AUGUSTA, Maine — Negotiating with Gov. Janet Mills and engaging with tribes that have long had frosty relationships with Republicans, House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham has done things differently during his short time in his new role.
It is not surprising that the 44-year-old from Winter Harbor is bucking expectations. Beginning in public life as a lobstering activist, he tried to elect outsider Ron Paul president a decade ago and walked a tightrope to his current role after a rough 2022 election for his party.
Democrats have control of Augusta, but Republicans will likely still wield considerable power over spending. They also will have to leave behind old standard bearers including former Gov. Paul LePage, who dominated the state party for more than a decade but lost to Mills.
Faulkingham’s unconventional politics could be a sign of where the party will go. He is socially conservative, once trying to put a referendum on the ballot to bar non-citizens from voting in local elections, but he also championed the effort to add the “right to food” to the Maine Constitution. He was a partisan battler in last year’s election, but he is already taking heat from some of his members for being too conciliatory in Augusta.
That is over the $473 million heating aid package recently signed into law by the Democratic governor. While Faulkingham spun a deal with Mills to increase the qualifying income threshold for $450 relief checks, Senate Republicans voted the package down in December. They handed over the votes to pass it in January, after Democrats acceded to their demand for a hearing.
“I knew that there were a lot of nurses, educators, working-class people that wouldn’t be in that [lower] income threshold,” Faulkingham said. “I didn’t want to leave those people out.”
Faulkingham grew up in poverty, he said. While his mom worked at a local sardine factory, he learned to lobster with his father, in part because the family couldn’t afford a babysitter.
His political awakening began when he had to write out a check to pay Social Security taxes as a teenager. He first registered as a Democrat and admired independent presidential candidate Ross Perot and voted for him one month after becoming eligible to vote in 1996.
Three years later, he began a brief service in the Marine Corps reserve. During his 2018 campaign, Democrats publicized misdemeanor convictions of his from the first decade of the 2000s, including one in which he threw a bucket of excrement at someone. He said attacks during that race were not “anything I didn’t expect.”
He beat Kylie Bragdon, the Democratic head selectman in Winter Harbor, by a little more than 600 votes. She has known Faulkingham her entire life and called him respectful, kind and community oriented. She had concerns that his hard opinions on complex issues could affect his work as a leader.
“I think he’ll do a good job because he has good intentions,” Bragdon said. “But I hope that he will rely on a broader range of perspectives, especially during high-stakes decision making.”
Before his leadership turn, Faulkingham was best known in Augusta for his work on two measures that attracted bipartisan support on their way to passage: the constitutional amendment that he repeatedly called the “Second Amendment of food” and another making Maine the fourth state to ban civil asset forfeiture.
“Billy Bob is going to probably defy a lot of the expectations of someone in leadership or of what a Republican is supposed to be,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who also worked on Paul’s campaign.
Earlier this month, Faulkingham notably spoke at a meeting of Wabanaki leaders in Augusta. They are starting another push for sweeping sovereignty provisions that Mills has opposed, although she signed a compromise last year centered on sports betting and tax changes.
Republicans have mostly opposed the sovereignty effort, with LePage saying in his 2022 campaign that he would not negotiate with tribes at all. But Faulkingham said the Wabanaki had “valid concerns,” citing a 1980 settlement granting them fewer rights than other tribes nationally. Passamaquoddy Rep. Aaron Dana said he found Faulkingham’s overtures exciting.
“There’s been a communication barrier for whatever reason,” Faulkingham said. “I just don’t think we should have a communication barrier with any group of people.”
He also has new challenges. While the heating aid bill passed, 29 Republicans voted against it, led by Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn, who ran against Faulkingham for minority leader. She has criticized him for not consulting her caucus on raising the income limit on relief checks, saying she learned his desire to do that from a Bangor Daily News article.
“I would prefer to see more interaction with the caucus and putting forward the will of the caucus,” Libby said.
Faulkingham said he had kept his caucus informed while noting negotiations happened quickly. The caucus had to meet over Zoom over a weekend because of the short time-frame.
“You can’t take 67 people into the governor’s office with you,” Faulkingham said. “But my caucus was engaged and informed of how the negotiations were going.”
Most of the caucus seems to still be behind him. Rep. Jack Ducharme, R-Madison, a budget committee member, praised Faulkingham’s leadership, saying that political ambition should not get in the way of passing good legislation, particularly with Democrats running Augusta. Faulkingham noted his party is nine Democrats away from passing anything at all.
At some point, one may be Rep. Lynne Williams of neighboring Bar Harbor, who called the new minority leader the “hero” of the heating aid fight. He once got her “practically every Republican” on a medical marijuana bill and said she is happy he represents the area in leadership.
“It’s not like I would ever say, ‘He’s going to support all my bills,’” Williams said. “But we have a good meeting of the mind on certain issues.”