Contest erupts among Democrats for House leadership post

Rep. Sara Gideon, left, and Rep. Gay Grant

Rep. Sara Gideon, left, and Rep. Gay Grant. BDN file photos

Even with the election still two months away and the results far from certain, a contest is brewing over who will become the next speaker of the House of Representatives.

Democratic Rep. Gay Grant of Gardiner announced Tuesday that she will seek the position, which is currently held by Rep. Mark Eves of North Berwick. Eves will be forced out of office this year by Maine’s term limits. Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who is the current assistant majority leader, is also running for the speaker’s role.

Grant, a second-term lawmaker who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, said her candidacy is about restoring power to the legislative branch of government after years of power and influence tilting toward the executive branch under Gov. Paul LePage and because of experience and institutional memory that has been lost because since Maine’s term limits law was enacted in 1996.

“I felt that the Legislature was particularly under siege during this last session,” said Grant, who is a self-employed writer and writing consultant by trade.”It’s not just about the governor and Legislature pulling together as co-equal parts of government or about the Legislature being a check on the power of the executive. We’re also the body that makes the laws and sets the budget. I think that’s been seriously challenged with the governor not allowing executive branch commissioners to work with committees.”

Gideon, also completing her second term, said Grant notified her of her candidacy before announcing it publicly.

“We’re all motivated for different reasons and carry different experiences with us into the legislative realm,” said Gideon. “I welcome the conversation that’s generated when you have multiple people running for a leadership positions. … When we have multiple people in a race, that allows the best of us to come out.”

For this leadership race — which is scheduled to be decided during a Democratic caucus on Nov. 18 — to materialize, both Gideon and Grant have to win their re-election bids and Democrats will have to retain their House majority. With all 151 seats to be decided in November, predicting what the balance of power will be is difficult, if not foolhardy.

“We do expect that we can keep the majority,” said Gideon. “The real question is what number does that end up being and that’s the hardest thing to predict.”

Usually, who is running for leadership positions can be determined by who has established leadership political action committees which funnel money to other candidates to help with elections. Gideon has one and Grant doesn’t. Grant said rules in Maine’s clean election system, which publicly funds campaigns, bar her from having one. However, she is hosting a fundraiser Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Governor Hill Mansion in Augusta to gather support and collect donations to benefit the Maine House Democratic Campaign Committee.

“The event I’m hosting Thursday is my way to support other candidates,” she said.

Neither Grant nor Gideon would say whether they will push for sanctions or disciplinary measures against LePage when the new Legislature convenes. After a failed bid by House Democrats in recent days to convene a special session to address recent controversial comments by the governor, some have speculated that the issue could be addressed in January.

“The public needs to weigh in at the ballot box,” said Grant, who supported a failed effort to launch an investigation aimed at impeaching LePage in January. “Those who support him need to be held accountable. He doesn’t just do this on his own. He has to have support and backing.”

Gideon, who opposed the impeachment bill and sponsored a resolve calling for civility instead,  said that while she doesn’t expect LePage’s divisive rhetoric to improve, she can’t say now what might happen in January.

“It would be inappropriate for me and not accurate for me to predict what we’re going to do as a new Legislature,” she said. “With the exception of this past week, what most of us are thinking, both Democrats and Republicans, is about the policies that this state needs and how we put them together in a way that we all agree on.”

Neither Grant nor Gideon has signed on to a fledgling petition by outgoing independent Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, which asks Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to launch removal proceedings against LePage in Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Dunlap, a Democrat, has not publicly commented on whether he will exercise that authority.

Should Republicans win a House majority, Newport Rep. Ken Fredette, who is unopposed in his district and who has led House Republicans for the past four years, would likely become the next House speaker.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.