AUGUSTA, Maine – After a hard-fought election campaign, new House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross had a simple message after the newly elected Legislature was sworn in Wednesday: political and regional unity.
“I will be a speaker that listens, that has an open door,” Ross said. “Absolutely nobody should feel that they are on the other side.”
Ross made history Wednesday when her colleagues elected her the first Black speaker of the Maine House. As she was nominated and sworn in, Libby Mitchell, who became the first female speaker in 1996, beamed as she observed from the back of the House chamber.
“I am a proud, ninth-generation, African-American Mainer,” Ross said. “I stand before you today, and I want any child in our state to know that this, today, this is possible.”
In her address, Ross noted many of the problems facing Maine, from food insecurity to climate change.
She also addressed political polarization. The new Legislature features few Democrats from the state’s most rural areas, which have increasingly gone to the GOP in recent years, but Ross made a point to emphasize that issues including climate change and food security affect all of Maine.
“Too many families are food insecure,” Ross said. “One in five households in Portland and Sanford, as well as in Presque Isle and Skowhegan, do not know where their next meal is going to come from.”
Ross’ speech also included an acknowledgement “that we are gathered on the land collectively of the Wabanaki Tribes,” and she noted that there had not been a State of the Tribes address in the Legislature for 20 years. The last time leadership from the Wabanaki tribes spoke to the Legislature was in 2002.
Tribal sovereignty is one of a few prominent issues on which Ross has disagreed with Gov. Janet Mills, a fellow Democrat. Ross’ comment on the state of the tribes was a potential hint of focus on the issue in the new session.
Mills, who administered the oath to the members, gave a short address saying that she was prepared for the Legislature to work on the most significant challenges facing the state and for its members to fulfill their roles with “civility, competency, common sense and compassion.”
The swearing-in in the House ran concurrently with that of the Maine Senate. Senate President Troy Jackson, who survived a tough re-election battle against former Rep. Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, returned to the position he has held the past four years.
It was a packed chamber in the House, filled not just with family members and friends of lawmakers and lobbyists, but historical figures. Mitchell, the first female Maine House speaker; Hannah Pingree, the second; and Sara Gideon, the third as well as the first person of color to serve as speaker watched Wednesday’s proceedings. Ross’ father Gerald Talbot, who was the first Black legislator in Maine history, was also present to see his daughter elected House speaker.
With the last legislative session beginning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020, Wednesday’s swearing-in marked something of a return to normalcy. Few wore face masks, though those who did were generally on the Democratic side of the aisle.