With their sizeable majorities, the Democrats' reconquest of the Maine House and Senate could lead to a rebirth of progressive politics in the state — to reforms in health care, taxes, social services, and other issues. First off, they could roll back the reward-the-rich, hit-the-poor policies of the past two years of a Republican government.
Although an unpopular Tea Party governor, Paul LePage, and a popular Democratic president, Barack Obama, contributed to the GOP's November rout, "the Republicans went too far" in laws enacted while they controlled both chambers and the governor's office, says Barry Hobbins, the former Democratic Senate minority leader currently back as a House member. Now, he says, "everything is on the table."
But rollbacks and other reforms are far from sure things. LePage has veto power over legislation, and he's expected to use it. An override requires a two-thirds vote of each house. So, assuming Democrats stick together, an override will need five additional votes in the Senate, now composed of 19 Democrats, 15 Republicans, and Richard Woodbury, the lone independent.
Twelve additional votes will be needed in the House, which has 89 Democrats, 58 Republicans, and four independents. (The Dems have an impressive 41 new House members.) Thus, the fate of progressive legislation largely depends on four House independents, the one Senate independent, and a few moderate Republicans.
It's not assured, of course, that Democrats will stick together to pass progressive bills. They're not a uniform bunch, political ambition makes more people timid than bold, and Democratic legislators have shown a tendency to accept the GOP trickle-down-economics worldview.
And they'll have to almost literally shake off several hundred corporate lobbyists trying to sell them that worldview when the Legislature gets down to business January 8. Their ability to do so may depend on whether the Democrats produce a real leader, a local Abraham Lincoln — with a bow to the current hit movie — to maneuver the legislative troops, rally the public, and make deals.
Still, progressives have grounds for optimism. The House independents, for example, are "likely" to line up with the Democrats on "most issues," says Jodi Quintero, an aide to new House Speaker Mark Eves.
Independent Ben Chipman is one of the most progressive state reps. Another House independent, Jeff Evangelos, was attacked as a "liberal extremist" during the fall campaign by the Maine Conservative PAC. Independent James Campbell pushed a Canadian-style, universal health-care system at a jobs-for-Mainers seminar for legislators the day after being sworn in. The fourth independent, Joseph Brooks, is a former Democratic legislator.
In the Senate, the independent, Woodbury, "most often votes with the Ds," says Ericka Dodge, a Senate Democratic aide. Of LePage's veto power, Woodbury himself says: "I'm very likely to override something I've voted for."
As for moderate Senate Republicans, Democratic legislators and Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) director Chris Quint point to Roger Katz and Thomas Saviello as possible crossovers.
Saviello proved his independence last session when he helped defeat LePage-promoted bills that would have rolled back environmental laws. He calls himself a "centrist," saying, "I've never been afraid to cross party lines."