first Maine senator ever popularly elected to five terms. The Washington she will return to next year could look a lot different from the one she inhabited for the previous four terms.
The moderate Republican was often in uncomfortable positions during the era of President Donald Trump. She was often asked to comment on his tweets of the day as Democrats hammered her answers and bipartisan negotiating gave way to chaos. Case in point, she was among the senators to hammer out a $900 billion coronavirus relief package this month only to watch the Republican president blow up the deal after it passed both houses of Congress.
Collins, who has a long friendship with President-elect Joe Biden, could take on a greater role next year with her party out of the White House. While the final composition of the Senate is not yet set, with party control depending on the outcomes of two Georgia runoffs in early January, Collins is likely to find herself in a position where relatively little can get through the upper chamber without her support. That’s a powerful place to be.
Gov. Janet Mills
The composition of the Maine Legislature may not look too different in the second half of Mills’ first term as governor, but the political landscape still does. Although the Democratic governor has taken plenty of heat from conservative Republicans over her coronavirus restrictions this year, her party still has majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
But after a year where the Legislature was notable mostly for its absence, Mills will have to work with lawmakers to address a massive budget gap, a task that could make it more difficult for her to advance priorities in other policy areas. If an economic recovery is slow, it could put her planned 2022 reelection bid in jeopardy.
The governor looks determined to go ahead with some pre-pandemic plans. She rolled out a four-year climate agenda earlier this month that calls for aggressive increases in the uses of electric vehicles and high-efficiency heat pumps in the next few years. Whether those ideas are ones she can get the lawmakers on board with is the next question.
Former Gov. Paul LePage
“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage said in 2016 when became one of the best-known early endorsers of the future president. Nearly five years later, comparisons between them are as apt as ever. Their hold on the Republican grassroots effectively put the party under their control for the foreseeable future.
No politician animates the Maine conservative base like LePage, who began foreshadowing a 2022 return bid against Mills while he was still in office. Republicans expect a formal run by the spring, but his camp has said no announcement is planned. Virtually since Mills took over, the Maine Republican Party has sold merchandise depicting LePage with a “Miss Me Yet?” tag.
The nomination is his if he wants it, though his long and divisive record in a one-on-one battle with Mills may make for a more difficult set of electoral challenges than those he faced in 2010 or 2014. If he does not run and a crowded primary ensues, his endorsement would be key. One way or another, LePage still holds the cards in Maine Republican politics.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden
Amid recent rumors that U.S. Sen. Angus King was in the running for a Biden administration position, observers began tossing around potential replacements. Many suggested Golden on the heels of a solid win in the swing 2nd Congressional District. King’s appointment never came to pass, but the chatter could foreshadow a future race.
The Democrat has now won twice in a district that twice supported President Donald Trump and got more votes than the president this November. The seat held by the 38-year-old Marine veteran from Lewiston has historically been a launching pad. Six of the seven people to hold it before him have run for statewide office from the seat and four of them won those races.
He began his tenure leading an aggressive charge on campaign finance reform but opposing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and opposing gun control. Golden has said Democrats need to show independence and hit progressives for messaging on police reform.
Golden has downplayed speculation about running for higher office, but ardent supporters peg him as a natural King successor. But U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District has mulled statewide bids during her tenure. Her ex-husband, financier Donald Sussman, backed Golden’s 2018 primary challenger. It could portend an eventual intraparty struggle.
Secretary of State-elect Shenna Bellows
Bellows showed an impressive ability to build a coalition when she won the support of fellow Democratic lawmakers en route to winning her new office especially when three of her five opponents were outgoing House members with strong ties within their caucus.
The new job matches her profile. A former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, she ran unsuccessfully against Collins in 2014 but then proved to be a diligent state senator after being elected two years later. She is now on many shortlists for high-level races to come.
With voting rights a hotter topic than ever, Bellows is poised to push forward progressive ideas including paying for postage for absentee ballots and online voter registration. She has also said her post should be elected by voters and not legislators and indicated interest in strengthening privacy protections and modernizing the state’s technological infrastructure.
House Speaker Ryan Fecteau
Term limits have brought an interesting coda to Fecteau’s legislative tenure. First elected at age 22 to represent Biddeford, the 28-year-old is entering his fourth and final consecutive term as the nation’s youngest speaker and Maine’s youngest since 1842. He now faces the task of managing relationships with Republicans and a fraught budget process during the pandemic.
Fecteau has indicated a willingness to break bread with leading Republican counterparts who are receiving him somewhat warmly — at least to start — although he has signaled opposition to their goal of limiting Mills’ executive powers. He and House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, share the priority of strengthening broadband in the state.
But the finer points on that issue are likely to be where any hang-ups and Fecteau has much to prove as he ascends to a key role at a sensitive time. With a limited window and hard circumstances to deal with, Fecteau has much to prove as we enter 2021.
State Sen. Rick Bennett
Bennett of Oxford is 57 years old but well into his fourth decade at high levels in Maine politics, including stints as Senate president and two runs for Congress. He has never fit neatly into one wing of the Republican Party. As chair of the state party, he was a designated partisan battler, but he is also an environmentalist with a populist bent.
His latest turn is a compelling one. Back in his old seat after a 16-year break from the Legislature, he is instantly one of Maine’s best-known and most experienced lawmakers and will be at the center of major policy debates over the controversial Central Maine Power corridor and the hot pandemic topic of broadband expansion.
Bennett already surprised observers by criticizing Republican leaders this month for not giving him a spot on the committee overseeing utilities, saying it was because of his strident opposition to the project. Long known in Augusta as a tactical operator, his experience and willingness to break with convention make him a wild card.
Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot-Ross
In two terms as a rank-and-file member from Portland, Talbot-Ross has passed legislation on domestic violence against indigenous people while pushing for criminal justice reform. She has been at the forefront of state conversations about racial justice, leading a commission dedicated to recommending solutions to lessen disparities in the justice and health care systems.
The daughter of the state’s first Black legislator, Talbot-Ross is the only Black woman ever elected to either chamber in Maine. Her rise to assistant majority leader this term will be a difficult test of her ability to bring far-flung Democrats in line after their majority was eroded in the 2020 election.
Talbot-Ross hopes that her lived experience will help shepherd the wider Legislature in recognizing the importance of working through those issues, saying real change can only come through disrupting the process and integrating equity into every aspect of policy.
State Rep. Sawin Millett
Debate over the new budget will dominate the legislative session next year as Maine faces a projected deficit of roughly $650 million through mid-2023. Millett, an 83-year-old Republican from Waterford, knows the ins and outs of the state budget process as well as anyone. He has served in four administrations, including as LePage’s budget commissioner.
Millett is the lead House Republican on the budget committee again this year, but others will lead the political banter with Democrats as he figures out finer points of the budget. Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed doubts about raising taxes amid a downturn, so expect the debate to be over where cuts need to be made and how much of Maine’s $258 million rainy day fund lawmakers want to tap into.
Millett argues against overutilizing the fund, pointing to the unique circumstances of this downturn while saying the Legislature should look at making some temporary spending cuts permanent. That could be the starting point for negotiations in Augusta this spring.
Bangor City Councilor Angela Okafor
In a year that has seen local governments contend with strained revenues and new demands for racial justice amid a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed people of color, Okafor has helped drive changes in the Queen City and sits on the state’s economic recovery panel.
Her election in the fall of 2019 was historic. A Nigerian immigrant who runs her own law firm and international market, she became Bangor’s first Black city councilor and was part of a wave of people of color first elected to office in the state and region last year.
Since then, Okafor has spoken about her family’s experiences with racism and advocated for new programs and initiatives, including a racial equity committee for the city and diversity training for students. She helped bring to light cases of racism students faced at Bangor High School, then successfully pushed the school department to appoint a person of color to replace the outside investigator tasked with probing those issues.
BDN writer Charles Eichacker contributed to this report.