Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Forest Products Industry adviser Rosaire Pelletier [far left] and DECD Commissioner George Gervais listen to Cate Street Capital officials during a Finance Authority of Maine meeting on April 17, 2014.

Gov. Paul LePage’s pick to lead the Maine State Housing Authority encountered strong opposition from Democrats Thursday, putting his confirmation by the full Senate in question.

LePage nominated George Gervais, who has been his economic development commissioner for the past seven years, in early February.

The Legislature’s Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee questioned Gervais and a string of witnesses who testified on his behalf for more than three hours Thursday before voting 7-6 against Gervais. All Democrats voted against Gervais, while all Republicans supported him.

The vote constitutes a recommendation to the Senate and does not mean the nomination has been defeated. But it means two-thirds of the Senate — where Republicans hold an 18-17 majority — will have to vote to reject the committee’s recommendation if Gervais is to gain the position.

Thursday’s committee vote — which came despite a parade of witnesses who lauded Gervais’ credentials — also is likely to further deepen the monumental partisan divide in the Legislature and further strain relations between LePage and Democratic lawmakers.

Voting against Gervais were Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester; Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford; Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook; Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta; Rep. James Handy, D-Lewiston; Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford; and Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland.

Several Democrats questioned whether Gervais has enough experience in the housing sector to lead the organization. They also questioned aspects of his private-sector career, including as a restaurant owner who went through bankruptcy and as a loan officer for companies with reputations for selling sub-prime housing loans.

Gervais said he was never involved in selling sub-prime loans and explained his bankruptcy as a rough patch in his life.

“Most successful people have experienced painful failures that ultimately taught them how to succeed,” said Gervais.

But Democrats were full of tough questions and comments, including Mastraccio saying Gervais’s history of working with the LCRED Committee has been “less than satisfactory.” Under questioning, Gervais was unable to speak in detail about the authority’s five-year strategic plan or about how the federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump would affect the organization.

“One of my biggest concerns is your lack of experience in housing,” said Bellows.

Handy, who asked about the presidential budget proposal, said “it seems to me like some of these questions would be part of your preparation for this hearing.”

Gervais said during questioning that he doesn’t intend to make major changes to the authority if confirmed, and will rely on outgoing director John Gallagher — who has been nominated to join the organization’s board — for expertise. Gervais argued that his prior experience isn’t as far outside the housing sector as some believe.

“If we can resolve some of our housing needs, it will go a long way toward resolving some of our workforce needs,” Gervais said.

Approximately 14 people spoke in favor of Gervais during the public hearing portion of the interview and only one person spoke during the time allotted for those against.

At times, committee members engaged in testy back-and-forth as Republicans objected to Democrats’ questions or what they characterized as unfair assaults on Gervais’ character.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.