Rachel Talbot Ross wants to see Mainers get help on issues ranging from housing and energy costs to health care and the opioid epidemic.
Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is seen Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Rachel Talbot Ross made history last month when she became the first Black lawmaker in Maine ever elected as House speaker.

But as Maine’s new House speaker prepares to kick off the 2023 legislative session, the longtime social justice advocate said her focus will be on finding common ground to help all Mainers on issues ranging from housing and energy costs to access to health care and the opioid epidemic.

“I do not believe I have to set any of that aside. I think I have to find where the common ground lies,” Talbot Ross said.

Talbot Ross was just 12 years old when she and her sisters watched from a balcony as their father, Gerald Talbot, was sworn in as Maine’s first Black lawmaker in the state’s 150-year history. Exactly a half-century later, Talbot Ross remembered being incredibly proud of him and feeling amazed that, as he walked around the ornate State House corridors, people knew her father’s name.

“But I did not at all have an understanding of the enormity of the challenge that he had taken on,” she said. “You think of your father as being invincible, but I now know the extraordinary challenges that he overcame.”

As she spoke, Talbot Ross was seated in the spacious House Speaker office behind a door etched with her name. She is just the fourth woman to hold the position – and the first person of color to ever preside over Maine’s 151-member House of Representatives. And when Talbot Ross took that oath of office last month, her 91-year-old father and mother were there to witness it along with a slew of other family members and friends.

A ninth-generation Mainer, Talbot Ross said she doesn’t believe her House colleagues elected her because of her race — but hopes that she can become a “vehicle to open up conversations” about difficult racial issues.

“But I also would say that I’m really proud of my colleagues for acknowledging that I’m Black,” she said. “I’m proud of that, of my heritage. And I’m extraordinarily proud of my state for giving me this opportunity.”

Before her election to represent part of Portland in the House in 2016, Talbot Ross spent decades working on issues of equal opportunity, racial justice and criminal justice reform at the city and state level. She formerly headed Portland’s NAACP chapter and the city government’s equal opportunity and multicultural affairs programs. She was a vocal advocate for prison reform and for fighting discrimination in housing, education and the workplace — just as her parents did.

In fact, Talbot Ross said it was her own family’s difficult experience finding a place to rent in Portland’s Munjoy Hill that sparked her father’s activism and eventual lengthy career in public service.

Democratic Rep. Mike Brennan estimated that he’s known Talbot Ross for about 30 years through his time on the Portland City Council, as mayor and then several stints representing Maine’s largest municipality in the Legislature.

“She’s been very passionate and very successful in addressing a number of issues from racial justice, discrimination in the areas of corrections and prison reform, so clearly knows the political process,” Brennan said.

And in the last several years, Brennan said Talbot Ross has been successful in making sure that Portland’s minority communities were able to contribute to the decision-making process.

“She was very effective in making sure that the voices that were not typically heard in city government had an opportunity to be heard,” he said.

As a state lawmaker, Talbot Ross also has become a leading advocate for recognizing the sovereignty of the four tribal nations in Maine. She helped create and then co-chaired a permanent state commission to address the “structural racism” facing tribal populations as well as racial minorities in the state. And during the last legislative session, Talbot Ross was the prime sponsor of a bill to overhaul the controversial 1980 legal agreement that has resulted in Maine tribes having far less self-governance than their counterparts nationwide.

“So much of what we’re working on is really because of her labor and because of her commitment to these things,” Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana said.

Dana said she has developed a close working relationship and friendship with Talbot Ross over the past decade, including as co-chair of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations. The tribal sovereignty bill had majority support in both the House and Senate but ultimately failed after Gov. Janet Mills promised to veto it. Still, Dana credited Talbot Ross with helping to elevate tribal sovereignty and other equity issues that she said will benefit all “marginalized groups” across Maine. And Dana said she looked forward to continuing to work with Talbot Ross in her new role during a time that she said is a pivotal time in state history.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot accomplished already,” Dana said. “The tribal sovereignty movement certainly has quite a bit of momentum as well as a lot of her other causes that she cares about. So I’m really excited to see, with her as speaker, how she can keep championing those things. And I’m excited to see how she works on the other priorities of her caucus. I just think it is such a time for her to flourish and to bring all of Maine along with her.”

For her part, Talbot Ross said she doesn’t believe she’ll have to set aside those social justice issues in her new role as leader of a chamber with 151 members with their own priorities, constituencies and political leanings. Addressing the state’s housing crisis is a top priority for Democrats, Republicans and independents, and Talbot Ross said Maine’s housing challenges face families from rural Aroostook and Washington counties to the state’s more urban areas.

Despite predictions of a Republican wave nationwide, Democrats managed to pick up a few seats in the Maine House and now have an 87-67 majority over Republicans with two independents.

Although she is often described by others as a progressive Democrat, Talbot Ross pushed back against such labels and pointed out that people of all political and personal persuasions have fought for justice throughout Maine history.

“And I consider myself that same kind of freedom fighter,” Talbot Ross said. “If there is a need to put me in a box, that’s on you. I really do believe that I am here to fight for everyone. So I would consider myself a human rights activist and leader.”

The Legislature will return to Augusta for the first time this year on Wednesday. The two top items on the agenda will be voting for a second time on an emergency heating and energy assistance bill that Talbot Ross helped to negotiate and swearing in Mills to a second term.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.