AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Maine Senate scuttled Gov. Paul LePage’s nomination to head the Maine State Housing Authority on Thursday, leading the Republican governor to blast Democrats for engaging in “cheap politics.”

LePage nominated his economic development commissioner, George Gervais, earlier this year. The nomination, which needed a two-thirds Senate vote to overcome a negative labor committee recommendation, failed 20-13. Two senators were absent.

“The director of this independent authority has enormous responsibility,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who has led the opposition to Gervais’ nomination.

Democrats expressed concerns about Gervais’ lack of experience in housing administration. On March 1, Gervais received a split recommendation from the Legislature’s Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee, with all of the panel’s Democrats voting against him.

But a number of Republican senators voiced their disagreement, saying Gervais has performed well in his current Cabinet position, which often requires him to work on funding for housing programs. He won unanimous Senate support in 2011 for his nomination to lead the state’s economic and community development efforts.

“I was troubled that Mr. Gervais’ nomination was not weighed on the credibility of his experience and his service to this state,” said Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, regarding the contentious committee interview of Gervais.

Among Democrats’ concerns were Gervais’ lack of experience in the housing sector and past professional positions he has held with a subprime mortgage lender and as owner of a chain of restaurants that went bankrupt.

However, 14 witnesses testified in support of the nomination, including officials from the Maine State Housing Authority and through a proxy, former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, while no one offered relevant opposition.

After the decision, LePage called Gervais’ rejection “cheap politics” and noted that Democrats won’t have to deal with him much longer — the governor is term-limited and will leave office in January.

“I think Democrats have such hatred for me that they’ll say no to anything and that’s fine, it is what it is,” he said. “They only have nine months to go and … somebody else will come in.”

Gervais said during questioning from the committee that he wouldn’t make major changes to the authority if confirmed, and will rely on outgoing director John Gallagher — who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to join the organization’s board last week — for expertise.

In a statement after the vote, Gervais said he would continue as commissioner of economic and community development.

“I have been truly honored by the confidence and trust Gov. LePage has placed in me with this nomination,” he said. “I am deeply grateful for the tremendous amount of positive support I’ve received throughout the nomination process from the many who have spoken out in favor of my accomplishments and qualifications.”

Maine State Housing Authority administers millions of dollars a year in state and federal funding for housing projects to benefit low- and moderate-income Mainers. Gervais declined to comment for this story.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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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.