State Treasurer Henry Beck, left, State Auditor Matthew Dunlap, center, Attorney General Aaron Frey attend Gov. Janet Mills' State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Republican lawmaker championing measures to allow Mainers to elect four top state officials used Attorney General Aaron Frey’s relationship with a subordinate to argue for his bills at the State House on Tuesday.

In Maine, the two chambers of the Legislature assembled together select the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor. It is the only state to select its attorney general in that manner. For decades, the arrangement has been a target of some lawmakers who want to see the offices either popularly elected or appointed by the governor.

A 2021 effort to do so cleared the Maine Senate in early votes, but it stalled with House Democrats. Many of the same players are behind this year’s proposal. It got a hearing on Tuesday, just under a week after Frey, a Democrat, disclosed his relationship with an employee he supervised after the Bangor Daily News began investigating tips on it.

“Would that have happened if he had to face a reelection with every Maine voter instead of a select few Augusta party insiders?” Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, who is sponsoring the measures, said. “Having the people vote for these positions increases the accountability of those serving in constitutional offices.”

These internal elections have always favored insiders. Frey and the other two constitutional officers, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and State Treasurer Henry Beck, are former Democratic lawmakers. So is State Auditor Matt Dunlap, who is elected in the same way.

That is not unique to Democrats. When Republicans won control of Augusta in 2010, former lawmakers won two of three constitutional offices. Treasurer Bruce Poliquin was the other. He ran for governor that year and went on to represent the 2nd Congressional District.

Frey did not answer a Tuesday question on whether his office should be popularly elected, although he opposed a 2015 effort from former Gov. Paul LePage to make the switch. Bellows ran for her job in 2018 while supporting popular elections. Beck voted against a similar change as a lawmaker in 2013. On Tuesday, he said it would not lead to different outcomes.

“That my position is voted on by the Legislature does not change the fact that my job is to work for the interests of the people of Maine,” he said.

Republicans have been loudest in supporting popular elections for these positions in recent years, especially after Democrats won control of Augusta in 2018. But populist Democrats have also supported it. The 2021 effort was sponsored by Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who got the measure through the Senate before it stalled short of a needed two-thirds House majority.

Andrews now has an eclectic list of cosponsors, including Baldacci, Republican leaders in the House and Senate, plus Democrats including Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop and progressive Rep. Sophie Warren of Scarborough. The two top legislative Democrats, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, are not on the bill.

They have promised a review of policies in Frey’s office after last week’s disclosure. He reassigned his romantic partner to his deputy at that time, saying an internal review found no violations of law or policy. His office does not follow a state policy saying supervisors must disclose relationships with subordinates.

House Democrats will be the biggest hurdle to passing the legislation this time around as well, Baldacci said on Tuesday. He said it is good policy irrespective of Frey’s situation, saying the offices are inappropriately “codependent” with the Legislature and should be split.

“This is 2023,” Baldacci said. “People should be allowed direct vote on some of the most important offices so that they’re accountable to the people.”

Legislative Republicans were also angered by Dunlap’s appointment to the auditor position in 2020. He first took the office in 2021 without the proper qualifications, then had to leave it when  he failed to pass the necessary exams. He won the office back in 2022 after passing them.

In testimony before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday, Dunlap said the way his office is elected is “immaterial” to him, but he also questioned whether the offices would be as effective or independent if their holders had to raise money and their public profiles to get the seats.

“The sky will not go dark if you decide to elect constitutional officers by ballot instead of in the  Legislature,” he said. “But you will lose some responsiveness.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...