The Maine House could bring surprises in the new year as a new progressive speaker works out deals with a more centrist Gov. Janet Mills.
Incoming speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, will make history as the first Black speaker in Maine history. She may also be its most progressive, serving alongside Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, the labor Democrat who just won re-election in the most expensive legislative race in Maine history and has disagreed often with Mills.
Talbot Ross has run afoul of the governor before on issues from tribal sovereignty and police reform. House Democrats who had elected Talbot Ross as speaker praised her leadership skills, saying she has progressive views and the ability to work with Democrats in different ideological lanes as well as Republicans.
“I see her more as a unifier of the House than as any sort of changemaker or change in the direction of the Legislature,” Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, said.
Even with the policy differences between her and the governor, Roeder expects Talbot Ross, whose spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment, to develop a strong working relationship with Mills. Her qualities of being respectful and collaborative would be essential to that relationship, Roeder said.
Mills considers Talbot Ross a friend and called her last week to congratulate her on her nomination as speaker, Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the governor, said. In the call, Mills told Talbot Ross that she looked forward to working with her on pressing issues facing the state, with the high costs that threaten Mainers this winter top among them.
Maine politicians to watch for
While there is little doubt Mills will develop a working relationship with House leadership, it could be one with frank debate and some disagreements. Outgoing Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was described as a pragmatic progressive.
Talbot Ross has cultivated a far closer relationship with the activist wing of her party. She has gone as far as to describe herself as a prison abolitionist, a far cry from Mills, who rose in politics as a prosecutor and was attorney general before assuming the Blaine House.
The Portland lawmaker championed a sweeping tribal sovereignty effort that Mills resisted in favor of a more limited compromise. The Mills administration initially opposed her 2021 bill to amend the bail code, saying it would be “detrimental to public safety.” The governor allowed a watered-down version to pass without her signature.
Rep. Tiffany Roberts, D-South Berwick, who has taken progressive stances on issues like gun control and tribal sovereignty, said she expects continuity between Ross’ and Fecteau’s tenures.
“I think our goal as a caucus in the Legislature is to work with each other and across the aisle,” Roberts said.
Talbot Ross isn’t the only newly elected House leader to differ with Mills on policy: Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, who is on pace to replace Talbot Ross as the No. 3 Democrat in the House, spoke at a gun safety rally in Augusta on Sunday. Mills abandoned her past support for certain gun control policies in her first term, finding alliances with a gun-rights group.
Battles between legislative leaders are not new. Lawmakers in both parties fought often with former Gov. Paul LePage, while Mills has vetoed 37 bills during her tenure despite unified Democratic control of Augusta. Some of those included Jackson bills on pharmaceuticals.
Such disagreements are a healthy part of the checks and balances of state government, said Rep. Lydia Crafts, D-Newcastle. Talbot Ross has shown the initiative to pursue policies aligned with that viewpoint in the House but has also demonstrated that she is prepared to lead an ideologically diverse caucus, Crafts said.
“We have three branches of government to serve the people,” Crafts said. “It would be a boring day in Augusta if we had no disagreement.”