AUGUSTA, Maine — In 2015, Maine ushered in another term of Gov. Paul LePage, a new congressman, a Legislature further divided between Democrats and Republicans and hot mayoral races in Portland and Lewiston.
It seemed a year bound for surprises, but while the bellicose Republican governor delivered some, many other key Maine political figures did pretty much what we expected them to do.
Here’s the news that most surprised and didn’t surprise the Bangor Daily News political team this year.
Just how bad LePage’s relations with legislative leaders got.
Of course, we expected conflicts between LePage and Democratic leaders this year.
But if you told us in January that House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, would sue LePage in federal court and that the governor would be in a cold war with Republican leaders in the Maine Senate, we wouldn’t have believed you.
Eves lost a job offer at Good Will-Hinckley, a Fairfield nonprofit, after the LePage administration threatened a share of discretionary funding for a charter school there. Now Eves is accusing the governor of violating his civil rights and state law.
The governor’s relationship with Senate President Mike Thibodeau and other Republican leaders deteriorated over the course of a session that ended with legislators passing a state budget over LePage’s veto. But before that, a group run by the governor’s daughter criticized Thibodeau and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon in robocalls and emails.
The governor’s politically unpalatable state budget proposal.
Part of that dysfunction could be chalked up to the budget proposal LePage rolled out in January. It made so many changes to Maine’s tax system that it was dead on arrival, even though Democrats didn’t release a specific alternative plan until April.
There was something everyone could like in LePage’s proposal. But the reason it died is because there was more in it everyone could hate.
It would have reduced income taxes but raised the sales tax and expanded it to include many goods and services, adding some new Department of Health and Human Services initiatives but cutting other programs there. It would have ended state aid to cities and towns while allowing cities and towns to tax large nonprofits, including hospitals and colleges.
That made the Legislature’s compromise budget no surprise, but the fight isn’t over. The Maine Republican Party has picked up LePage’s fight to lower income taxes and reform welfare, which they’re trying to get on the 2016 ballot.
LePage’s release of conservation bonds, a longtime point of war with legislators.
For most of the year, the governor held up $11.5 million in bonds under the Land for Maine’s Future program in a bid to increase timber harvesting on state lands to pay for energy upgrades for low-income Mainers.
That wasn’t a surprise. He leveraged bonds in 2013 while trying to pay off Maine’s hospital debt.
The surprise was the unceremonious way he gave up part of the fight in mid-December, when he told legislative leaders in a scathing letter that he’d release $5 million approved in 2012. His position apparently hasn’t changed on the bonds, with LePage saying wealthy landowners “are probably excited as hell” at the news.
That signals the bond fight should last into 2016, when legislators will consider a bill that would revive $6.5 million of conservation borrowing that lapsed this year.
High approval ratings for Maine’s U.S. senators.
We already knew this, but Maine likes its U.S. senators — Republican Susan Collins, who was re-elected in 2014, and independent Angus King.
A national survey released in November gave Collins a 78 percent approval rating in Maine, placing her second-highest in the country. King ranked 10th with 65 percent. Those numbers were considerably higher than another poll released in the fall, but they bode well for the political futures for both.
There are rumors Collins may run for governor in 2018, the same year King would be up for re-election if he runs, and it looks like he will. His campaign has spent $430,000 already on a re-election campaign as of September’s end.
Emily Cain, redux.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s win over Democrat Emily Cain last year put Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in the Republican column for the first time in 20 years. But just days afterward, Washington Democrats were pushing for a 2016 rematch.
They got it in March, when Cain, a former state senator from Orono, announced another run. Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci is running against her for the party’s nomination. If she wins that race, it’ll be tough to beat Poliquin. He raised $1.6 million by September’s end to Cain’s $510,000.
Their race was the most expensive U.S. House contest in Maine’s history in 2014 — with outside groups spending $3 million — and it’s shaping up to be pricier next year, with the House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, already spending $164,000 to help Cain. This could be the highlight of Maine’s 2016 cycle.
The results of the Portland and Lewiston mayoral races.
Maine’s two biggest cities saw massive mayoral campaigns this year. One was more surprising than the other, but the results were expected.
We’ll start with the obvious: Ethan Strimling’s win in Portland over incumbent Michael Brennan surprised nobody.
A leaked poll said Strimling was the favorite before he entered the race in August. Just after that, half the City Council and more than half the school board backed the challenger at a news conference, and Brennan struggled to punch back the rest of the way.
The better race was in Lewiston, where Mayor Robert Macdonald won a third term over progressive challenger Ben Chin in a December runoff.
It happened despite Chin’s massive campaign that outraised Macdonald by 15 times and was run by Chin’s employer, the Maine People’s Alliance. The result likely hinged on many issues in the divided city, including incumbency, welfare, immigration in Lewiston and the size of Chin’s campaign.
The two cities are crucial to Maine politics. In 2016, we’ll see how Strimling represents Portland within the city limits and to state government and if Macdonald can work with a City Council whose majority endorsed his opponent.