For the last 200 years, the Maine Legislature has been writing laws, raising revenue and appropriating funds in ways that profoundly affect the lives of everyone who has ever lived here.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross

And in all those years, legislators have elected leaders from their ranks to help guide the process.

A lot has changed since 1820, but there has been one constant: A person of color has never been on a leadership team when it discussed strategy or set priorities. That is, until now.

Last week the newly elected House Democratic caucus chose Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to serve as their assistant majority leader in the 130th Legislature, which will start work next month. Talbot Ross, who was just elected to a third term in the House, is already the first Black woman to be elected to the Legislature and will now be the first person of color to serve in a leadership position.

Talbot Ross has been a well known activist in Maine for decades, advocating action on a broad range of racial justice issues. Her father, civil rights activist Gerald Talbot, was the first Black person ever to serve in the Maine Legislature after his election to the House in 1972.

During her legislative career, Talbot Ross has focused on criminal justice reform and wrote the bill that created the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations, which advises all three branches of government about programs and policies that perpetuate racial disparities.

Every lawmaker brings their personal experiences to the work that they do. As a member of leadership, Talbot Ross will provide a key perspective that has been missing from policymaking for too long. She will be at the table when compromises are negotiated and decisions are made.

The Democratic caucus made history in more than one way last week when it nominated Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, to be the next speaker of the House. Fecteau would be the first openly gay man to have that position, and at the age of 28, he would be one of the youngest people ever to serve as speaker – an important distinction in a state that has the nation’s oldest population.

These “firsts” matter as much outside the State House as they do inside. Not only will a broader range of life experience be reflected in the new leadership team’s development of policy, but the elevation of these lawmakers also sends an important message across the state about what is possible. When children visit the State House (whenever it’s safe for that to happen again), they may see an African American woman in a position of power, and it could affect how they set the horizons of their own lives.

It’s important that people feel represented by their government. And as Maine enters its 201st year, this level of representation is welcome and overdue.


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