Statehouse Report: Maine Senate turnover has candidates lining up

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(Update: After this story was published, state Rep. Grayson Lookner said he changed his mind about running for the Maine Senate and will instead seek reelection to the House.) 

Change is coming to the Legislature in 2023, driven by term limits and the coronavirus pandemic.

As many as half the members of the House and a large portion of the Senate will soon be new.

Several lawmakers have spoken openly about the difficulties of legislating without any in-person committee sessions, where most give-and-take occurs. And while legislative retirements occur for many reasons, the sheer wear and tear of pandemic conditions can’t be discounted.

Among House members leaving are veteran Reps. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship; Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport; and Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Combined with term limits, the exodus is likely to be among the largest on record.

Since 1996, Maine has limited lawmakers to four consecutive two-year terms, and the class of 2014 was unusually large. Eight years later, term limits will remove 19 House Republicans and 17 Democrats.

And since Republicans have only 64 caucus members, their chances of gaining a House majority are slimmer than ever – despite numerous predictions of a national “red wave” in the midterm elections.

At first glance, things seem more promising in the Senate, where at least nine Democrats are leaving – six because of term limits. But Republicans have four senators termed out, and start with just 13, their smallest caucus in two decades; Democrats now hold 22 seats.

For the second time in six years, Portland will elect a new state senator since Heather Sanborn is stepping down after two terms. In 2018, Sanborn succeeded Mark Dion, now a city councilor, after Dion ran unsuccessfully for governor following a single Senate term.

Duson and Lookner
Two Democrats, former Portland City Councilor Jill Duson, left, and state Rep. Grayson Lookner, have declared their candidacies to replace another Democrat, Sen. Heather Sanborn, who is not seeking reelection.

Portland’s other senator, Ben Chipman, first elected in 2016, will be seeking his fourth term this year.

Two Democrats are running for Sanborn’s seat: First-term Rep. Grayson Lookner, who currently represents District 37, and former City Councilor and School Board member Jill Duson. Though Republicans are expected to field a candidate before the March filing deadline, Democrats are so dominant in Portland elections that their June primary winner will likely win the seat.

Duson chose the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend to announce her candidacy and posted on Facebook: “I have decided to lean in and ask the voters to choose me to represent the interests of our communities.” She said she’d address issues later.

Duson also ran in the 2016 and 2018 Democratic Senate primaries but lost both times.

Lookner said that as a state senator, he’d emphasize two issues he’s been working on as an activist and legislator: housing, and criminal justice reform. Last year, he sponsored a bill to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center that passed in the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

No one has yet announced for Lookner’s House seat, which has been substantially redrawn through redistricting; all House and Senate districts have new numbers as part of the consensus plan approved by lawmakers last September. 

One reading of the political tea leaves will come soon, when Mills sets the date for a District 7 special election following Sen. Louis Luchini’s resignation to take a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration. Luchini, considered a moderate Democrat, was serving his second term.

His successor may be more progressive: two announced candidates are Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, and Rep. Lynne Williams, D-Bar Harbor. The nominee will be chosen by a Hancock County Democratic Committee caucus.

Williams is an attorney and former Green Party candidate for governor. She serves on the Transportation Committee, where she has advocated for rail line expansion and other environmentally friendly alternatives.

McDonald, a commercial fisherman, has a far-flung district that includes the other Penobscot Bay islands and serves on Marine Resources.

Once a swing district, reapportionment has added more Democrat-friendly territory to District 7, while transferring several Republican-leaning towns to District 8, the other Hancock County seat.

The Republican candidate will likely be former Sen. Brian Langley, who announced his candidacy last week. Langley held the seat from 2010-2018, when he was term-limited, and lost a comeback attempt to Luchini in 2020.

Democrats have recruited candidates in the other seven open Senate districts, too.

Brewery owner Abe Furth signed up last June for the Orono-Old Town seat held by term-limited Sen. Jim Dill, while, down the coast, former Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center is seeking to succeed Sen. David Miramant in the Knox County seat. Beebe-Center served three terms representing Rockland from 2014-2020.

The Lincoln County seat is open after first-term Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, announced she wouldn’t run. Maxmin endorsed Cameron Reny, an educator and a member of the Reny retailing family, from Bristol. David Levesque, a Damariscotta attorney, also announced his candidacy.

The Republican prospect is former Rep. Abden Simmons of Waldoboro, who served one term before losing in 2018. Dana Dow, the Republican Senate leader Maxmin defeated in 2020, is reportedly mulling a bid as an independent.

In Cumberland County, the seat held by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who is term-limited for the second time, is being sought by Rep. Mark Bryant, D-Windham, whose legislative career exactly parallels Diamond’s. They’ve each held their Senate and House seats for 16 of the last 18 years.

In Biddeford, former Rep. Henry Ingwersen, D-Arundel, has been endorsed by outgoing House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, who briefly considered a run himself for Sen. Susan Deschambault’s seat, also term-limited. Ingwersen served one term before losing in 2020, but the Senate district is friendlier to Democrats.

Democrats will need a new Appropriations Committee Senate chair, since Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, first elected in a hotly contested race that was recounted twice, is term limited.

The current House Appropriations chair, Rep. Teresa Pierce, also a Falmouth Democrat, is running for Breen’s seat after reaching the four-term limit. She could lead from the Senate side, although Republicans are expected to field a competitive candidate.

Another possibility for the Senate chair could be former Sen. Peggy Rotundo, who also served as a House Appropriations chair. In Lewiston, where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, Rotundo is favored to succeed Sen. Nate Libby, a former majority leader who is term-limited.

Republicans have limited opportunities to win back seats claimed by Democrats in 2018 and 2020. But they’ll spend a lot of money trying to defeat Senate President Troy Jackson in Aroostook County, attempting to replicate Maxmin’s 2020 ousting of Dow.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].