The elephant in the room: LePage makes surprise visit to Senate Democrats

A meeting between Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Senate Democrats on Tuesday left the leader of the Democratic caucus hopeful that a new era of cooperation with LePage has begun.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he invited a representative from LePage’s office to Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions about the upcoming session but was pleasantly surprised when LePage agreed to attend himself.

“I felt on swearing-in day that it would be good to at least ask the governor what he was thinking about,” said Jackson after the meeting. “I have said since the campaign and the election that we wanted to put the pettiness behind us and work with the governor on any issues that we can.”

Most of Tuesday’s conversation revolved around four citizen-initiated referendums, some of which LePage has said repeatedly he would like the Legislature to change. The changes favored by LePage include restoring the tip credit for employers, which was eliminated in Question 4, which raised Maine’s minimum wage, as well as technical problems with Question 1, which legalized recreational marijuana use pending a ballot recount.

Jackson, who has clashed with LePage repeatedly in recent years, said his caucus didn’t agree with everything LePage said but that the approximately 20-minute conversation was important.

“From here we’ll dig in deeper on each referendum in our caucuses,” said Jackson. “The Democrats generally feel like we had an election and people voted the way they did and that’s really important. The governor said that, too, that protecting the will of the voters was important.”

Jackson said the governor told the senators it was the first time Democrats have invited him to one of their meetings. Members of LePage’s communications staff did not respond to questions from the Bangor Daily News.

The meeting does mark a bit of a breakthrough, as LePage eschewed meetings with Senate Democrats during the previous two legislatures. LePage played political cat-and-mouse with the new Democratic leaders of the 126th Legislature, in which Democrats controlled both chambers. The governor irritated Democratic leaders by canceling a number of meeting he had scheduled with them, contributing to a sometimes rocky relationship with former Sen. Justin Alfond, who led Senate Democrats in the 126th and 127th legislatures.

“Regardless of what’s happened between me and him in the past, it’s important for us to do what we can to make things better for the state of Maine,” said Jackson. “Today was hopefully the start of that. … You have to know where everyone is to know where your disagreements are and where your places to collaborate are.”

Jackson said one issue mentioned by LePage was that he favors the more widespread use of heat pumps in Maine as part of the solution to high energy prices.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” said Jackson. “Just by having that short meeting, we probably came up with something that we can all work on this upcoming legislative session.”

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.