Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, sits at his desk in the State House in Augusta, Dec. 7, 2018.

Good morning from Augusta, where the newly seated Maine House of Representatives includes five people who don’t identify as either Democrat or Republican.

It’s the largest number of independents elected to the House in more than a century. But, collectively, they are not expected to wield much clout after Democrats surged to a strong majority in last month’s elections. Nevertheless, they enter the new session with hopes that they can play an important role in bridging the partisan divide that tumbled the previous Legislature into rancor and dysfunction.

“The last session it was about our votes. I believe this session it’s about our voice,” Rep. Norman Higgins, I-Dover-Foxcroft, said this week. Higgins, who won a third term last month as after leaving the Republican Party in 2017, said he and his independent colleagues need to assert their role as deal makers and confidants to both parties in ways they might not have two years ago when they were, “to a small extent, the lever that kept the Democrats in the majority,” Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth said. Other independents this session include Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, Rep. William Pluecker, I-Warren, and Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison.

Party defections in the previous Legislature stripped the Democrats of a clear majority and gave independents and the lone Green Independent Party member more leverage with floor votes. But wrangling votes should be a lesser concern in the new Legislature.

With hopes high that tensions will dissipate as a result of combative Gov. Paul LePage’s departure and the collective drive for civility on the rise in both chambers, Higgins and newly elected Pluecker think the level of discourse to come will better reflect what they’re all about, which is “forming relationships one wouldn’t expect you to form across the aisle,” Pluecker said. And it’s being validated by party members like House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who asked Higgins to second her nomination last week to serve another two years in the role.

By definition, independents are sole proprietors, eschewing party and caucus work to advance their own agendas and those of their constituents. But to be effective, they need to balance those individual pursuits with making themselves useful to party leaders in ways that provide the negotiating capital required to achieve their goals. In that area, former Rep. Owen Casas, an independent from Rockport who served in the 128th Legislature but lost his re-election bid in November, advised his former independent colleagues not to play it too safe.

“Keeping a low profile would not be helpful in advancing a statewide conversation about why independence matters,” he said. Charting a more visible role in this session might not lead to better legislative outcomes, but it could set a “competent” example for others who might be considering running as an independent.

Independents might not gain power from listening to both sides caucus, but they gain understanding, Casas said. “Being a part of a tribe that has power is powerful. When you’re the rag-tag island of misfit toys, you don’t have power, but you get all these other things.”

But Evangelos said he simply prefers not to caucus with other independents or the party. “There is no leverage,” he said. “We are five out of 151. But Speaker Gideon has been first class. We are off to a great start.”

A key indicator of the role Gideon would like the independents to play in the new Legislature should come next week when she and other party leaders are due to announce committee assignments. Where they place independents — and whether she grants them their first or second choices — will offer a hint at where they could exert their influence. Historically, independents have not scored committee leadership positions and have often been placed on less influential panels. Higgins has played a pivotal role on the energy and utilities committee during the past two legislatures and would likely be in position for a top spot there based on that tenure.

Striving to be independents who “blur the lines that we’re trying to draw in politics” is likely the group’s best bet, Pluecker said, for “lending the most creativity and potentially the most relevance.”

They speak for Mills

Two familiar voices will be speaking on behalf of Maine’s next governor. Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills formally named her hires Wednesday for press secretary and communications director.

Scott Ogden, who worked as Mills’ campaign spokesman, will be Mills communications director. The former Bowdoin graduate previously worked for U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine as his press secretary and deputy communications director. Ogden served Mills as her communications director throughout her gubernatorial campaign and in her transition team, so his appointment doesn’t come as a surprise.

Lindsay Crete most recently worked as the deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’s List, a political action committee that aims to put pro-choice female Democrats in elected offices across the country. Crete formerly served as communications director for the Maine House Democrats and as the Maine communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The pair join Jeremy Kennedy, who Mills’ picked last month as her chief of staff. Mills’ transition team began interviews for Cabinet-level positions last week, but she hasn’t made any other hiring announcements yet.

Reading list

A pilot project designed to have Maine students do school work remotely has become tangled in red tape. For months, officials in the combined School Administrative District 28 and Five Town Community School District have been planning a remote school day pilot project that would allow students and teachers to work from home when inclement weather keeps them out of school buildings. But last week the Maine Department of Education denied the district’s request for an exemption from the 175-day minimum school day requirement, according to MSAD 28 and Five Town CSD Superintendent Maria Libby. Local officials plan to appeal that decision in January, after a new administration takes office.

Nursing homes in rural Maine are in deep trouble. Half a dozen have closed this year, uprooting roughly 200 elderly residents. In all, Maine has seen 12 nursing homes close since 2014, leaving 94 nursing homes in operation throughout the state. Since 1995, the state has lost nearly 40 of them. By 2030, nearly a third of Maine’s population is projected to be over age 65. Yet the state has fewer nursing home beds than other states, averaging 24 per 1,000 residents in the over-65 age group, said Richard Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, a trade group for long-term care providers. The national average is 36 beds. In every instance, the owners of the facilities that shuttered this year attempted to sell before closing, Erb said.

Penobscot County commissioners want to build a bigger jail, but it will likely cost more than $65 million. The preference for a new jail behind the current facility on Hammond Street marks a change from the county’s original plans to expand the overcrowded, 157-bed Penobscot County Jail by renovating the former YMCA building just up the hill to house female inmates and the jail’s intake operations. Commissioners agreed last month to go forward with a plan to build a new facility rather than continue spending an average of $700,000 per year to board inmates at other facilities or build an addition to the current facility. They had hoped to seek voter approval for the project in June 2019 but decided Tuesday “to slow the process down” when they learned the cost for building plans would be “substantial” and the county would have to bear the cost of holding the election, Chairman Peter Baldacci said.

Food sovereignty proponents in Maine are claiming victory in this year’s farm bill. A revised version of the bill passed the Senate on Tuesday and the House on Wednesday. It did not include an amendment known as the Protect Interstate Commerce Act of 2018, which would have forced states to authorize the sale of any agricultural product not prohibited under federal law. Food sovereignty advocates in Maine feared that federal language would supersede the state’s food sovereignty law which allows towns to adopt ordinances giving them the authority to regulate the direct, producer-to-consumer exchanges, food processing and distribution free from state or federal regulatory control.

Gourmet dismay

If they weren’t so busy writing about politics and government, my colleagues, Alex Acquisto and Mike Shepherd, would probably be food writers.

Whenever our workplace conversation turns away from politics, it often turns to food. When it does, I am quickly out of my league. My first attempt to saute mushrooms ended with singed eyebrows, a flaming skillet and a fire extinguisher sauce on the porch of a Lewiston triple-decker. That technique has evolved to placing all of the ingredients into a frying pan, adding soy sauce and leaving it on the burner until the fire alarm sounds.

Mike and Alex, on the other hand, are skilled kitchen tacticians. If you listen carefully, you might even hear one of them call spaghetti sauce “bolognese.” Recently, they were discussing the best oil to use when roasting Brussels sprouts. My first thought was “10W30,” so I kept quiet.

When Mike chided my generation for ruining Brussels sprouts and most other food by boiling it,  I could offer no defense. Cooking was more a matter of sterilization than taste when my palate was developing. But — proving that I can learn and evolve — I did offer this recipe from BDN colleague Sarah Walker Caron, who really is a food writer. We’ve tried a variation at home and found it to be delicious, although my only role in the preparation process was yanking the sprouts off the stalks.

In my ongoing efforts to be a lifelong learner when it comes to food, I invite Daily Brief readers to submit their favorite recipes for Brussels sprouts — they are a holiday staple in many parts of the world — to the email addresses below. While you’re at it, please send along ideas for what I can do with the eight winter squash that arrived in this month’s winter farm share.

Bon appetit. Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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