Maine GOP chairman to leave post at term’s end in January

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett presides over the 2014 state convention. (BDN file)

Good morning from Augusta, where the Maine Republican Party will have a new face at the helm by January’s end.

Chairman Rick Bennett told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that he’s leaving his post when his term ends on Jan. 28. Vice Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said she’ll be running to replace him.

Just about any way you look at it, Bennett’s tenure has been a good period for Republicans.

He took over in 2013, just after Republicans lost both chambers of the Maine Legislature. But in 2014, Maine re-elected Gov. Paul LePage and made U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin the first Republican to win the 2nd District in 20 years.

And in 2016, Republican President-elect Donald Trump won one of Maine’s four electors by beating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2nd District after her party swept every presidential election here since 1992. Poliquin was re-elected. Republicans held their majority in the Maine Senate and gained seats in the House of Representatives.

“I’ve done, really, what I set out to do, which is to build a professional infrastructure in the Maine GOP that worked 24/7 in the on-year and the off year,” Bennett said.

Bennett of Oxford said being the party’s chairman was never a job he particularly sought and that LePage “twisted my arm a bit” to stay on as chairman for another term in 2015.

He said he’ll stay involved in politics, but what shape that will take is uncertain: He has been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018, and this move is well-timed for such a run.

Bennett, whose last campaign was an unsuccessful U.S. Senate primary run in 2012, said Republicans have “a good array of possibilities on our side” and “if I think I could contribute in a unique way, I’ll certainly pursue that.”

Kouzounas, a dentist from Saco, isn’t a neophyte, but she’s also not the politico that Bennett is. She lost a bid for the Maine House of Representatives in 2012 and has been president of the Maine Dental Association.

Though the boss will change, Kouzounas promised a “continuation” of Bennett’s work at the party, saying focal points will be “a positive platform, working with the governor and hopefully helping prosper the folks in Maine.” — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Democrats are taking a hard line after LePage’s Thursday announcement that he’s delaying enforcement of a tipped minimum wage increase approved by voters in November. Maine Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said they won’t consider any tweaks to referendum questions proposed by the governor “as long as the governor is refusing to do his job.” The minimum wage increase takes effect on Jan. 7, but the LePage administration says it’ll wait until Jan. 31 to enforce an increase in the hourly tipped minimum wage from $3.75 to $5.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine wants sheriffs to implement Cumberland County’s policy for handling detainees who wear religious head coverings. It wants sheriffs to adopt a policy similar to that in Cumberland County, where Sheriff Kevin Joyce apologized earlier this year after mugshots of two Muslim women without religious headscarves were released after their arrests at a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland. The office’s policy says that Muslim female detainees aren’t required to remove hijabs around men, and if they’re suspected of hiding contraband in them, they can be searched with supervision from female jail staff.
  • The Electoral College will convene in Augusta on Monday with a protest planned against President-elect Donald Trump. Maine will casts its four electoral votes officially at 2 p.m. on Monday. The December 19 Coalition, progressive groups calling on electors to abandon Trump, has announced protests in all 50 state capitols. Bennett, the Maine GOP chairman who will cast the one Trump vote, said he has gotten approximately 150 messages from across the country urging him to vote against the president-elect. The college convenes at 2 p.m. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

An early holiday soundtrack

I’ll be off next week traipsing around the province of Quebec. It’ll be a good trip and the Daily Brief will be in the capable hands of Chris Cousins, but I’m a bit upset that I won’t be able to share holiday soundtracks with you.

My conversation with Kouzounas jogged my memory about her public access show, which we highlighted here in January in part for lively discussions of holiday shopping and New Year’s resolutions.

What I didn’t know then is that they made a 12-minute Christmas video in 2015 with readings and music. Happy holidays, everyone. See you on the flip side. — Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.