On Dec. 5, the 129th Legislature planned to convene in Augusta for the ceremonial kick-off of the new session. In a one-day event the presiding officers of the House and Senate are formally elected and legislators sworn in. Friends, family and campaign workers fill the State House, proud of those who have stepped forward to serve their districts.
It is the nominees from the majority party who will win the presiding officer elections. Any contests within the parties took place when they chose their nominees. That means Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook County) will be elected Senate president and Rep. Sarah Gideon (D-Freeport) will be re-elected House speaker. Members of the minority party, with no chance of winning, will usually bow to reality and cast their votes for the majority nominee, getting the session off with good grace.
Leadership positions are a matter for the caucuses, and those posts have already been filled. They include the majority and minority leaders and the assistant leaders for each chamber. Those eight positions plus the two presiding officers make up the Legislature’s Leadership Council.
Last term, with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House, the council was evenly split, 5-5. This year with Democratic majorities in both chambers, the numbers are 6-4. Given the council’s scope of authority, that’s a big advantage. Its members are the administrators of the Legislature, providing nonpartisan support services for all legislative activities. They are also the gatekeepers for bill requests after the regular deadline.
The incoming House has two women in leadership, the Senate just one. The average age of House leadership is just under 39 years, possibly a record. Two House leaders are in their 20s. On the Senate side, the average age of leaders is 55.8 years. Three of the Senate’s leaders are in their 60s.
Of concern to those of us who live in the north, east, west or center of Maine, eight of the 10 leadership positions are held by legislators who live south of Augusta. Only two, Sen. Jackson and Rep. Trey Stewart (R-Presque Isle), live above the latitude of Augusta. This is worrisome.
Though efforts are made to discourage thinking in terms of “two Maines,” there is still validity to that dichotomy. Southern Maine, by which is generally meant Portland and its environs, is more populous, more cosmopolitan and has more opportunity for work and education. The center of that part of the state south of Augusta is Portland. The coast, at least as far east as Camden, has similar economic advantages.
The rest of the state covers nearly three-quarters of its land mass but has a much smaller population covering that large amount of geography. By just about every measure, that vast heartland of Maine is where the toughest challenges lie. Limited work and educational opportunities, opioid addiction, alcohol abuse and a struggling economy all conspire to make life in rural Maine an uphill battle.
Leadership heavily skewed to the south does not help. It is one thing to tour rural Maine and get to know legislators from rural regions; it is quite another to grow up there. There is no doubt that Sen. Jackson and Rep. Stewart will be powerful advocates for northern Maine, but Augusta has been struggling for decades to improve opportunities in rural Maine with limited success.
When committee assignments are made, it is the natural inclination of leadership to go with who they know. That is another advantage for the south. Efforts are made to consider gender and geographic balance when committees are put together, but the proof that a fair distribution is reached will be in the pudding.
The opening of a new Legislature is always full of excitement and hope for the future. Maine can take pride in the civility of its elections and the decorum of legislative proceedings. That performance is being threatened by heightened partisan attitudes. As the 129th Legislature is sworn in, legislators would do well to recall the words of outgoing Senate President Mike Thibodeau, who carried the banner for civility and mutual respect throughout his terms in office.
As the Senate prepared for final adjournment votes, Sen. Thibodeau delivered the customary remarks by the presiding officer, saying in part: “Will we continue on the path that together we paved so well, or will this chamber, too, slip into partisan gridlock and dysfunction? Please continue to distinguish this body with respectful and civil debate. Continue to treat each other with the respect that each of you deserve as a member of this body. Continue to ask questions, find the facts, defend your positions, and work with the other side to advance your policy goals … Continue to share your knowledge to help find the path forward.”
A Legislature committed to those ideals cannot help but be a success.