Expect a more aggressive tone from DHHS as former GOP spokesman Sorensen becomes voice of agency

Speculation about where outspoken conservative spokesman David Sorensen will land ended Thursday when the Department of Health and Human Services announced Sorensen will take over as its spokesman.

Staff changes like this usually go relatively unnoticed, but Sorensen’s new job could signal a more aggressive stance from DHHS — where Commissioner Mary Mayhew has been plenty aggressive in the past — on the LePage administration’s welfare reform efforts.

John Martins, who has been DHHS spokesman dating back to 2006 under the Baldacci administration, will assume the position of public health information officer and director of internal and program communications effective Thursday, according to a statement from the department.

Sorensen, who told State & Capitol earlier this month that his role would soon change, joined state government in 2011 as a policy aide and later was spokesman for House Republicans for two years. For the past several months he was spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, focused on re-electing Gov. Paul LePage and making gains for the GOP in the House and Senate — both of which were successful.

Sorensen is known to crank out a dizzying number of press releases but has been criticized at times — including by a handful Republicans who have complained about him in off-the-record conversations with me — for his strident tone and attacks on Republicans’ political opponents that at times have bordered on personal.

During debate around the expansion of Medicaid under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, Sorensen regularly circulated detailed and deeply researched policy briefs that at times drove the conversation among the elected leaders he worked for. That experience will undoubtedly serve Sorensen well in his new position at DHHS, which is called director of media relations and policy research. His voice will be a powerful and aggressive antithesis to those who pose the other side of just about argument involving anything DHHS. Those will include a document-shredding scandal at the Center for Disease Control and the federal government’s de-certification of the Riverview Psychiatric Center, both of which remain in legal limbo.

If the past indicates the future, Sorensen will represent a change from Martins’ style, which in my experience has been to answer questions succinctly — with little lobbying or editorial comment — usually without volunteering information that wasn’t requested. In addition to making regular calls to reporters, Sorensen is active on Twitter and in the past has not shied from confrontational tweets with reporters and political opponents.

Sorensen, a graduate of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and the University of Maine School of Law, was chosen by DHHS “in order to manage the rest of the department’s media-related workload while advancing and advocating for our long-term goals of reforming public services,” according to a news release. “Reforming public services” means primarily welfare reform, another issue squarely in Sorensen’s wheelhouse and at the top of LePage’s second-term agenda.

Martins’ new role in the public health arena is in response to growing interest from the public and the media, according to the department. He will also aid in helping advance internal department goals that have been identified by DHHS employees, not the least of which is improving communications between employees and the various bureaus and entities within DHHS.

“[Martins] is an invaluable asset to our mission and this new role will allow him to focus his considerable talents on areas of growing demand within the department,” reads the news release.

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.