Gov. Paul LePage introduces Donald Trump at a Bangor rally in 2016. (BDN file photo) Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Good morning from Augusta. Maine’s two biggest political parties are readying to hold elections for party chairs this weekend in contested elections that former Gov. Paul LePage and Gov. Janet Mills are taking keen interests in at very different times for their parties.

The Maine Democratic Party will elect a new leader after Chairman Phil Bartlett decided to not run again. His successor will be charged with protecting gains in 2018 that included the Blaine House, the 2nd Congressional District and majorities in both chambers of the Maine Legislature.

The core team at the Maine Republican Party is looking to hang onto their jobs and shield U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and President Donald Trump from challenges in 2020 and make gains in the Legislature. Their horrible 2018 came after strong electoral cycles in 2014 and 2016.

Republican leadership races are fractured, with LePage and legislative leaders splitting on support of the sitting chair and two others running. Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas of Saco is seeking a second two-year term with former Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and former state Rep. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough have emerged so far to challenge her in an uncertain race with the party grappling over their past and future.

LePage, who enjoys wide popularity in the party’s grass-roots, endorsed Kouzounas in an email to the state committee in late December that was a classic example of his messaging. In it, he cast blame for the 2018 results virtually everywhere but on the state party, where one of his key allies, executive director Jason Savage, has been running things since 2013.

The last four years of his tenure were marked by conflict between LePage and the Republican-led Senate, particularly around the 2017 state government shutdown. Without mentioning Mason by name in the email, LePage doubled down on criticism of Senate Republicans who he said “blackballed” him.

He hit Republicans for too often settling for a “warm body” while picking candidates and blamed ranked-choice voting, Chinese tariffs on lobster and anger from “soft republican urban women” with Collins over her vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the results.

Mason has support from the four Republican legislative leaders. In their email to the state committee, they said the 2018 results “represent a lack of cooperation and coordination that has existed between party headquarters and legislative leadership for far too long.”

Sirocki is a bit of a wild card who could be a strong contender. She told the committee there were “rumors of money left on the table, a delayed absentee ballot program, and poorly coordinated efforts” around the election and that “intensity and drama help energize voters.”

There is also an establishment-outsider battle brewing for vice chair: Former House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, who was a LePage ally in the Legislature, is facing controversial Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who narrowly survived a June recall bid after tweeting “Eat it, Hogg” to a Florida school shooting survivor who embraced gun control. John Hiatt of Bangor who was elected Penobscot County treasurer last year, said he is also running for vice chair “as the sane, nice and polite Republican.”

An activist from Kittery is running for the Democratic chair spot with support from Mills. The two-way race to lead Maine Democrats is a sleepier one, the Democrats now have many elected leaders — including Mills, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — to speak prominently for the party. The new chair will likely be a more behind-the-scenes official than Bartlett, who had lots of rebuilding to do after the 2014 cycle.

The party posts their candidates online and the two running are Kathleen Marra, who chairs Kittery Democrats, and Melissa Sterry of Augusta, who ran the campaign of Natasha Irving, a Democrat who unseated a Republican district attorney of four midcoast counties last year.

Marra, who was among a group of people arrested during a protest at the Blaine House last year, is supported by Mills and called the party’s staff “phenomenal,” saying she wants “more of everything” in the party, including grass-roots training.

Sterry, who ran unsuccessfully in 2011 against former Chairman Ben Grant, a manager of Mills’ transition, said she would be a “competent administrator of the party who recognizes that they’re not the face of the party and they’re not for the voice of the party.”

Reading list

— The architect of LePage’s welfare system overhaul left her federal job for a post in Florida. After just three months in Washington, D.C., Mary Mayhew, who served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from 2011 to 2017 before resigning to launch a failed campaign for the 2018 Republican gubernatorial nomination, quit her job overseeing Medicaid for the federal government to take a senior health and welfare management position in Florida.

— Meanwhile, a recently re-elected Republican legislator in Maine left the party. Rep. Don Marean, who won his sixth term in November with 56 percent of votes in a district representing his hometown of Hollis and parts of Buxton, did not provide a reason for his decision to quit the party. He had recently been assigned to serve as the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s tax committee. Marean is prevented by Maine’s term limits law from seeking re-election in 2020 because this is his fourth consecutive term in the House.

— Maine’s senior senator said she wants a chance to vote on House budget bills that would reopen federal agencies. On Sunday, Collins expressed support for ending the partial government shutdown with targeted appropriations while congressional Democrats and Trump continue negotiations over a U.S.-Mexico border wall. “I would like to see [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] bring the House-passed bills to the Senate floor. We could reopen much of the government where there’s no dispute,” Collins told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press.”

— Maine’s economy is better than its been in a decade. Maine’s economy is the best it has been since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 as the Pine Tree State enters 2019 with a higher minimum wage, a budget surplus of more than $175 million and unemployment at 3.4 percent, below the national average. “Most businesses and consumers are in the best shape they’ve been in over the last decade,” Bob Montgomery-Rice, president and CEO of Bangor Savings Bank, said. “Wages are slightly picking up, probably not as fast as everyone would like to see, but overall things are in a good spot.” But trouble finding skilled workers and forecasts for a national economic “correction” in the next 12 to 18 months make economists and financial managers wary.

Having a ball

Curious to see how Maine’s political elite socialize with each other when filled with rich food and alcohol, I attended Mills’ inaugural ball Friday night at the Augusta Civic Center.

The black-tie optional, invitation-only event attracted more than 3,000 people and boasted food and drink offerings from all of Maine’s 16 counties, including the featured Inaugur-ale from Brunswick-based Moderation Brewing, which is co-owned by Maine Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick. This dark lager is what i stood in line for 20 minutes for, and it was very good.

In addition to the whole affair being an exercise in name and face recollection, it was my first inaugural ball, and I was underdressed. This feeling eventually dissolved as the night wore on, when many dressed more appropriately than me chose to thrust their hips and pump their fists on the dance floor to Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees, Bon Jovi, and “Timber,” by Pitbull, featuring Kesha.

My evening highlights were as follows: the crowd sing-along to “Blowin’ in the Wind” led by Mills’ special musical guest, Blue Hill’s Noel Paul Stookey, famous for his part in the musical trio, Peter, Paul and Mary (here’s the group’s cover from 1963); Duck Trap River of Maine’s smoked scallops; the drumming performance by Batimbo United, a group of musicians from Burundi; and when I spoke briefly to a newly elected, kind of sweaty state representative from southern Maine later in the night, who was carrying four glasses of water for him and his wife so they could sustain themselves dancing.

Mills, when she briefly took the stage, quoted the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Many of Maine’s Democratic leaders chose Friday to get some shade of silly with one another. They were celebrating, after all. Here’s your soundtrack. — Alex Acquisto

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, 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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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...