By most measures, Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau had a strong session.
His commission to remove barriers to affordable housing and encourage diversity is already at work. He helped steer state money toward the state’s underfunded vocational-technical programs – something he observed first-hand as a student representative on the Biddeford School Board.
Fecteau helped provide full funding for state aid programs to schools and municipalities – the first time that’s happened – as the Legislature and fellow Democrats distributed nearly $1 billion in surplus from an unexpectedly strong state economy and another $1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
But it wasn’t all bread and roses. As chair of the Legislative Council, he presided over stormy meetings where pandemic restrictions were hotly debated. He disciplined half a dozen Republicans and one Libertarian who defied mask mandates at the Statehouse.
And he occasionally acted as mediator between Senate President Troy Jackson and Gov. Janet Mills, who clashed repeatedly.
And he did all this before turning 30.
In the meteoric way of House leadership careers, Fecteau was elected just past the minimum age of 21, chaired the Labor Committee in his second term, was chosen assistant leader in his third, and became speaker in his fourth. As of 2022, when term limits kick in, he’ll be out of a job.
Along the way, he registered many firsts – the first openly gay speaker, the first to grow up in public housing, and the first Franco-American to lead the House since John Martin did so at age 31 in 1974 – in his fifth House term. Martin, now 81, whom Fecteau considers a mentor, is also serving his fourth consecutive House term, among 23 overall.
In an interview at a downtown Biddeford cafe-bookstore, Fecteau discussed his legislative work, his home towns – he lived across the river in Saco until middle school – and what the future might hold for young Democrats like himself, who have become increasingly numerous, especially in the House.
Fecteau’s political involvement began early. He applied to become the Biddeford School Board student member and was chosen by the superintendent. He served both his junior and senior years in the non-voting position, at a crucial moment for the city schools.
Urged on by Mayor and former legislator Joanne Twomey, and Councilor Susan Deschambault, now a state senator, the city put a $34 million bond issue on the ballot to renovate its nearly 60-year-old high school.
It was considered daring; the entire bond would be locally funded since the project wasn’t high enough on the state construction list. But Fecteau and other student leaders thought something had to be done.
“There were air quality problems, people were convinced we had mold, and almost everything was out of date,” he said. The superintendent was cautious, but Fecteau decided it was time to move ahead.
“We were out there campaigning every day, with buttons and signs, and we went door-to-door,” he said.
It worked; in November 2009, the bond passed with 66 percent of the vote.
That fall, Fecteau departed for undergraduate work at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Earlier, his neighbor, Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, who was known by the French “meme,” had invited him to shadow her at the Statehouse. The experience percolated.
At college, Fecteau discovered that the administration had “a resistance to student groups,” and that piqued his organizing instincts. Up to this point, Fecteau was “a Republican in ideology,” influenced by his grandmother, “a party member all her life.”
Then, “I discovered I was gay,” he said, and soon “I realized this wasn’t the party for me.” He also saw that many peers going to college “had written Maine off.” They “kept telling me ‘I can’t go back to Maine,’ that “possibilities existed in Boston, and California, and every other state, but not back home.”
Fecteau disagreed, and by the time he returned he’d already filed to run for Beaudoin’s term-limited seat. No other candidates stayed in the race.
Balancing local control
At the Affordable Housing Commission’s first meeting in early August – co-chaired by Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop – Fecteau heard about how even well-intentioned land use regulations can drive up the price of housing and decrease availability.
“In Scarborough,” – a particularly fast-growing town – “there’s a set number of building permits, and that’s it,” he said. In Durham, and many other towns, large lot sizes prevent construction “of almost anything except a three-bedroom house” because of land costs.
Fecteau doesn’t minimize the challenges of crafting regulations for local ordinances “in a state that lives by local control,” but he thinks there can be a balance. He said he’s encouraged by a current debate over an affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth – a town with very few apartments or low-income residents – and thinks it’s moving in the right direction.
Asked about President Joe Biden’s work to date, Fecteau brought up student loan debt – a personal concern. Until another extension was granted for a repayment moratorium beyond Oct. 1, he was trying to figure out how to come up with $700 a month in his personal budget; he’s hoping for a more permanent proposal soon from the administration.
Making payments before the pandemic “was a real struggle,” Fecteau said. “It’s crazy. Interest is accruing from the day you get the loan, all through the time you’re in school.”
The level of infrastructure investment, state and federal, has his enthusiastic support. He recalls that, in the previous Legislature, “We thought it was amazing we got Republicans to agree to a $15 million broadband bond.”
Two years later, “We have $150 million in the budget and another $100 million from the federal government.” Rural Mainers “will finally be connected,” he said.
Fecteau hasn’t seriously studied his options after his term expires. Like many legislators, he has a second job, working for Catalyst, a Washington, D.C., data firm.
He’s taking a look at the Biddeford Senate seat – Deschambault is term-limited, too – but hasn’t decided.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 21,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to take a wider view of the world.”
Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His latest book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail [email protected].
Rielly, Lookner, Supica: 3 Maine legislators to watch
Rep. Morgan Rielly
Morgan Rielly was in 8th grade when he found his calling.
A class on World War II history included an assignment to interview a Westbrook veteran, and Rielly found one, then in his 80s. Although he heard a lot about the war, what impressed him most was what veterans did when combat ended.
“When they came home, they continued to serve, not necessarily the military, but a life of service,” he said. Since then, public service has been his constant goal.
As a first-term House member, Rielly, 25, introduced only five bills, but two of them, both enacted, will expand the Maine Commission for Community Service to include a state-funded Maine Service Fellows Program, and the Maine Climate Corps, which will receive federal funds through Americorps. He represents District 34 of Wesbrook, the southern half of the city which runs east to west south of the Presumpscot River.
Rielly continued his interviews with veterans, and in 2014 wrote “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons from Maine’s Greatest Generation” (Down East Books), which includes 20 of them. He’s always remembered the first interview, which concluded with the veteran thanking him, and saying “Nobody’s ever asked me to tell those stories.”
He went to Bowdoin College, majoring in government and religion, and while still an undergraduate, began collaborating with Reza Jalali, then a USM faculty member, on another book, “Dear Maine: The Trials and Triumphs of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants,” to be published by Islandport Press in October.
Like all other first-termers, Rielly hadn’t met most of his colleagues until pandemic restrictions began to ease: “It was really nice to see everyone, people you’ve gotten to know just over Zoom” – and finally, at the State House. His seatmates there include Grayson Lookner.
Rep. Grayson Lookner
When Grayson Lookner, now 37, says he started out as a political activist, he’s not kidding.
After growing up in Camden, he attended Prescott College in Arizona. After graduation, he took a job there in “a severely underfunded center” for homeless youth, earning $8 an hour.
He usually took the midnight shift, when CNN was always on, “not a good way to get through the night.” About 3 a.m. one morning, he noticed Sen. Bernie Sanders filibustering against President Obama’s decision to let most Bush-era tax cuts continue.
“I thought everyone in Washington was corrupt,” he recalls. “Here was someone standing against the 1%.”
After settling in Portland, he volunteered with the Maine People’s Alliance, spending many hours in Augusta. When Sanders ran for president in 2016, he signed on.
One of Sanders’ organizers had dual EU citizenship, and Lookner got gigs campaigning for the Labour Party in Britain, and the Social Democrats in Sweden. A fellow campaigner told him, “Anyone who wants to live the American Dream should move to Denmark.”
Instead, he returned home and joined Troy Jackson’s 2018 Senate campaign, after which Jackson became Senate president. When it came time to run himself, he opted for the Legislature, with its “tiny House districts,” not the Portland City Council, though he’s locally well-connected. He now represents Portland’s District 37, in the southwestern part of the city stretching from South Portland to the south (Dist. 33) and District 34 to the west. It basically runs from I-295 to the Turnpike (I-95.)
Along with his vetoed bill to close the Long Creek youth prison, he’s proudest to have sponsored a measure banning facial recognition software. “I thought they watered it down, and that it wasn’t much, but it turns out to be the strongest law in the country,” he said.
The activist continues his work.
Rep. Laura Supica
With a career involving bartending and other service positions – “I’ve only worked in an office for a year” – Laura Supica concluded that she didn’t have the background to become a legislator.
That changed when she enrolled in the Emerge Maine program, which encourages Democratic women to run, with alumni including Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and former House Speaker Sara Gideon. She was sold.
“I decided I was qualified – highly qualified,” Supica said. “We need people representing us with all kinds of life experiences.”
Now 41, she started with the Bangor City Council, winning an at-large seat, and served from 2017-20. For one of Bangor’s four House seats, she outpolled male candidates in both the primary and general election. One of four House seats, her district covers the northwest part of the city.
Her “office job” was working for then-Secretary of State Matt Dunlap – a former restaurant server himself. What she thought was a thin resume worked. “He told me, you know how to work, and work hard. That’s what I want.”
In the Legislature, her mentors include Reps. Barbara Wood (D-Portland), Victoria Morales (D-South Portland) and Rep. Joyce McCreight (D-Harpswell.) For the first time, women are a caucus majority.
Supica filed only three bills. One, to allow probate judges to consider “economic abuse” against spouses in dividing common property, was enacted.
Another, to assess homelessness costs county-wide was carried over, “much to my surprise.” She expected it to be killed.
Finally, a measure to install 24-hour mental health crisis assistance, rather than police response, will be debated in 2022. It’s now a key priority for the House caucus.
— Douglas Rooks