NORWAY, Maine — As Wednesday’s flash rainstorm lashed the windows of the 290 Maine Street pub, state Sen. Rick Bennett was holding court.
The Republican from Oxford County sat with Carol Howard and Linda DuBois, a Republican from New Gloucester and a Democrat from Hampden, respectively. They were not constituents, but opponents of Central Maine Power’s transmission corridor project who wanted to meet Bennett in person.
They wanted to know why Bennett, a top CMP critic, had introduced a joint resolution on the final day of the session declaring the Legislature felt the corridor constituted a “substantial alteration” of public lands. The approved resolution was aimed at a court case centered on whether a lease of public lands critical to the project should require a legislative vote.
Bennett said he wanted to ensure the Legislature had the last word in the debate after Bennett saw the biggest efforts to hurt CMP that he championed fall to Gov. Janet Mills’ veto pen. Those included bills limiting referendum spending for companies with foreign government ownership and asking voters to create a consumer-owned utility.
“I’m not frustrated,” he said, “it’s just the way it is.”
Bennett was just elected to the state Senate last fall, but he is well acquainted with the way political power moves in Augusta, and he quickly signed onto the biggest political fights of the year after he was sworn in.
A lawmaker for 12 years in the 1990s and early 2000s — he also ran for Congress in 1994, losing to Democrat John Baldacci — Bennett has long been known as a shrewd political broker.
He famously devised a power-sharing agreement with Mike Michaud — then a fellow state senator who would later be elected to Congress — when the Senate was evenly divided from 2000 to 2002. The partnership led to the two concocting their own budget deal in 2001, throwing out months of their colleagues’ budget work and alienating many in both parties in the process.
After leaving the state Senate in 2004, Bennett ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, but didn’t make it past the Republican primary. He went on to serve as the Maine Republican Party chair from 2013 to 2017.
Bennett’s trajectory this session has at times aligned him with Democrats and led him to actively defy his own party. He notably was one of two Republican defectors who ensured a supplemental budget passed in March. But his deep ties to the GOP and loyalty on key party issues make him a valuable member, while his willingness to forge bipartisan alliances and engage the media show a drive to get his message across through whatever avenues are available.
“My fidelity is not to a party,” he said during a Thursday interview. “My fidelity is to the people who elected me, and I never want to be put in the position of saying well, ‘I did that because that’s what the Republicans were doing.’”
Bennett’s legislative efforts ran the gamut from proposing a ban on aerial spraying of certain herbicides with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, to allying himself with Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, to propose the referendum spending bill and a successful first-in-the-nation recycling bill that charges manufacturers to dispose of packaging to help fund local recycling programs.
He partnered with Mills to create a new authority to steward Maine’s broadband future.
At the same time, Bennett also supported limiting the governor’s emergency powers and held steady with Republicans to vote against simple-majority budgets proposed by Democrats. Bennett said he was likely to support former Gov. Paul LePage in his comeback campaign against Mills next year, saying he was “disappointed” in her stance toward CMP-related bills, although LePage also supports the corridor that Bennett opposes.
“He’s a bit of an enigma,” said Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, who co-chairs the Legislature’s environmental committee and has a podcast with Bennett. “He’s in the media every day, he’s good at getting his message out there. … It’s fascinating, super interesting to watch in action.”
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he saw a chance for alignment with Bennett on the consumer-owned utility bill based on his status as a candidate receiving Maine Clean Election Act campaign funding and involvement with the board of Maine-based internet and telecom company Great Works Internet. Berry said the alliance would have made sense regardless of their differing political affiliations.
Chris Jackson, a lobbyist with Mitchell Tardy Jackson who became Bennett’s special assistant when he led the Senate and managed his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, said none of his votes should surprise those who know him.
“I think his focus is and always has been on what’s best for the people of Maine in general and more specifically his constituents in western Maine,” Jackson said. “But he’s still inherently political, even as his voting record becomes increasingly bipartisan. Perhaps he’s attempting to change the party.”
Bennett attributed his success in making alliances to a willingness to see issues differently, saying lawmakers tend to think “narrowly” about certain issues. He pointed to the recycling bill. Some Republicans viewed it as a packaging tax, but Bennett, who was the lone Senate Republican to support it, said it was a matter of corporate responsibility.
“Why shouldn’t the companies that produce the packaging deal with it, instead of the taxpayers?” he said.
That attitude resonated with Howard, the New Gloucester Republican who attended Bennett’s office hours last week. Though they share a party affiliation, Howard said she liked that Bennett seemed to vote for “what he thinks is right.”
With such a high profile, some wonder if Bennett sees another run for higher office in his future. Bennett did not rule the idea out entirely, but for now, he only intends to run for his seat again next fall.
“I really love the freedom I have in policymaking and many other ways by just focusing on what people honored me with, which is being their state senator out here in these 13 towns,” he said. “I just really want to do a good job at that.”