The 130th Maine Legislature cobbled itself together on Dec. 2 to sort out the organizational duties necessary to convene for real. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with the customary chamber meetings, committee meetings and public participation. It’s all hands on deck to figure out how to make it work.
Pandemic notwithstanding, step one in the process of getting a new Legislature off the ground takes place shortly after the election is over. This step takes place out of the public eye. The two political caucuses in each chamber disappear behind closed doors and would-be leaders battle it out.
There is an off-the-record campaign for leadership positions during election season itself, when those who aspire to leadership cultivate support through campaign donations and other services rendered to candidates. Those markers are called in during the leadership election, and in most cases the handwriting is on the wall before the votes are taken.
The presiding officers, president of the Senate and speaker of the House are top dogs in their respective chambers and the gavel will go to someone from the majority caucus in each. There is no reward big enough to persuade a legislator to cross party lines on these votes. Once the majority caucus is in agreement, official votes for the top positions take place in a public session, but by that point the fix is in and you’ll not find anyone contesting the nominee on the floor.
When that floor vote is taken, it has been the custom for the minority party to yield to the inevitable and cast their votes for the majority party nominee in a show of unity. There have been exceptions, but for the most part this tradition is still observed.
The other leadership elections happen out of the public view, each caucus electing a two-person leadership duo. The vocabulary of leadership reflects the power imbalance. The majority party refers to its leaders as majority leader and assistant majority leader, and to the leaders of the other party as the minority leader and assistant minority leader. Loath to acknowledge their underdog status, minority members prefer terminology that signifies party affiliation rather than majority/minority status, as in “Democratic leader” and “Republican leader.”
If anyone asks if you want to be in the majority or the minority, say “majority.” Life in the minority has its drawbacks. The majority party controls just about everything from committee assignments to the doling out of seats in the chamber, when the Legislature will convene, recess and adjourn, and what bills will be brought up on a given day.
Presiding officers may invite minority participation, allowing minority leaders to propose committee assignments for their members, but the majority party gets the most seats and all of the committee chairmanships. There is consulting from the majority to the minority, to a degree largely dependent on the personal bent of the presiding officer. Historically, their approaches range from the collaborative to the tyrannical.
Here’s the kind of set-to with which leadership must contend. An incoming Republican senator was assigned by his own party leadership to a committee he did not request. In an unusually public airing of the dispute, the disgruntled Republican appealed to the Democratic Senate president to overturn his own party’s decision.
The senator, Rick Bennett, reminded Senate President Jackson that once upon a time he, too, had been a Senate president. And his point is…? Will President Jackson toss Bennett a bone, leaving a minority senator in his debt and poisoning his own relationship with the minority party before work has even begun? Or will he deny the request and leave Bennett seething at his own leadership and at the Senate president as well?
In the meantime, Bennett’s supporters, missing the point entirely, are bashing the Senate president, though it was Bennett’s own leadership who did the deed and only the Senate president who can rescue Bennett from a committee that does not suit him.
Seating in the chamber is likewise allotted by the majority, and leadership on both sides is besieged by members attempting to lay claim to a coveted aisle seat or, in the Senate, the back row. Those are the seats members may slip into and out of with relative ease. If you are buried in the middle of the densely populated House or in the front row of the Senate, clambering over your colleagues to leave your seat is conspicuous, distracting and highly annoying. You’re stuck.
The usual rules apply. Are you in leadership, a particularly influential legislator or a senior member of the body? You get the plum seats. The rest of you? Hang around long enough and your day will come. These machinations will largely cease come January when there are bigger fish to fry than seat assignments.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.