Maine independents strive for State House relevance

Good morning from Augusta, where a battery of independent gubernatorial and legislative candidates gathered for a training session and news conference with unenrolled incumbents on Monday. But can they actually change outcomes in the State House?

Independents have been trying to create a party-like support system for candidates. We’ve been watching the tightened organization of independents since last year, when a political action committee linked to former staffers for 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler formed. But it hasn’t reported spending yet this year.

Two independent House members were elected in 2016 — Reps. Kent Ackley of Monmouth and Owen Casas of Rockport. Since then, two Republican incumbents and two Democratic incumbents have also unenrolled, including Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford, who is running against U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District.

Those three independents led Monday’s training session, which also included State Treasurer Terry Hayes, former Lewiston and Auburn Mayor John Jenkins and Ken Capron of Portland, who are running for governor, Maine Senate candidate Crystal Canney of Portland and Walter Riseman of Harrison, who lost narrowly to Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton, in 2016.

There have been few clear victories for the crew of independents in Augusta so far. Now, the independents could wield some power in Augusta. Their numbers make it so Democrats don’t have a numeric majority, though House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is still in charge. That’s because the independents — while they have a different mindset and some are moderate — most often vote with one party or the other.

Five independents proposed a deal on tax conformity in April that they have said was well-received by some party leaders, but the Legislature adjourned before that with lots of business undone, including tax conformity.

The path to power for independents may lie in greater numbers and voting as a bloc … as much as possible. Grohman said he couldn’t point to a specific vote where independents have swung an outcome while voting as a bloc.

Independent bloc-voting is a bit counterintuitive, since most of these people are independent because they didn’t like voting as a bloc in their parties, but it could potentially swing close votes in the Legislature — such as electing presiding officers — and give independents leverage.

Casas said on Monday that have been discussions about doing that in the House, but ideological differences kept them from it and independents didn’t pressure members to vote one way or the other. He called it “a delicate balance” between individual autonomy and leverage.

Mostly, they highlighted their openness to discuss issues across party lines, with Hayes saying “how we do things is as important as what we try to do.”

Clarification: Rep. Denise Harlow, I-Portland, said that she didn’t sign onto the tax conformity deal presented by the other five House independents. This item was updated to reflect that all six independents didn’t agree.

Environmental groups ask to be taken out of Cote attack ad on Mills

The first attack ad of the 2018 gubernatorial race led to heartburn for two groups that were named. Yesterday’s Daily Brief saw something like this coming and later on Monday, attorney Adam Cote released a 32-second TV ad with 18 seconds dedicated to highlighting his record and about 10 seconds dedicated to attacking Attorney General Janet Mills.

It’s an extension of a conflict that began in March, when tribes and progressive groups sent a letter to Mills criticizing her for the state’s opposition to federal water quality standards that the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe support. Mills’ office has called them “arbitrary” and said that her nonpartisan staff unanimously recommended the position.

In the ad, Cote says Mills was “wrong to join Gov. [Paul] LePage in refusing to strengthen water protections” and pointing to six groups who he says “disagree with Janet, too.” But an uninitiated viewer may not pick up the nuance there and two of the groups that signed the letter — the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Conservation Voters — asked to be removed from the ad quickly after its release on Monday.

Pete Didisheim, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s advocacy director, said the group “was never asked for authorization and would never have provided it.” Maureen Drouin, Maine Conservation Voters’ executive director, said an endorsement could be construed from it. Both said Cote’s campaign quickly agreed.

In a statement, Cote spokeswoman Monica Castellanos said the letter was “appropriate to use in the ad” and it is “not negative on our part to point it out.” She said the new version of the ad will go on TV by Tuesday’s end. However, the old version was still on YouTube on Tuesday morning.

Maine teachers union has a new president

The Maine Education Association, a labor union that represents teachers and school administrators throughout Maine, has elected a new leadership slate. Taking over as president of the organization is Grace Leavitt, a Spanish teacher in SAD 51 who has been the organization’s vice president for six years. Leavitt replaces outgoing president Lois Kilby-Chesley, who is running for the Maine Senate after six years at the helm of the organization.

Also elected to the MEA’s leadership team were Jesse Hargrove, a history teacher from Hermon High School, as vice president-elect, and Beth French, an elementary teacher in RSU 71, as treasurer-elect. In addition to its labor union function, the MEA is a potent lobbying force at the State House.

Maine’s justice system is in flux

Several district attorneys are stepping down this year, creating much more interest in elections for those positions. Because new district attorneys could significantly change the approach toward deciding whether cases get prosecuted and how trials are handled, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has launched a new website,, which includes responses to a range of questions from district attorney candidates across Maine. So far, seven of 16 candidates in Maine’s eight prosecutorial districts have responded. According to a news release, the website is meant to educate voters about the candidates’ positions on key criminal justice issues.

Reading list

  • It will cost more to attend University of Maine system schools in the fall. Trustees on Monday approved a roughly 2.3 percent tuition increase for Maine residents to help underwrite a $551 million annual budget. After freezing in-state tuition rates for six years, beginning in 2012, trustees hiked tuition last year and plan to do so again this year, citing inflation as the cause. Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody was the only trustee to vote against the increase.
  • Electricity Maine was losing money even though it was overcharging customers. According to statements in court documents, the company had losses totalling more than $14 million in 2015, even though it charged Maine customers $30 million over the standard rate for electricity in Maine. The losses came as the company continued to promised customers that it would always beat the standard offer rate.
  • Mill towns, urban areas and communities recovering from military base closures are first in line to receive federal tax benefits. LePage designated 32 places in Maine as federal Opportunity Zones created as part of the sweeping Republican tax system overhaul approved in December 2017. The designation will allow investors who put money into projects in those “opportunity zones” to avoid taxes on the capital gains returned by their investments.

If your name is Eves and you’re speaker, we’ve found a deal for you

Mark Eves of North Berwick left his post as speaker of the Maine House two years ago because of term limits. With his exit, down came his website,

But wait! There’s good news if you’re in the market for a website with that name! has it for sale, for just $2,495 a year, or 12 monthly payments of $208.

“Hurry — once it’s sold this opportunity will be gone!” reads the pitch. “This is the one and only .com name of it’s [sic] kind.”

But wait there’s more (bonus soundtrack)! Buy now and receive and for free! (OK, we made that part up.)

Here’s your soundtrack, Mark. — Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.