Rachel Talbot Ross felt uneasy picking up the speaker’s gavel on the opening day of the 131st Legislature.

Despite a long public career, the soft-spoken Portland Democrat prefers to operate behind the scenes, steer clear of publicity and let the work stand on its own.

Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross in the House chamber at the State House on Thursday in Augusta. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On Thursday, a day after she had been sworn in as speaker of the House and addressed her colleagues from the podium as such for the first time, Talbot Ross sat in the same chamber – what she calls the people’s house – and described feeling overwhelmed by the moment.

She began to cry as she described her shock when the results of the vote for House speaker were announced, as she took in that it had really happened and that her family, including her father – Maine’s first Black lawmaker – had witnessed it from the House balcony.

“People who know me know that I made absolutely no assumption about becoming the next speaker,” Talbot Ross said. “As the only Black woman who has served in the Legislature since statehood, there would be no assumption made that I would become the next speaker. None at all.”

Talbot Ross takes pride in being Maine’s first Black House speaker, but also in being a ninth-generation Mainer. She hails from a family of cooks, bus drivers and farmers who value volunteerism. Her working-class roots help her relate to Mainers from Aroostook to Arundel.


“That’s a great connector to folks who live in other parts of the state who do not look like me,” Talbot Ross said. “That is the great connector to other people in Maine whose lives also encompass service and hard work and laboring. … It gives me something to work with.”

She hit the campaign trail to stump for Gov. Janet Mills and House Democrats as soon as the last legislative session ended in April. And although she is a lifelong Maine resident, with family living across the state, she found herself visiting places she’d never been. The natural beauty and warmth of the people would bring her to tears.

“It was so incredibly beautiful,” Talbot Ross said. “You drive down the road and pull over and say, ‘I get it, God, I get it, this is why you placed me here.’ And then you get to see and really just break down the stereotype that you have of certain areas of the state. You get to go and see where people live.”

There were times on the campaign trail when Talbot Ross wondered how she would be received and whether her presence might hurt Democrats. But she said she was greeted with genuine hospitality in every corner of the state.

Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, lobbied for her to be speaker because she had proved while assistant majority leader that she could fairly represent the rural corners of Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis and Somerset counties despite calling Maine’s biggest city home.

“I’m the only Democrat representing any of those counties, but I’m not the only one representing rural towns in the 2nd District, in the other Maine,” Landry said. “In our conversations, Rachel has proven to me that she understands our issues and will work with us to support our communities.”


As a rule, Talbot Ross loathes political labels and stereotypes. She sees herself as a leader for human rights, be that of the incarcerated or the Wabanaki or women, rather than a representative of any particular political camp. She doesn’t, for instance, like being called a progressive.

That said, Talbot Ross was one of 51 House members to get a 100 percent rating from the Maine People’s Alliance, the state’s largest community action organization and the political voice of progressives advocating for economic, environmental, racial and social justice.

“She has long been a champion of issues our members care deeply about, from tribal sovereignty, to housing reforms, to reshaping our criminal justice system,” public policy director Cate Blackford said. “We look forward to working with her on those issues and many more.”

Blackford said that Talbot Ross’ leadership goes beyond her sponsored legislation, that she is open, transparent in her approach to solving challenges and fosters collaboration across issues. She said Talbot Ross brings people together to do bold things for the people of Maine.

Talbot Ross said some people label her a progressive to try to dismiss her as an extremist who will not fairly represent those who do not agree with her and will try to shut out those who disagree.

She said she ends debates of almost every bill with one question: ‘Who is being left out?’


“The fight for freedom, equality and justice for my ancestors was not progressive,” Talbot Ross said. “It wasn’t liberal. It wasn’t conservative. It was the fight for freedom, equality and justice. That’s who I am. But by no means does that exclude anyone.”


Especially the Wabanaki. Talbot Ross believes passionately in the total sovereignty of the Wabanaki nations. She plans to use the opportunity afforded by her election as House speaker to include them as sovereign partners and foster a better understanding of their role in a democracy.

With the support of Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, Talbot Ross plans to call a joint convention of the Legislature in early 2023 to hear directly from tribal leaders on the state of Maine’s Wabanaki people. It would be the first in 18 years.

Talbot Ross doesn’t know yet if she will submit another bill to restore the sovereignty of Maine tribes similar to one that fell short last session after a threatened veto by Gov. Janet Mills. She will meet with tribal leaders this month to find out how they want to proceed.

And she hasn’t yet had much opportunity to think about individual goals as speaker. But she clearly intends to be a House speaker who continues to pursue legislation of her own while setting the House agenda, making committee appointments and controlling the action on the floor, including which bills come up for a vote.


Draft bills aren’t due until Dec. 30, but Talbot Ross expects the House to focus on Maine’s biggest challenges, including heating and housing affordability, food insecurity, education, poverty, economic justice, natural resource protection and climate change.

“I will continue to fight for the same issues that I did as a legislator,” Talbot Ross said. “There is work I still want to move forward, but I do it with an eye toward keeping a balance and being respectful of presiding over a chamber that doesn’t always agree with the bills I put forward.”


She praised the work ethic of Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, whom she served with on the judiciary committee, and Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, whom she served with when he was a member of the House and running for Senate.

She singled out House minority leaders Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, and Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, for their tireless work on behalf of Mills’ emergency winter energy relief program. It passed in the House but fell shy of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate.

Talbot Ross sometimes disagrees with people in her own party, including Mills, but said she and the governor are friends. She said the media has mischaracterized the relationship between Mills, the former prosecutor, and Talbot Ross, the prison reformer, as an adversarial one.

“There are some natural tensions, but to the degree to which it keeps getting reproduced, I don’t believe that is accurate,” Talbot Ross said. “There are some issues we may disagree on. But I do believe that there is respect, mutual respect, in the relationship, and I’m proud of that.”

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