AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic Sen.-elect Troy Jackson of Allagash, who returns to the Legislature this year after a two-year hiatus, was elected Senate minority leader Monday evening by a vote of his fellow senators.
In secret-ballot voting, Jackson bested Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick, who has been the assistant minority leader for the past two years.
Jackson — who served three terms in the Maine Senate from 2008 to 2014 before losing the 2014 Democratic primary to run for Maine’s 2nd U.S. House seat — has been a Democratic firebrand and is one of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s top political enemies. As a member of leadership in the 126th Legislature, Jackson was often called on by his caucus to blast the governor in news conferences, which caused LePage to retaliate in some of his memorable outbursts.
On Monday during a caucus at the Senator Inn in Augusta, Jackson talked about his upbringing in a cash-strapped family and how those experiences have primed him to fight for working families and labor unions.
“We need to fight like hell for those people,” Jackson said. “We need to step up and let them know we’re the ones fighting for them.”
Jackson said a year that saw the election of Donald Trump for president and re-election of Bruce Poliquin for Congress, along with the passage of a higher minimum wage, tells him that Mainers are struggling and fed up.
“It proves that people are extremely upset with where things are going,” he said.
The possibility that Democrats would take over majority control of the Senate in last week’s elections was plausible, based on a Bangor Daily News analysis of matchups, campaign finances and town-by-town voter breakdowns, but it didn’t come to pass. Republicans lost two seats in the Senate but held onto the majority, 18-17.
The closer split means Democrats would have to sway only one member of the other party to gain a simple majority, which is what it takes to pass most bills. A two-thirds majority, which is necessary for special circumstances such as emergency enactment and veto overrides, requires 24 votes if all members are present.
In the past two years, the Senate has arguably been the more moderate of the two chambers in the Legislature. During state budget bill negotiations in 2015, for example, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate sided with House Democrats against House Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage. On a slew of other issues, senators stuck with their parties for numerous 20-15 votes.
Hill and Jackson brought contrasting leadership styles to the table.
Hill, as chairwoman of the Legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee in 2013 and 2014, negotiated and compromised with Republicans in order to craft consensus budget bills for the committee to recommend to the full Legislature.
Hill made headlines in 2013 when LePage showed up during committee deliberations one Sunday afternoon unannounced and demanded to be heard regarding an emergency budget situation at the Department of Health and Human Services. Hill did not allow LePage to address the committee.
“I will not hesitate to push back on the governor,” she said. “I have no problem dealing with him but doing [it] in a way that makes everybody proud.”
For the past two years, Hill has been assistant minority leader in partnership with Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland, who was term-limited out of office this year.
In related business, Democrats also elected Sen. Nathan Libby of Lewiston as their assistant minority leader in a two-way race against Sen. James Dill of Old Town.
Libby said the key to Democrats’ long-term success is advocating for traditional Democratic values.
“Senate Democrats need to forcefully and articulately communicate to the Maine people our core values,” he said. “That’s our biggest piece of work that we have to do.”
Alfond acknowledged that Democrats had a rough election in a year that was supposed to be good for them.
“We as Democrats did not follow the Trumpian kind of belief that you have to be racist, you have to be sexist and you have to be this nationalistic kind to win. We didn’t do that,” Alfond said. “We definitely fell short with the working class, and in a way this one hurts more than anything.”
The leadership election caucus was also a campaign event for candidates for Maine’s constitutional officers, who will be elected by the Legislature in December. They included three of the four current officers — Treasurer Terry Hayes, Auditor Pola Buckley and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap — in addition to outgoing Democratic Bangor Rep. Adam Goode, who is running for treasurer.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett, who will face challenges from at least three people in the party committee’s elections on Sunday, said Democrats need to work on how to attract rural voters and suggested the key to long-term success is in local elections.
“We need to continue to identify candidates to run for local office so they can work their way up,” he said to Monday night’s gathering.