AUGUSTA — Democratic constitutional officers took over three state agencies Monday after being sworn into office by Gov. Paul LePage.
Two of the officers, Attorney General Janet Mills and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, returned to the posts they left in 2010 when Republicans took control of the Legislature.
Mills became the state’s top lawyer, replacing William Schneider. Dunlap replaced Charlie Summers and now oversees elections and a state bureaucracy that includes the Division of Motor Vehicles, the business corporations division and the Maine State Archives.
The third officer sworn in Monday, State Treasurer Neria Douglass, replaced former Republican treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
The constitutional officers are elected by the Legislature and are included in that branch of government. However, all three of the Republican officers who stepped down Monday forged activist reputations and were closely aligned with the Republican agenda advanced by the Legislature and LePage. Poliquin especially elevated the profile and partisan tenor of an office that typically went unnoticed.
The three new officers are not regarded as outspoken partisans, although it was clear Monday they will differ with the LePage administration and Republicans at times.
Dunlap, who was secretary of state for six years prior to leaving the office in early 2011, said some of his work will include furthering initiatives that Summers was involved with. Summers created a small business advocate office, for example. Dunlap said he supported the office when Summers proposed it two years ago and that he still does.
“I see it as having a prominent role in the office,” said Dunlap. “We may be able to expand this and get people to think in ways that they don’t think about themselves.
“Maybe we can get individuals to think about starting their own business and maybe help with that.”
On the other hand, Dunlap has different views on voter access and ballot security. He oversaw the implementation of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a federal law designed to create ballot security and voter access standards in each state. Dunlap said Monday that while ballot security issues persist, he did not envision voter identification law — a measure supported by Summers and Maine Republican leaders.
“We always get questions about the outcomes of an election,” he said. “We’re able to answer 99.9 percent of those questions with a phone call. I don’t see us moving forward with a photo ID initiative.
“You’d be pushing too many people away from being able to exercise their right to vote.”
Dunlap said he does not plan to engage in politics even if it means disappointing his party.
“I have a D after my name, so you know where I am politically on any issue you want to talk to me about,” he said. “But the nature of my work cannot be partisan. It cannot be partisan. I can’t emphasize that enough, especially because the work we do involves elections.”
He added, “Sometimes it can be very difficult and painful and risky to say no to your friends, but you have to do it because there’s a public trust issue there. Nothing would make me happier than to leave office as a trivia question: Who was that guy?”
Monday’s ceremony was relatively low key, but political squabbles may loom.
LePage supported the attorney general’s fight against the federal health care law, and Schneider pushed to get federal government approval for LePage’s proposed cuts in the state’s Medicaid program. It’s unlikely that Mills will participate in such efforts.
Mills, who was Maine’s first woman attorney general when she was elected in 2009, joked Monday that she was living proof that Mainers believed in recycling.
The Office of Attorney General is the legal arm of the state. It provides counsel to state agencies and the governor’s office, but should not “(carry) the banner for one administration or another,” Mills said. “Most of all the attorney general protects the people, not just the bureaucracy of the state machinery.”
Mills hinted that there would be clashes with LePage, but said the debate is healthy. “Every difference in opinion is not a difference in principle,” she said.
Meanwhile, the governor’s reluctance to authorize state borrowing packages that have already been approved by voters could become a flashpoint between LePage and Douglass. Democrats have pushed the governor to initiate the borrowing, but LePage has said he will not do so until the state’s financial picture improves.
On Monday, Douglass, during her prepared speech, said she hopes to persuade LePage to authorize the bonds that voters have approved, and if she doesn’t, “to keep the lines of communication open.”
LePage smiled and shook his head when Douglass made her remarks about initiating the state borrowing.
After the ceremony, a pair of reporters met LePage in the hallway and attempted to ask him about Douglass’ belief that the voter-approved bonds should be initiated now. LePage, flanked by senior staff, declined to stop and answer questions, walking briskly down the State House hallway and down a flight of stairs before entering his office.
He made only one audible comment when asked about Douglass, saying, “She hasn’t been state treasurer for very long, has she?”
Overall, the governor appeared in good spirits during the ceremonies, shaking hands with Democratic leaders and laughing at jokes in the officers’ speeches. He and Mills shared a brief hug and words after her remarks.
Steve Mistler — 620-7016