Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett is shown in this photo from the 2014 Democratic State Convention in Bangor. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Democratic Party

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett was nominated to the state’s utility regulatory commission by Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday in a move that kicks off the Democratic governor’s remaking of a panel that had been filled by her predecessor.

Bartlett, 42, of Portland is an employment attorney whose experience in energy is centered on his Maine Senate service from 2004 to 2012. While in the Legislature, the Harvard Law School graduate chaired the energy committee and served as the upper chamber’s majority leader.

He would replace Mark Vannoy, the commission chairman appointed by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage who left his post earlier this month. The six-year terms of the other two LePage-appointed commissioners are up in 2021 and 2023. The Democratic-led Maine Senate must confirm Bartlett’s nomination after a hearing in the Legislature’s energy committee.

In a statement, Mills called Bartlett “a dedicated public servant and an experienced leader on energy policy” who will ensure Mainers have “safe, adequate and reliable utility services at reasonable rates.” Bartlett said he would “protect the rights of consumers and ratepayers.”

Mills, who has made climate change a key priority of her administration, is likely looking to reorient the three-person commission. Last month, she signed a bill reversing a major LePage-era change from the commission in 2017 that phased out a policy crediting solar panel owners on a one-to-one basis for energy sold to the grid.

She also has a pro-development tinge. In April, the LePage-appointed commission approved Central Maine Power’s proposed $1 billion hydropower corridor from Quebec to the regional grid via western Maine, which Mills backed after parties inked a $260 million benefits package.

Bartlett is the first former legislator to get a high-profile appointment from Mills after he was rumored for months to be a candidate alongside a roster of technical experts that sources said included Faith Huntington, director of the commission’s electric and natural gas division.

Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, a former Democratic lawmaker who served with Bartlett, said the nominee has a “unique blend of public policy, law and politics” and his legal background will serve him well on the quasi-judicial commission. He would be the only lawyer on the commission alongside R. Bruce Williamson, an economist, and Randall Davis, an engineer.

Environmental groups praised the nomination, with the Natural Resources Council of Maine saying Bartlett will provide “leadership on clean energy and energy efficiency.” Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro, who serves on the energy committee, declined comment on the nomination through a spokeswoman.

Bartlett served as chairman of the Maine Democratic Party from 2014 through 2019. Hobbins said while his political history “might be a concern to some of the Republican legislators,” it shouldn’t be because he was inclusive during his time on the Legislature’s energy panel.

“He obviously has the intellect, the temperament, and he does have a broad background in the energy field,” he said.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...