Though she’s lived almost all her life in Portland, Rachel Talbot Ross has a foot in both of Maine’s Congressional districts.
Her father, Gerald Talbot, now 91, grew up in the family home in Bangor, still occupied by her Aunt Beverly.
The Maine family tree goes back nine generations. When asked about her ancestors, Talbot Ross lights up. “My aunt keeps the family tree on the wall of her office. It traces our entire lineage, and it’s fascinating to look at,” she said. “She’s been working on it for decades.”
Last month, Talbot Ross became the 103rd Speaker of the House. She is the first person of color to become speaker, and just the fourth woman. Across two recent interviews in December, she spoke freely about her history-making role, not the least of which concerns family ties.
In 1972, Gerald Talbot became the first Black House member, from Portland, serving three terms. In his first, he worked closely with a fellow progressive Democrat, Gov. Ken Curtis, Talbot Ross said.
Asked about her father’s move from Bangor to Portland, she said, “I’m not sure he’d want me to tell about that” — but then she does. He played for the Bangor High School football team, and in what was then a marquee matchup, traveled for a game against Portland High, where he met his future wife, Anita, five years his junior.
“He hitchhiked to Portland every chance he got. For him, it was definitely love at first sight,” she said. Gerald Talbot settled in Portland, and, among many other accomplishments, helped found Maine’s first NAACP chapter.
Standing in the House chamber at her father’s old desk, and later her own, she looks up at the rostrum where she will soon occupy the speaker’s chair daily.
“It took 50 years to get from here to there,” she said. “That’s a long time.”
Talbot Ross was the first Black woman to serve in the House when first elected in 2016; this session two Somali women have joined the Democratic caucus of 82 members.
Long before she sought state office, though, Talbot Ross impressed others with her poise, persistence and attention to detail.
Shenna Bellows, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, was elected three times to the state Senate, and is now Secretary of State. She was the new executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union when she first met Talbot Ross in 2005.
It was Bellows’ first day on the job, and Talbot Ross introduced a small group of activists working to reauthorize the federal Voting Rights Act. They later collaborated on other voting rights issues, and an effort to end solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison.
“Rachel is incredibly brave, and tireless in her efforts,” Bellows said. “She’s someone who does the hard work without seeking credit for herself. She does it because it’s important, not because it’s popular.”
Talbot Ross’ many visits to Bangor awakened an interest in the Indian tribal communities nearby, a connection that has become one of her passions.
In the last session, she sponsored LD 1626, a bipartisan, omnibus bill that would have restored full sovereign rights to tribes in Maine, comparable to all other federally recognized tribes. It achieved substantial majorities in both House and Senate, but was withdrawn without a vote after Gov. Janet Mills said she would veto it.
There were other advances for the tribes, however, as Mills pointed out at length in a recent interview with Maine Public. Mills cited renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day, banning tribal mascots, and a posthumous pardon for Don Gellers, a white lawyer working on behalf of the tribes who many believe was framed on bogus drug possession charges in 1968.
Mills also mentioned expanding jurisdiction for tribal courts, and granting exclusive access to online gaming proceeds. She was willing to negotiate on the 1980 Settlement Act, the focus of LD 1626.
MEET WHERE YOU’RE AT
Just after being elected speaker on Dec. 2, Talbot Ross departed on a two-day trip to visit the leaders of four of the five tribes in Maine, driving through a snowstorm to do so (the fifth was on vacation).
“It’s important to go to people, to show them that the relationship works both ways,” Talbot Ross said. “They shouldn’t have to always come to Augusta to be heard.”
That’s part of her plan for the session, though. Tribal leaders will address a joint session of the Legislature, probably in late February.
As for specific legislation, she demurs: “It depends on what the tribes want to do. I’ll be doing some careful listening throughout the session.”
She cites a recent Harvard Project report from the Kennedy School of Government in Boston. It found that, while federally recognized tribes recorded real economic growth of 61 percent from 1989-2020, tribes located within Maine’s borders without similar benefits saw just nine percent growth.
There’s a sense that breakthroughs could be achieved this year and next. Shenna Bellows credits Talbot Ross with “a deep level of experience and understanding of the tribal nations and their civil rights. These relationships inform her leadership.”
John Dieffenbacher-Krall, who was executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, or MITSC, from 2005–17, agrees with that assessment. “The situation has changed dramatically since I first became involved,” he said.
MITSC, though it was supposed to provide an avenue for change, was often a dead end for the tribes. Now, as executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, Dieffenbacher-Krall believes progress is possible.
“This is an entire civil rights movement now,” he said. “It goes well beyond the tribes themselves and extends to every part of the state.” A couple of church organizations were the only allies 20 years ago when the tribes were seeking changes. “Now it’s a broad coalition involving dozens of groups.”
ANOTHER MEASURE OF GROWTH
Talbot Ross makes it clear, however, that she sees her role in relation to the entire House. She demonstrates it at a Dec. 22 meeting on the chamber floor.
A hearing-impaired lawmaker was meeting with chamber staff and the House clerk to see how systems designed for immediate text translations of House debate and committee discussions would function. Unhurried, Talbot Ross provided reassurance, and a pledge to do whatever is needed.
She’s applied the same approach to committee assignments, which she made only after many conversations, “wanting to understand from each legislator what their goals are.”
There were some surprises. A second-term Democrat from Freeport, Melanie Sachs, will co-chair the prominent Appropriations Committee. Another young second-termer from Winthrop, Tavis Hasenfus, chairs Criminal Justice and Public Safety, a policy area where Talbot Ross has logged countless hours.
Asked what it means for the House to have become more diverse over the last decade, she says, “Women have always been leaders. It’s just that they are now recognized, and taking their rightful place.”
“There’s been enormous growth as a state, with opportunity at the highest level,” Talbot Ross said. “It’s a reflection of Maine as it really is, and the institution is better for it.”
Though it took 50 years for a person of color to reach the speakership, under term limits, Talbot Ross will serve only two years, as she’s well aware.
The most important goals — housing, for which a select committee has already been formed; safe communities; and equal opportunity for all — are not partisan, she said, but shared.
Coming out of the pandemic, with the Legislature meeting fully in person for the first time in three years, she feels optimism from her members.
“There’s more of a sense of teamwork, an awareness of the need for a comprehensive and responsible approach to acute needs,” she said. “They can’t wait to get started.”
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at [email protected]
Women lead the Legislature
Women have been serving in legislative leadership positions since the 1970s, but this is the first session that all three of the top House posts are held by women — Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Majority Leader Maureen “Mo” Terry and Assistant Leader Kristen Cloutier.
In a joint interview, Terry and Cloutier reflected on how they became part of a history-making Democratic team, and how they intend to lead a caucus that includes more than 50 women among its 82 members.
Terry, who was Taxation Committee chair in the last session, spent more than 25 years in restaurants and bakeries, and says most of them “thrive on chaos” — perhaps good preparation for what is sometimes a fractious caucus.
Something she liked about the food service business is that, to advance, “You get to know every position, and then work your way to the top,” something she’s tried to apply in the House of Representatives as well.
Terry settled in Gorham to raise a family, and was only tempted to leave once, when she thought about San Francisco. She decided to stay after witnessing the community’s reaction when a beloved pizza shop owner had cancer, and neighbors stepped in to run the business — as they did again when the shop burned down 10 years later.
“You can’t find that in most places,” she said. “In a nutshell, that’s the story of what Maine is all about.”
Cloutier, who served on Appropriations and Taxation, takes a different approach to leadership, emphasizing organization and consistency. She grew up in Lewiston, left for college, and then in her late 20s moved back, finding “a much more diverse, more community-oriented place” than the one she’d left.
After her appointment to the comprehensive planning committee, she was elected to the city council, serving four years as chair and 10 eventful months as mayor before running for a House seat in 2018.
She was part of the first “pandemic class,” and saw the toll it took on relationships as lawmakers rarely met except on Zoom. Now in her third term, like Talbot Ross when she served as assistant leader, Cloutier sees it as her mission to help orient first-term legislators, and make sure they feel welcomed in the State House in a personal way.
Mo Terry said there was “a silver lining” to the pandemic in that it required the use of technology allowing citizen testimony online that will now become a permanent part of legislative hearings.
Terry grew up “believing that I could do anything anybody else could,” but realizes that wasn’t the experience of many women. Seeing women in leadership roles across the board “is a big deal,” she said, because it makes the Legislature more fully representative.
Since men were traditionally expected to fill those roles, today’s women leaders “feel their gender in ways that men may not,” Cloutier said. And she hopes for more collaboration not only within the caucus but across party lines; she’s encouraged by what she’s heard from the new Republican House leaders.
Terry said both parties recognize how important it is to rebuild trust, to try to remain “cool, calm and collected.” She added, “In the end, all we have is our relationships as we try to get things done for the people.”
— Douglas Rooks