The newly elected Democratic majority in the Legislature named House and Senate leaders on Tuesday in a move that signaled the party won’t be afraid to get contentious with Gov. Paul LePage.
Democratic lawmakers nominated North Berwick Rep. Mark Eves for speaker of the House of Representatives. Senate Democrats selected Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, as Senate president Tuesday evening.
The selection of Eves and Alfond was conducted during caucuses that were celebratory for a party that has spent two years in the minority.
Unlike Eves, who bested three other Democratic nominees, Alfond ran unopposed. Both Democrats stood out for their willingness to take on LePage, the pugnacious Republican who has often called Democrats “the loyal opposition” when their party was in the minority.
Senate Democrats nominated the 37-year-old Alfond to the second most powerful position in the State House. Alfond, one of LePage’s most vocal critics over the last two years, will become the second youngest Senate president since 1880, when 36-year-old Portland Republican Joseph Locke held the position.
Eves, 35, made his mark last session as the ranking minority member of the Health and Human Services Committee, and often ran point against LePage’s cuts to MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program for low-income residents.
Medicaid is expected to come up again as a hot-button issue when Eves presides over the 126th Legislature. LePage had hoped to pursue additional cuts to the program. Some reductions were passed by the outgoing Republican majority to balance the current budget. However, several of the reductions have not been approved by the federal government.
Additionally, the state must also decide soon whether to move forward with Medicaid expansion in the federal health care law. LePage has not committed to Medicaid expansion, an initiative that Democrats support.
Before winning the nomination, Eves told House Democrats that members needed to draw a clear distinction between their ideology and the “extreme agenda” of LePage, while at the same time engaging Republicans.
“But we can’t be satisfied with just highlighting our differences and holding ground,” Eves said. “We will have to look for opportunities to forge alliances with our Republican colleagues to get them to break with the Governor in order to do what is right for Maine and Maine people.”
He added, “This is still the Maine my family and I know and love, and it has not changed because of who occupies the governor’s office — the extreme, ideological agenda does not represent my family’s values or the values of Maine people.”
Eves bested three other nominees for speaker, Rep. Teresea Hayes, of Buckfield, Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, and Rep. Mike Carey, of Lewiston.
He and Alfond will officially take their leadership positions on Dec. 5, after votes by the entire Legislature.
Alfond, whom LePage described as a spoiled little brat last session, has been one of the most persistent and vocal critics of the governor. He is the grandson of Harold Alfond, the late founder of Dexter Shoe Co. and prominent Maine philanthropist.
During a radio interview with Capitol News Service in April, LePage said of Alfond, “He’s very fortunate that his granddad was born ahead of him.”
The governor took issue with Alfond’s running opposition to several of his education reform bills.
Alfond said that he has moved on from the governor’s comments, adding, “I don’t think Mainers are interested in verbal disagreements between people in Augusta, they’re interested in results.”
Alfond said there was room for common ground with the governor even in education policy, a flashpoint between LePage and the incoming Senate president.
“He uses the statement ‘putting students first,’” Alfond said. “I also use that same statement. How we get to putting students first we need to talk about that, but I look forward to that conversation.”
He added, “I look forward to an open, honest and robust dialogue with the governor. I think there’s a lot of common ground.”
Alfond also suggested that Democrats may not be so quick to blast the governor in public as they did when they were in the minority.
“We’re in a different position now and I think we’ll be more judicious with our public criticism,” he said.
Nonetheless, it would appear that Alfond and LePage are destined to collide again, particularly on education policy.
Last week, during an event at York Community College, LePage promised to keep pushing his education proposals regardless of which party controls the Legislature.
“I’m going to continue with the barrage for the next two years,” LePage said.
The governor also took heat from the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union, after LePage said “overall if you want a good education Maine, go to a private school. If you can’t afford it, tough luck.”
The MEA, in a written statement, called LePage’s statement “a bald-faced lie” that discredited Maine’s public schools.
The MEA’s strong response highlights a dynamic that may make compromise between LePage and legislative Democrats difficult. Additionally, the organization, backed by the National Education Association, and its political action committee spent heavily on legislative races that helped Democrats wrest control of the State House.
Democrats are slated to hold a 89-58 advantage in the 151-member house with four unenrolled members. Democrats hold a 19-15 edge in the 35-member Senate with one independent member.
The secretary of state announced Tuesday that there will be nine recounts in tight legislative races, including eight House contests. The recounts will not affect the Democratic hold on Senate and House.
House Democrats also selected Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, as their majority leader. In the Senate, Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond will become the majority leader, while Sen. Troy Jackson, of Allagash, was selected Tuesday as the majority whip.
House Republicans will caucus Wednesday to pick their leaders. Current House Speaker Robert Nutting, of Oakland, Paul Davis, of Sangerville, and Ken Fredette, of Newport, are all running for the top spot.
Republican senators have already selected their minority leader, Sen. Michael Thibodeau, of Winterport. Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta, will be the assistant minority leader.
Steve Mistler — 791-6345