AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s newly elected Democratic majority chose its House and Senate leaders on Tuesday, and showed that the party won’t be afraid to get contentious with Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Democratic lawmakers nominated Rep. Mark Eves of North Berwick for speaker of the House. They selected Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland as Senate president Tuesday evening.
The selections were made during caucus events that were celebratory for the party that has spent the past two years in the minority.
Unlike Eves, who beat three other nominees for speaker, Alfond ran unopposed. Both stood out for their willingness to take on LePage, who often called Democrats “the loyal opposition” while they were in the minority.
Senate Democrats nominated Alfond, 37, to the second-most powerful position in the State House. Alfond, one of LePage’s most vocal critics over the last two years, will be the youngest Senate president since 1880, when 36-year-old Republican Joseph Locke of Portland held the position.
Eves, 35, made his mark in the last session as the ranking Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, and led the opposition against LePage’s cuts to MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.
Medicaid is expected to be a hot issue again as Eves presides over the 126th Legislature. LePage has hoped to make additional cuts to the program.
Some reductions were passed by the Republican majority in the last session to balance the state budget. However, several of the reductions have not been approved by the federal government.
The state also must decide soon whether to move forward with Medicaid expansion under 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 must make a clear distinction between their ideology and LePage’s “extreme agenda,” while 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 said, “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.”
The other nominees for speaker were Rep. Teresea Hayes of Buckfield, Rep. Diane Russell of Portland and Rep. Mike Carey of Lewiston.
Eves and Alfond will officially take their leadership positions on Dec. 5, after votes by the entire Legislature. Their elections are ensured by the Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Alfond, whom LePage once described as a “spoiled little brat” in the last session, has been one of the governor’s most persistent and vocal critics.
He is a grandson of Harold Alfond, the late founder of Dexter Shoe Co. and a 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 had taken issue with Alfond’s opposition to several of his education reform bills.
Alfond said he has moved on from the governor’s comments. “I don’t think Mainers are interested in verbal disagreements between people in Augusta,” he said, “they’re interested in results.”
Alfond said there is room for common ground with the governor even in education policy.
“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.”
Alfond suggested that Democrats may not be as 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 County 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,” he 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.”
In a written statement, the union called LePage’s statement “a bald faced lie” that discredited Maine’s public schools.
The response highlighted a dynamic that may make compromise between LePage and Democrats in the Legislature difficult.
Additionally, the Maine teachers union, backed by the National Education Association and its political action committee, spent heavily on legislative races that helped Democrats win their majorities.
Democrats are slated to have 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’s Office announced Tuesday that there will be 10 recounts in tight legislative races, including nine House races. The recounts will not affect the balance of the Senate and House.
Also Tuesday, House Democrats 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 minority leader.
Republican senators have already selected their minority leader, Sen. Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta will be the assistant minority leader.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be reached at 791-6345 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org