Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, shown at the State House in Augusta on Dec. 15, was chosen to serve as assistant majority leader in the 130th Maine Legislature. In the background are portraits of former elected officials and supreme court justices. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Portraits of white men from Maine’s past stare out at all who pass through the halls of the State House. Not a single person of color or woman appears on any of the canvases that hang outside the House and Senate chambers.

The irony was not lost on Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, as a newspaper photographer shot her portrait near the gilded-framed paintings during a recent interview at the Capitol building.

“In every room, there’s no place for me to see the contributions of my ancestors, of my people in this building, and yet Maine benefited from the global slave trade,” Talbot Ross said. “The profits from enslavement helped build this state and thereby this institution.”

The Portland Democrat has secured her own place in Maine’s 200-year history by becoming the first Black person elected by her colleagues to a leadership post in the Legislature. In November, she was unanimously chosen by Democrats in the House to be their assistant majority leader.

Rachel Talbot Ross at the State House in Augusta. Ross was chosen to serve as assistant majority leader in the 130th Legislature. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The role, known as the “whip,” makes Talbot Ross the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the chamber, behind Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford and Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy of Old Town.

Talbot Ross’ ascension to the post comes at what many hope will be a pivotal moment in U.S. history, as a rekindled movement for racial justice and equity takes root across the nation in the aftermath of protests over the unjustified police shootings of Black people.

For Talbot Ross, a ninth-generation Mainer, the moment is a personal milestone that brings mixed emotions.

“While I am humbled and feel privileged every day – every day,” she said, “I’m also ashamed and angry and frustrated that we have not come any further in the 21st century. It’s something I have to try hard every day to reconcile.”

Elected in November to her third consecutive two-year term, Talbot Ross has served on the Legislature’s Judiciary and Health and Human Services committees. Legislation she authored in 2019 led to the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Population. She now chairs that 15-member commission, which in July issued a list of recommendations and proposed legislation aimed at ending systemic racism in Maine.

Talbot Ross has also been involved in the work of the NAACP in Maine, including serving as president of the now disbanded Portland branch. She said she remains active with the two other Maine branches of the NAACP, at the Maine State Prison and in Bangor, and has sponsored bills in cooperation with members of those branches.

Talbot Ross declined to give her age or marital status. According to a brief member profile published on the House website, she is single and has one child.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross touches her name on the door of the House Majority Office after seeing it for the first time at the State House in Augusta on Dec. 15. Talbot Ross was chosen to serve as assistant majority leader in the 130th Legislature. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In many ways Talbot Ross is following in the footsteps of her father, Gerald Talbot, who became the first Black person to be elected to the Maine Legislature in 1972. Unlike his daughter, he was not tapped for a leadership position in the 186-member Legislature, which has never seen more than two Black lawmakers serving at the same time.

Gerald Talbot, 89, said he is tremendously proud of his daughter’s accomplishment, and while she occasionally asks his advice, he encourages her to make her own decisions and use her own judgment.

“I try not to get in where I’m the boss,” he said. “She’s the boss and she knows what she is doing.”

He described the movement for racial equity and justice as a slow but steady struggle in Maine, just like elsewhere in the U.S.  “But little by little it gets better and better,” he said.

Former state Rep. Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop, was the only Black lawmaker when Talbot Ross was first elected to the House in 2016. Hickman said he took inspiration from Gerald Talbot’s service in the Legislature and encouraged Talbot Ross to join him when she expressed reluctance to run.

“Her determination has been to make life better for all Maine people, but especially her people, our people,” Hickman said. “That hasn’t been really appreciated until now, and she is absolutely the right person and the best person to be the first Black person to serve in this leadership role.”

Rachel Talbot Ross wipes away tears as she is congratulated by Beth McKeen of Minuteman Signs. Ross was at the State House for an interview and happened to be there at the same time that her name was being added to the door of the House Majority Office by Ted and Beth McKeen of Minuteman Signs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Talbot Ross’ election to leadership is especially meaningful because it occurred in the 200th year of Maine’s statehood, said Hickman, who recently became the Democratic nominee in a March special election for state Senate District 14.

In 1820 Maine joined the Union as part of the Missouri Compromise, well before the Civil War and the end to slavery in the U.S. In the compromise – Maine was granted statehood as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.

During her time in the Legislature, Talbot Ross has been a champion for criminal justice and other reforms, including legislation that would restore sovereign rights to tribal populations.

As assistant majority leader, she may have to set aside her own agenda for the priorities of the Democratic caucus and the party’s legislative leaders, or to support important bills that rise from rank-and-file members. Talbot Ross said her focus is on the immediate future and on building caucus cohesion among her Democratic peers.

“I don’t see it as separate,” Talbot Ross said of her own legislative work. “I see it as our work (that) needs to be done. I include the things that I’m interested in moving forward in our work.”

Her new position has also proven to be a springboard to higher office, at least for her immediate predecessors. Fecteau, the new speaker of the House, served in the role from 2018 to 2020. And 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, held the post before Fecteau.

The election of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman to serve as vice president is an important milestone in the struggle for racial equity, but that so many Americans didn’t vote for Harris both in Maine and nationally is telling as well, Talbot Ross said.

“These aren’t glass ceilings we are breaking through – these are concrete walls and ceilings,” she said. “So if you understand that metaphor, then you can understand that while one has broken through that – similar to finding me in leadership – breaking through that has taken centuries. And while one person has cracked through, or broken through, that does not absolve all of the responsibility to widen that pathway to bring others with you and there is enormous responsibility in that.”

Talbot Ross said the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the nation last spring and summer, inspiring protests and resistance in Portland and other Maine cities, was a time when many more white people “were accepting the truth that we had lived with for generations.”

“I just remember that I was grieving, and I’m still in a period of grief because this never stops,” Talbot Ross said.  “We have got a whole group of people who are in a generation of transference of grief and trauma and I think that we’ve been patient for your awakening. But I also think that brings a sense of hope and certainly opportunity.”

It’s work that’s far from finished, said state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship. Evangelos, who has served on the Judiciary Committee with Talbot Ross, calls her a key ally in a struggle against racism that gained vigor in the 1960s but was derailed by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Kennedy’s younger brother Robert Kennedy.

“We have regressed badly since 1968,” Evangelos said. “We have a lot of prejudice to overcome in Maine still.”

He pointed to recent forms of racial disparity, that Blacks make up just 1.5 percent of the state’s population but account for 12 percent of those incarcerated in the Maine State Prison, and that the state’s Black communities experience COVID-19 infection at a rate 20 times higher than those of white residents.

Evangelos said Talbot Ross has a broad vision of justice and has been a leader in her work to bring greater equity to people of all races, including impoverished whites who struggle to gain a foothold and better themselves.

When Talbot Ross and her colleagues return for this year’s legislative session, the rows of white male portraits will still gaze down from the State House walls, even as incremental change happens in the battle for racial equity.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross poses for a portrait near artwork by Maine artist Ashley Bryan at the State House in Augusta on Dec. 15. Ross was chosen to serve as assistant majority leader in the 130th Legislature. Ashley Bryan is a writer and illustrator of children’s books and most of his subjects are about the African American experience. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But there’s also one area where a different Maine vision is on display. In the State House Welcome Center – closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions but still open to legislators and staff – the walls are hung with a series of paintings by Ashley Bryan.

Bryan, a World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, is a celebrated Black writer and artist. He retired to Cranberry Island off Maine’s coast after a career as a professor of art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Talbot Ross asked a newspaper photographer to take her picture near the exhibit, to allow more people to see his “beautiful artistry” and to include Bryan, now 97, in her story as she makes history in a space dominated by white men.

“Because there is some affirmation for me in that work,” she said of Bryan’s art. “And having that in this building starts to interrupt that space.”

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