What’s at play in the early jockeying to become Maine’s next attorney general

Good morning from Augusta. The race to be Maine’s next attorney general got off to a fascinating start on Thursday, when state Sen. Mark Dion took the uncommon step of announcing his bid in June to run for a seat to be voted on by legislators in December.

He’s not the only one who is interested. At least one other Democrat — and maybe others — want to replace Attorney General Janet Mills, the party’s nominee for governor. Two Republicans are also expressing some interest in the seat, but there are a lot of unknowns.

These races are often run behind the scenes in Maine, but that’s likely to change with increased interest in justice issues. Races for Maine’s constitutional offices — attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — are among some of the most insular campaigns in Maine because the office is voted on by a majority of legislators in both chambers by secret ballot after Democrats and Republicans meet to choose their nominees.

Maine is the only state to elect attorneys general this way. By the time legislators vote, it’s usually pretty easy to project a winner. It almost always comes down to the party that has the overall legislative majority. One exception has been second-term State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent and former Democratic legislator who has been twice nominated by minority Republicans and picked off enough Democrats in the end to win a majority.

But legal issues — from criminal justice reform, the opioid crisis and Democratic fights with the administrations of Gov. Paul LePage and President Donald Trump — may make this office more desirable and conducive to public debate. Democrats just ran a tight three-way primary for the Cumberland County district attorney marked by reform ideas and won by Jon Gale.

There could be a crowded Democratic race if current trends hold. It’s harder to gauge the Republican side. Much of this will depend on the 2018 legislative elections. While midterm elections tend to favor the party that is out of the White House, Maine’s elections could still be tight. Republicans now hold a 19-18 majority in the Senate over Democrats and House Democrats have only a 74-70 edge over Republicans with six independents and one Green.

Republicans’ biggest issue is a high number of term-limited members. In the House, 14 of them are term-limited to only seven Democrats. Seven Senate Republican incumbents can’t run to just one Democrat. So, there’s more buzz about the attorney general race among Democrats.

Dion, a Democrat from Portland and former Cumberland County sheriff who finished fifth in the gubernatorial primary, said in his statement that Mills “has set the bar” for the office. For Mills’ part, her campaign manager, Michael Ambler, declined comment on whether she would seek re-election if she loses the governor’s race.

He is being challenged so far by Tim Shannon, a partner with Portland-based Verrill Dana who ran unsuccessfully against Mills in 2012. But he is a formidable candidate who has since volunteered on Democratic campaigns and said in a statement that he’d be a “forward-looking advocate who will bring new energy to the job of protecting Maine people.”

Other Democrats have been mentioned as potential candidates, including Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, state Sen. Mike Carpenter of Houlton, a former attorney general, and state Rep. Aaron Frey of Bangor. They didn’t respond to calls seeking comment, but all are running for re-election to their seats. Carpenter represents a deeply conservative district.

On the Republican side, lobbyist Josh Tardy, a Republican insider who was their sacrificial candidate against Mills in 2016, said in a text message that he “would be interested” if his party won the majority, but it would be “a serious and difficult decision” because he likes his current job. State Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta said he “may be interested.”

Reading list

  • Advocates sued Gov. Paul LePage for not releasing $1.4 million in taxpayer funds for gubernatorial and legislative campaigns. The lawsuit filed Thursday in Kennebec County Superior Court is led by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections on behalf of seven legislative candidates and four donors. It contends that LePage must release nearly $1.4 million that is owed to 120 candidates by week’s end. He has held it up by not signing a routine financial order. House Republicans have also held up a bill fixing a legislative error that will force the Clean Election fund to stop spending money as of July 1.
  • Members of the Legislature’s government watchdog panel are furious at LePage’s administration. The Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton after he failed to show up at its meeting about child protective services. Katz, who co-chairs the committee, and Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who serves on the panel, blistered the LePage administration, questioning whether they should have trusted the governor, who promised collaboration when he spoke at length during the committee’s previous meeting. LePage later issued a statement saying that “during an election year, we could not risk that Government Oversight Committee legislators would use the hearing to grandstand to score political points.”
  • The parent company of Central Maine Power is proposing a $2.5 billion project to shore up distribution systems in Maine and New York, and ratepayers may foot the bill. Maine Public reports that it’s part of a 10-year improvement plan and a partial response to the October windstorm that knocked out power to more than 500,000 Mainers. In that storm, 80 percent of the damage was caused by trees contacting wires, so the plan includes new poles, insulating wires near trees and increased tree-trimming. A former Maine public advocate and CMP critic applauded the plan, saying he has “never in my life been able to praise them this much.”
  • A Maine senator’s history of voting for Supreme Court nominees bodes ill for folks who hope she could prevent a conservative ideologue from joining the high court. Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has voted for the past five Supreme Court nominees. Abortion rights advocates and others who fear that President Donald Trump’s nominee to succeed retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy could tip the court far to the right and undo their past gains are already lobbying Collins to factor that possibility into her decision on a nominee. But Maine’s senior senator said she will not ask the nominee about how he or she would rule on specific cases, such as the landmark Roe v. Wade opinion that legalized abortion.
  • Don’t frolic with otters. It ends badly for both parties. That’s the upshot of what happened at a Rockland beach on Wednesday, when police ended up shooting an otter that bit a woman who was taking a video of it. The sleek mammal’s carcass is being tested for rabies.

A loss for words

Five journalists died Thursday when a gunman opened fire in the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. The victims were Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendy Winters and Rebecca Smith.

You can read about them here, as part of the edition their grieving colleagues published today. We’ll just shut up and dispense with a soundtrack, offering a moment of silence in quiet support for their loved ones. — Robert Long

Editor’s note

The Daily Brief will become less daily next week as Robert and Chris get some vacation time. We won’t publish it on Monday, July 2 and Wednesday, July 4 for the holiday. You’ll get a briefer Brief on Tuesday while I’m alone. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Today’s Daily Brief was written by 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.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at ccousins@bangordailynews.com, mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com

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.