State of Maine: Seating gesture signals cooperation



Organizing a new legislature is not a simple proposition. There are details large and small. The election of leadership. The allocation of staff and offices. Seating. Yes, seating. Front row? Back row? Aisle? Or buried in the middle of the chamber? Legislators make the request, leadership makes the call.

The customary arrangement is to lump legislators into partisan blocks, Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Hence the term “across the aisle” as a reference to bipartisanship. And your seatmate? It’s a bond for life — legislative life, anyway.

Your seatmate is a person you see every day. As freshmen, you get to compare notes on the bewildering bits, working together to figure out the mysterious numbers, letters and statutory references in a bill. Later in your legislative service your seatmate becomes someone you can bounce ideas off of, and with whom you can discuss the issues before the chamber during the unpredictable but inevitable downtime.

Seatmates have each other’s backs when the session gets hectic. They provide companionship and, if you’re lucky, humor to pass the time when the action slows to a snail’s pace. A seatmate may pass on important intelligence on a bill you are sponsoring or warn you about negative comments they heard in high places.

So, seating. Newly-minted Senate President Troy Jackson has chosen to make seating assignments that mingle Democrats and Republicans within the chamber. He got a bit of a sneer from one pundit, who said seating assignments alone would not create a “kumbaya moment.”

Maybe not, but when a member of the other party is not “across the aisle” but at your elbow, there is an opportunity to know thine enemy as a colleague. It is an important gesture and one that follows in the positive footsteps of former President Mike Thibodeau. It signals Jackson’s intention to set a tone of cooperation. We should welcome it.

At the opposite end of the amicability spectrum was Governor Paul LePage, who vowed to come back and run against Janet Mills in 2022 if she does not expand Medicaid “sustainably.” Bah, humbug. Four years in Florida, where the governor said he intends to live to avoid Maine taxes, and the wishes of long-suffering First Lady Ann LePage, may change that plan.

Mills did not appear phased by the threat. She has named several key staff positions, and last week made her first cabinet-level pick, naming Jeanne Lambrew Commissioner of Health and Human Services. DHHS is the state’s single largest department with an operating budget of almost $3.5 billion.

Lambrew served in health care reform, health services and health policy positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Her experience suggests she is well-qualified, but there is also appeal in the fact that she is not among the “usual suspects.” Many are longing for a job in the new administration, but not all of them have the chops to take one on, let alone the biggest one in state government. The department is a regulatory nightmare and has some 3,400 employees. Lambrew gets bonus points for growing up in Maine. The Commissioner’s position is subject to confirmation by the state senate.

Over a month after the mid-terms, the last piece of the election puzzle has finally fallen into place. U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker, an appointee of President Donald Trump, tossed out former Congressman Bruce Poliquin’s various challenges to ranked choice voting and the election results; he also tossed out Poliquin’s bid for a new election. On the heels of the court ruling, the former congressman threw in the towel and asked that the recount of the race be halted “due to the impending holidays.” It was not expected to change the outcome anyway.

With a margin of victory greater than one percent in Jared Golden’s favor and no change in the results discernible as the process moved forward, Poliquin will be on the hook for the cost of the aborted recount process. And on Monday, he filed an appeal.

In the meantime, Congressman-elect Golden went to Washington to start the process of claiming an office, hiring staff and getting to know the U.S. capitol. His path to being sworn in and seated on Jan. 3 is now clear. He gave a courteous nod to his rival for his congressional service and his “spirited campaign” and publicly sought cooperation on “important matters, for the good of the constituents that we were elected to serve.”

The waning days of December are the last chance for the elected to savor the joys of home and family before reporting for duty in Augusta or D.C. Returnees know what’s coming, but changes in the composition of the legislative bodies mean considerable readjustment. Going in with a clean slate, the newbies are in for a shock.

jillgold@gwi.net

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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