The unusual way Maine selects its “constitutional officers” — attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — has come up for review many times, but remains as it was in the original 1820 Constitution.
That’s selection by the Legislature, in practice the majority party, usually Democrats. This year, however, Republican House and Senate caucuses mounted a symbolic challenge on organizing day, Dec. 7.
For apparently the first time, Republicans didn’t nominate any candidates, meaning Attorney General Aaron Frey, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and Treasurer Henry Beck, all Democrats, were reelected to new two-year terms. Frey and Beck served earlier in the House; Bellows in the Senate.
Billy Bob Faulkingham, the new GOP House leader, said in an interview that the concerted action spotlights what he sees as an unaccountable system.
“Many voters don’t even know how the system works,” he said. “Even those who do rarely make any suggestions about who we should pick.”
In a joint written statement, Senate Leader Trey Stewart said Maine is the only state that gives the Legislature this responsibility, and said it “should put those positions back into the hands of the people where they firmly belong.”
That’s easier said than done. There have been countless bills to make one or more of these offices elective, but none has come close to two-thirds needed for a constitutional amendment.
Faulkingham has always viewed the system as part of partisan control of the Legislature, primarily the House, with its 151 members, against the Senate’s 35, who form the “electorate.” Selection is usually limited to former House members, and not candidates who might appeal more to the public, he said.
Faulkingham was among several lawmakers with bills on the subject in the 2021-22 session, and said “they didn’t do very well.” Indeed they did not. He offered separate bills on each, LDs 1056-58, and each was rejected on an 82-60 party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against.
A Democrat, Sen. Joseph Baldacci, offered a comprehensive bill for the three offices, LD 874, which actually made it through the House, 74-68 — still well short of two-thirds — but was rejected by the Senate, 27-7.
Faulkingham doesn’t argue with the partisan math, and admits he’s had little luck in convincing Democrats. Yet he thinks voters should have that power, as they do in the vast majority of other states (some use appointment by the governor for some offices).
Another possibility, he said, would be a bill, enacted by majority, that would allow voters to express their preferences by referendum – which would then be submitted to the Legislature along with party candidates. No such bill has been introduced.
Although most incumbents stay entirely out of the debate, Bellows provides an exception. In a statement, she said, “I am supportive of the popular election of the Secretary of State, but I respect that it is the Legislature’s decision.”
And she added, “Given the inherent conflict of interest in my current role, I will not be advocating on any such bill before the Legislature.”
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]