State Democrats may be down (in numbers) but they're not out (of ideas). While Republicans took over Augusta on November 2, winning the governorship and majorities in both the state House and Senate, Democrats from the Portland area say they're optimistic about reaching compromise and saving crucial programs from devastating cuts. Mostly, though, they want to demonstrate that they're not irrelevant.
"What the election illustrated to me was that voters across Maine are hungry for change, are hungry for something different in Augusta, and they acted on it," says Democratic state senator Justin Alfond, who represents Portland and was recently chosen to serve as Senate minority whip (a/k/a assistant leader).
He says Democrats will "not be obstructionist," but will continue "adding our plans to the equation." And Alfond feels galvanized "to communicate what Democrats are doing around business." He cites the Three-Ring Binder high-speed Internet infrastructure project and support for farmers as two examples of how Democrats are "committed, connected, and understanding" of what Maine businesses need to succeed and grow.
Like Democrats across the state and country, Alfond acknowledges that "the hardest discussions are going to be around" education and health and human services — specifically, Republicans' desire to cut from those agencies and programs, and Democrats' dedication to saving them (or what remains after eight years of cutbacks in those areas from the Democratic Baldacci administration). Governor-elect Paul LePage and Republican leaders have indicated that both higher ed and K-12 education, Medicaid, and other social services are all on the chopping block.
"We may be spending a lot of time protecting the things that we value, things like affordable healthcare, education investment, support networks . . . you move from progress to protection," says Democrat Diane Russell, who represents District 120.
But Russell hopes to "find a lot of common ground . . . to pass a responsible budget that makes sure that the burden is not put on the elderly, not put on the children. If people are willing to sit and the table and stay at the table, I think consensus can be found."
Still, Democrats have no plans to abandon progressive issues like investment in alternative transportation and infrastructure, re-examining the tax code, early-education investments, and weatherization.
New District 113 representative Mark Dion, who is wrapping up his duties as Cumberland County Sheriff and prepping to represent North Deering and West Falmouth, says it plainly: "I have no plans on being a 'passive' minority member."
Passivity is what put Democrats in this position in the first place, Dion says. "The Democratic message got tangled up in explaining the 'what' we have done when we should have been advocating the 'whys' that define our desire to lead. We needed to say more than 'we had done things right.' We must point, instead, to what are the right things that need to get done and why we are going to get there."
Jill Barkley, who lost her bid to represent House District 119, is running to chair the Portland Democratic City Committee, an organizing position aimed at building the pipeline of new Democratic candidates and volunteers. She, too, hopes to take lessons learned in 2010 and apply them toward the 2012 election.
"I'm frustrated with my party not being able to sell the good work we have done at local, state, and national levels," Barkley says. "We lost a lot of seats in this last election we should have won because people are angry and afraid. We responded by shying away from our accomplishments, rather than learning how to convey why we've done what we've done."