While this year brought an anticipated election ending in Democrats keeping firm control of Augusta, 2023 will bring more influence in Washington, a focus on policy in the State House and many politicians mapping out their futures.
Here is our list of the 10 people in Maine politics to keep your eye on, spanning the political spectrum and winding from high offices down to local leaders potentially on the rise.
Gov. Janet Mills
The governor has to feel good after walloping former Gov. Paul LePage, her longtime rival, in November. At 74 years old, Mills’ campaigning days are probably behind her, leaving her to focus on policy — and legacy — in collaboration with a Democratic-led Legislature.
On many major issues, she has a penchant for trying to build wide coalitions. But you could criticize her in the legislative relations department. While her 45 first-term vetoes pale in comparison to LePage’s record, former Gov. John Baldacci issued eight. Recently, she told the Portland Press Herald that she wants to get involved in things earlier.
She will have her chance with ones like paid family and medical leave, something long considered by lawmakers who are being put under the gun by a progressive referendum effort. How Mills deals with this and other long-term issues from housing to behavioral health waitlists will tell you a lot about her second-term approach.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins
Maine’s senior senator ended the year as the driving force behind a spending bill full of state-centered items from a pause on lobster rules to $120 million for the university system. She led major bipartisan deals that closed recently, including protections for same-sex marriage and an overhaul of the Electoral College count.
Her influence will only grow in the new year when she becomes the No. 1 Republican on the appropriations panel. While Collins would have liked to see her party win a majority so she could control the committee, she is still in a strong position after helping Maine secure more in earmarks than California in one round earlier this year.
Collins’ standing in Maine took a hit around a bruising 2020 reelection race defined by her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. This year, he defied her predictions and voted to end federal abortion rights, then one pre-election poll had her at only 32 percent approval. Despite that, she is still the go-to member of the state’s delegation and a major national force.
U.S. Rep. Jared Golden
Since beating former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin for a third term in Maine’s conservative-leaning 2nd District, the Democratic congressman looks hard to oust. While Golden voted for his party’s tax, climate and spending bill, he continued bucking Democrats on issues that include gun control.
Golden’s orientation makes him the rare Democrat who might see benefit in Republicans’ narrow takeover of the House. If he and more centrist Democrats can peel some Republicans from leaders on key issues, they may have the leverage to affect deals. He already helped win a defense spending increase in the omnibus bill and could gain a higher national profile now.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross
The daughter of Maine’s first Black legislator is now the House of Representative’s first Black speaker, going from the left flank to a focal point. Talbot Ross, a Portland Democrat, is also probably the most progressive person to ever control the House, making her new role a tantalizing one.
She has described herself as a prison abolitionist. Now she must deal with Mills, who rose in politics as a prosecutor. Talbot Ross has squared off with the governor on issues including tribal sovereignty. kicking off her new job last week with a tour of tribal lands and a promise to make progress on the matter. Her agenda may dictate the depth of Democratic disagreement.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart
The 28-year-old Senate Republican leader ran against Golden briefly in 2021, a move that illustrated his ambition even before he graduated from law school. He has been a by-the-book conservative in Augusta but has developed an outspoken streak of late, calling Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, “corrupt” during a high-stakes campaign.
On the first day of his new job this month, his caucus tanked a heating aid bill. Stewart later voted for the same measure in a committee after Democrats met his demand of a public hearing. You can debate the effectiveness of that move, but he has shown that he will be Mills’ chief legislative prosecutor and he is a near-lock to run for higher office someday.
Former state Rep. Seth Berry
Berry was once the No. 2 House Democrat, but he developed into a crusader against Maine’s big electric utilities. His plan to replace them with a consumer-owned utility was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills and he now works for a group taking another version to the 2023 ballot, making him a top enemy for Central Maine Power Co. and an adversary for most Republicans. Even Democrats have been at odds with him on major energy policies.
He is not assured victory even if he wins at the ballot. CMP’s parent company is advancing a referendum to subject the billions in public borrowing needed to fund the buyout to another vote. The utilities would probably fight a takeover in court. But Berry will be at the center of it all to the bitter end, whatever that looks like.
Rep. Reagan Paul
Cutting against Republicans’ election losses in swing areas was this 23-year-old from Winterport, who won an open seat last held by a Democrat. Most in her party ran from the abortion issue, but she called for a personhood amendment to the Maine Constitution that would ban virtually all abortions here and touted the endorsement of a prominent election denier.
Paul also stood out as one of three-dozen Republicans who refused to answer a Bangor Daily News candidate survey, citing a “far-left agenda” on the part of the paper’s editors. But she also benefited from many letters to the editor in the paper ahead of her skillful victory.
She followed that up by being one of 16 House Republicans to vote against a heating aid bill. Running and winning in a purple area in the image of Donald Trump makes her unique as a Maine Republican and worth watching in the Legislature.
Rep. Mana Abdi
The 26-year-old first-term Democrat from Lewiston is one of Maine’s first two Somali American lawmakers. She was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, moving to Maine at age 13 and staying here after attending the University of Maine at Farmington.
Maine’s housing crisis is the major issue that she cited in motivating her to run for office. Representing a downtown area of Maine’s most politically important city, Abdi is positioned to be not only an example of the state’s changing face, but a key player on a pressing issue.
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque
LePage’s loss has Republicans searching for standard bearers. It did not take long for a reporter to get the mayor of Maine’s fifth-largest city to say he would run for higher office someday. Levesque said he would likely seek a fourth term in 2023 with “more runs in me” afterward, except that he will never run against Golden, whom he respects, or for the Legislature.
After running unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010, he won a political second act by just 12 votes five years ago. He was easily reelected twice and got national attention for ambitious housing expansion plans, backing a state housing reform law from a top legislative Democrat. While he is untested at the state level, his unique profile and open ambitions set him apart.
Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling
You saw him finish in third place in his bid for reelection as Portland mayor in 2019. You see him on TV and the BDN’s opinion pages. As a candidate, maybe he is washed up. But maybe he could be Portland’s next mayor, as his conservative co-columnist Phil Harriman predicted last week.
The mayoral position has been in chronic limbo since Strimling warred with the more-powerful city manager and councilors. Mayor Kate Snyder, who beat him, promised to not seek reelection before city voters bucked Strimling and his fellow progressives by voting down a stronger mayor along with a higher minimum wage and short-term rental restrictions.
Activists in the city had been on a winning streak before that and the tension around the position might make it less attractive to a wide field of candidates. Some are going to emerge. Will it be Strimling? Maybe not, but he’s as good a bet as anybody for now.