The race to lead the next Maine Legislature is heating up

Good morning from Augusta, where the November election could lead to wide-open races for leadership positions in the Maine Legislature, and some members are already raising money and ramping up campaign activities to jockey for the important slots.

The Republican caucuses in the Senate and House of Representatives may have to completely replace their leadership teams, while House Democrats — if they keep control of the chamber in 2018 — may have to fill two positions under House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who is expected to stand for re-election to her chamber-leading post.

All of this depends on who wins and loses in November. The caucuses that win control of each chamber get three leadership positions to the losing sides’ two. The most crucial spots are Senate president, House speaker and minority leader. The majority and minority leaders handle much of the business on the chamber floors and each have an assistant leader.

It’s an insular process. While these leaders control the flow of legislation and the agendas of their parties, races for these positions aren’t waged in public. Leaders are nominated and elected by new legislators once they get to Augusta in December. People often get them after raising cash for campaigns or helping candidates get elected in other ways.

These races are especially important in 2018, eight years after Republicans swept into control at the State House by electing Gov. Paul LePage and majorities in each chamber. The Legislature is now closely divided, with Republicans holding a 18-17 majority in the Senate and Democrats up only 73-70 on Republicans in the lower chamber.

In a way, Republican legislators are now victims of that 2010 success, with 21 legislators facing term limits to Democrats’ eight. Those Republicans include the governor, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester.

Lots of Republicans may seek leadership positions, but the list could shrink if they lose chambers in 2018. Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, are expected to keep helming their caucuses if Jackson wins re-election in a swing district.

That leaves much of the intrigue over the top positions on the Republican side. In the Senate, the top slot could go to Sen. James Hamper of Oxford, or Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who is running to succeed Mason in a solidly conservative district. Both were influential in fraught 2017 budget negotiations.

Hamper said he has “an interest” in the Senate president’s job, but is “keeping a low profile” and still weighing options. Timberlake said he must win and “then see how many other races we can win” before worrying about a leadership race.

Many Republicans could emerge in races for other Senate positions, including Espling, Rep. Matt Pouliot of Augusta and Sen. Lisa Keim of Dixfield. Espling and Pouliot confirmed potential interest if they win their Senate races, while Keim said her “sole focus” is to win her race and encourage others to win theirs.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said she hasn’t closed the door on running again for leadership, but she said it’s “not my priority right now” with a targeted 2018 race on her hands against former Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham.

The House Republican side could be more open. Reps. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle and Jeff Pierce of Dresden have the most active political committees, with about $22,000 and $14,000 in their funds as of mid-July, respectively. Other potential candidates include Reps. Dick Campbell of Orrington and Paula Sutton of Warren, among others. None of the four responded to requests for comment.

The race for House majority leader on the Democratic side could be a crowded one. With House Majority Leader Erin Herbig of Belfast running for Senate, Democrats are already jockeying to replace her in the event that they control the House again after November.

The leading candidates could be Reps. Matt Moonen of Portland, Teresa Pierce of Falmouth and Craig Hickman of Winthrop. Moonen didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Pierce and Hickman confirmed their interest.

Pierce said Democrats and Republicans must work “with civility and urgency” on issues facing Maine, while Hickman forwarded along a letter to the Democratic caucus outlining a focus on strengthening the party in rural Maine.

The assistant majority leader slot is also open, with Jared Golden of Lewiston running against U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd District. Reps. Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford and Benjamin Collings of Portland have said publicly that they’re running for the position.

Reading list

  • An independent candidate is courting Republicans in a longshot bid that depends on ranked-choice voting to unseat a heavily favored Democratic incumbent in Maine’s 1st District. This is the first general election in which ranked-choice voting, which voters endorsed in a 2016 referendum, will apply to Maine congressional races. State Rep. Marty Grohman, a former Democrat, aims to keep U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat seeking her sixth term, under 50 percent in the first round of voting in the hopes that Republicans who mark Grohman as their second choice could swing the election to him in the second round of balloting. Republicans have generally opposed ranked-choice voting, but some GOP elected officials have endorsed Grohman. Mark Holbrook, the Republican candidate in the race, dismisses the tactic and is urging his supporters not to rank candidates on the ballot.
  • The Republican candidate for governor won’t make his tax returns public. His three opponents did. Instead of providing tax returns, Republican candidate Shawn Moody provided the type of income disclosure required by state law once elected. As state employees, two of Moody’s challengers, independent State Treasurer Terry Hayes and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, already provide these disclosures.The disclosure does not list Moody’s income, but it lists four corporations he owns: his namesake Moody’s Collision Centers, a real estate holding company, an energy investment holding company and a recycling business called Moody’s Recycling. The fourth candidate on the ballot, independent Alan Caron, a consultant, reported more than $900,000 in income in 2017.
  • A judge will hear arguments in February about whether an apparent confession by the man accused of killing a Maine sheriff’s deputy in April can be used as evidence in his murder trial. Lawyers for John D. Williams claim that police beat the 29-year-old when they arrested him after the four-day manhunt prompted by the killing of Somerset County Sheriff’s deputy Cpl. Eugene Cole. Williams pleaded not guilty in June, and his lawyers wrote in an August court filing that fear of further violence and the effects of opioid withdrawal are what led him to make statements seeming to confess to the killing after his arrest. Justice Robert Mullen issued an order for a hearing on Feb. 28.
  • A proposal to ban or limit dredging for quahogs in the New Meadows River places a man’s $100,000 investment in jeopardy. After checking with state and local officials to make sure that dredging is legal, Raymond “Bucky” Alexander invested at least $100,000 and several years in rebuilding his boat and crafting, by hand, the iron dredger he’s used this summer to dredge for quahogs in the New Meadows River. But some other quahog harvesters, oyster farmers and marine resources officials now say the practice poses harm to the ecosystem and could dangerously deplete the New Meadows quahog population, so they have asked state regulators to consider a rule change that would essentially keeping Alexander out of the the approximately six-mile section of the river he’s found to be most productive.

A new voice

Alex Acquisto joins the Daily Brief staff today. Expect greater civility and better soundtracks. Please treat her as well as you treat Mike and me. Here is not her soundtrack. — Robert Long

Hey all, Alex Acquisto here! In case we haven’t met, you’ve likely seen my byline preceding metro coverage from the Queen City for the last year or so. Before that, I was reporting from the beautiful midcoast.

Here’s a bit of background on me: I grew up in Kentucky (see Robert’s impeccable song choice), I’ve lived in Maine for 7 years, first in Portland, then Rockland, and now Bangor. I’ve never been ice-fishing but I’ve always wanted to go, and I really dislike Moxie. Sorry not sorry.

I’m thrilled to be joining Michael and Robert. Chris Cousins was a stellar reporter and an even greater guy. Please know I’m aware of the significant task at hand in succeeding him. — Alex Acquisto

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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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.