As expected, the convening of Maine’s 130th Legislature on Wednesday was like no other.

Representatives and senators spread out all over the Augusta Civic Center — the first time lawmakers have convened outside the State House in more than a century. The Senate filled up the North Wing, and the House occupied the cavernous arena, normally home to high school basketball tournaments and trade shows. There was a surreal look.

And there were notable absences. Rick Bennett, a former Senate president returning after 16 years away, contracted the coronavirus and was recovering at home. Gov. Janet Mills, possibly exposed through a member of her security detail, was also missing under the self-quarantine she’s recommended for everyone.

It would have been Mills’ first time swearing in lawmakers; two years ago, Paul LePage was still governor. Instead, Supreme Court Associate Justice Andrew Mead — since April, the acting chief justice — did the honors.

Outside the doors, a small but noisy band of anti-mask protesters, mostly but not exclusively unmasked, offered a clear message. The irony, as the state endures its highest totals in deaths and cases, was even clearer.

Still, it could have been worse. In neighboring New Hampshire, where Republicans took control, some 50 unmasked GOP lawmakers circulated freely. House Speaker Dick Hinch declined to enforce the rule that unmasked lawmakers needed to sit in a separate section.

In Augusta, everyone was wearing a mask. There were no protests inside the building — but no regular public access; only staff and reporters were allowed in.

The Legislature’s real business will begin in January. The question is, what will this group accomplish, given the bitter election campaign just passed?

In Washington, right-wing bloggers hold that President Biden will use the pandemic to push an unbounded socialist agenda. Some on the left have decided Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell will obstruct action on anything.

Maine politics usually has a more civil tone, but civility is a neutral virtue — it permits action, but hardly guarantees it. In that sense, there was one notable event Wednesday.

Senate President Troy Jackson, in a courteous gesture, had invited Rick Bennett to offer an opening prayer. Since Bennett couldn’t attend, he asked another former Senate president, Democrat Mark Lawrence, to stand in.

Lawrence then offered impromptu remarks to explain how it was that, years ago, he and Bennett became fast friends.

In 1994, Lawrence was in position to become Senate president after longtime president Charlie Pray was defeated for reelection in 1992, and his successor, Dennis “Duke” Dutremble, gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully for Congress.

Instead, Republicans scored a big upset by capturing the Senate — in much the same way Newt Gingrich overturned a 40-year Democratic U.S. House majority through his “burn the house down” rhetoric.

The new Senate president, Jeffrey Butland, was a confirmed Gingrichite; Lawrence became minority leader.

In Maine, the Senate president makes committee assignments, but, by tradition, respects requests from the minority party. When Lawrence presented the Democrats’ list, however, Butland figuratively tore it up; no Democrats got their first choice.

Two years later, Democrats returned to the majority, Lawrence became Senate president, and Bennett was elected a senator after serving two House terms.

Bennett approached Lawrence about serving on the Appropriations Committee, and Lawrence reminded him what had happened two years earlier. Fellow Democrats argued against the appointment, connecting Bennett with the Republican-led shutdown that paralyzed state government in 1991.

After thinking it over, though, Lawrence granted Bennett’s request. A few months later, he was trying to attract support for a research-and-investment bill he thought vital to getting Maine’s economy back on track.

Gov. Angus King wasn’t buying, still in the austerity mode that prompted him to cut 700 state jobs two years earlier. Lawrence then approached Bennett.

Bennett told him a bill with Lawrence’s name on it would never attract Republican support, and suggested a bipartisan commission, with himself as co-chair.

The commission recommended the proposal, both parties supported it, and King had little choice but to sign it. As Lawrence noted, that package contained the first state support of offshore wind research at the University of Maine — research finally about to come to fruition with renewable energy production in the Gulf of Maine.

Bipartisanship, in short, is not about legislators being nice to each other. Politics will always be about the acquisition and deployment of power.

Yet if relationships cross partisan boundaries, unexpected things can occur. We’ll know soon enough if the Bennett-Lawrence partnership establishes the tone of the session — and if the pressing needs of a pandemic-crippled state can come first.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 36 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected] 

 


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