The “I’s” have it: Maine House undergoes party affiliation shakeup



What is up with all the tossing and turning within the membership of Maine’s House of Representatives? Four members of the House have dropped their party affiliations this year and now serve as independents.

The party tally at the moment is Democrats 74, Republicans 70, other 6. (There is one vacancy in the House.) It takes 76 representatives to make an outright majority, so this is something of a big deal. Mind you, most of the “other” reps are likely to vote as the Democrats do much of the time, but still.

One “other” is a Common Sense Independent, a political designation adopted by Rep. Kent Ackley of Monmouth that does not indicate an official party. There are four plain vanilla, small “I” independent or “unenrolled” members. The website of the House of Representatives lists three members as “independent” and one as “unenrolled.” It is a distinction without a difference.

Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland, serving his second term, gave up his Republican status last January. Reps. Denise Harlow (Portland) and Ralph Chapman (Brooksville), both serving their fourth terms in the House, gave up their membership in the Democratic caucus last spring, and now Rep. Marty Grohman (Biddeford) has followed suit. All have described a degree of disenchantment or frustration with various aspects of the political process more than disagreements with the party they previously represented.

Rep. Chapman has taken it a step further, and is now enrolled as a Green Independent, Maine’s only other official party. The Greens qualified as a party in 2002, and though their numbers are small, they have increased almost threefold since then. Libertarians made a bid to become Maine’s fourth official political party a few years back, but failed to achieve enrollment of the necessary 5,000 certified registered voters.

Rep. Owen Casas (Rockport) is serving his first term in the House and ran as an independent. He has said that he chose to run independent as a way of staking claim to the middle ground, able to reach out to both ends of the political spectrum and communicate with constituents of differing political persuasions.

The decision to serve as an independent is not one to be taken lightly. In the House, with more than four times the membership of the Senate, it is easier to be marginalized. But with the House as closely divided as it is just now, every vote counts. The parties are not likely to want to turn defectors into outright enemies.

The half-dozen “others” in the House wield quite a bit of power, or could if they work together. They have yet to show any signs of functioning as a bloc, and with half of the session behind us now, the impact of these members’ departure from their parties is limited.

Only a subsequent election would determine the fate of a representative who drops or changes his or her party affiliation. Should Republican-turned-independent Rep. Battle decide to run again, as an independent this time, his district will have the chance to weigh in on his new status.

Just seven Democrats are ineligible to run again due to term limits. Fourteen Republicans are in that boat. That means there will be plenty of incumbents running in both chambers. Given the slight upward tick of representatives serving as independents, will there be a corresponding increase in the number of independent candidates?

A new organization called Maine Independents hopes so. Declaring that “61 percent of Americans desire an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties,” it has undertaken the recruitment of independent candidates for the Maine Legislature and will assist independent candidates in planning their campaigns. The political parties have always had extensive training and financing for their candidates, but independents have been on their own. No longer.

A second organization, the Centrist Project, bills itself as “America’s first Unparty.” It is a national effort to “organize Centrist Americans” and promote independent candidates. Maine is one of the Centrist Project’s target states, where they hope to see enough independents elected to have an impact on state decision-making. The group has endorsed independent candidate Terry Hayes of Buckfield for governor, and supports its fellow organization, Maine Independents.

Independent candidates have already declared for many of Maine’s 2018 races, including for governor (Hayes), the 2nd Congressional District (Will Hoar of Southwest Harbor) and four House races. It is early days for legislative races; more independents will surely jump in.

Given that over one-third of Maine voters are independents, it would be reasonable to find independent candidates joining races in increasing numbers. They must fight against the political “wisdom” that independents can’t win. They can, and with the support of these new advocacy groups they just might be able to do so in increasing numbers.

They have a harder time without the resources of a party behind them, but in a state like Maine, small in population and high in personal connections, it can be done. Take an independent to lunch, and tell your friends about him — or her. It gives us all another choice at the polls, and may be a way to break through the increasing dysfunction in government.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.