AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Republicans who convened in Augusta on Friday to name new leaders in the wake of Tuesday’s elections returned familiar faces to the upper ranks of their party.
Sen. Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, who has been Senate minority leader for the past two years, was unanimously chosen by his caucus — which controls a 20-15 majority — to be the next Senate president, though technically that decision will have to be confirmed by the full Senate on Dec. 3. Senate Republicans chose third-term Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls as their majority leader and Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden as assistant majority leader, or whip.
In the House, Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, was unanimously named House minority leader, a position he has held for the past two years. Though still outnumbered by the Democrats, Fredette saw his party pick up 10 additional seats in the House, swelling the GOP ranks to 68. The House GOP caucus chose Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, for whip.
Though not as well known as the governor, legislative leaders — the Senate president, House speaker and majority and minority leaders from both parties — play an equally crucial role in the development of state policy and budgets. The president and speaker — known as the “presiding officers” — control the agenda of the Legislature, and all members of leadership function as their parties’ top negotiators in the State House.
Members of leadership also are expected to protect their incumbents and grow their respective caucuses through fundraising and campaigning in each election cycle.
Thibodeau, as Senate president, also is second in line to Gov. Paul LePage in the order of succession.
The policy agenda he outlined on Friday mirrored LePage’s. He said he would push to enact a spectrum of welfare reform measures, reduce and stabilize energy prices, improve the state’s economic climate and try to stem the flow of independent “dark money” into Maine’s election process.
“We are going to accomplish some amazing things for the people of the state of Maine and they are counting on us to do so,” said Thibodeau, a businessman who survived a challenge for his seat by 115 votes on Election Day. “It has been an intense campaign and now it’s over, and we have some serious challenges ahead of us. We need to do everything we can to improve Maine’s economy.”
While Cushing is no stranger to leadership, having been House majority whip from 2010 to 2012, the post of majority leader is Mason’s first leadership role.
“I want to help you be successful in getting your policy dreams into public law,” said Mason. “In order to be effective, we must be efficient. … I know our vision is right for the state of Maine.”
While Fredette ran unopposed for the top Republican position in the House, a horse race erupted for the position of whip. Reps. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner, Stacey Guerin of Glenburn, James Gillway of Searsport and Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea were all nominated for the post.
Sanderson, who rose to prominence last session as the ranking GOP member of the Health and Human Services Committee, had lobbied colleagues to support her bid and would likely have been the favored candidate. However, she surprised the caucus by rejecting the nomination and putting Espling’s name forward instead.
“I know there are individuals who have pledged their support for my leadership,” she said. “I ask that you now support Ellie in my stead,” Sanderson said. She said that while Espling is known as a quiet member of the caucus, she has the fortitude to stand up not only to majority Democrats, but the governor.
“Please don’t mistake her soft voice or quiet demeanor for lack of strength,” she said.
Espling, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her four children, is an ally of LePage and staunch social conservative. She gave an impassioned floor speech before the vote, telling the caucus that as whip, she’d ensure individual members of the caucus received their due.
“We have strengths that are not being used, and are ignored. Leadership needs to get to know members, know their strengths and utilize them,” she said. “It should not be set up so that leadership dictates to the caucus, but the caucus dictates to leadership. … Too often it seems leadership makes a plan and tells the caucus what it’s going to be. This is backward.”
Gillway and Guerin were quickly eliminated in the runoff election, leaving a two-way race between Espling and Timberlake. The Turner lawmaker had donated money, time and experience to incoming freshmen lawmakers’ campaigns and asked the new members to return the favor by supporting his bid for leadership.
In the end, Espling won the support of the caucus, which she attributed in part to Sanderson’s support. In a post-election media huddle with Fredette, she quickly shifted tone to one more supportive of her new partner in leadership.
“I’m a delegator. I’m a planner, I’m an organizer, I’m a team player,” she said. “I think that will complement Ken’s style, and how he’s proven himself over the past few years as a very strong leader. … We can bring those things together to complement each other.”
Democrats are scheduled to choose their leaders on Nov. 12.