Statehouse Report: Six set sights on secretary of state’s office

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Interest in the office of secretary of state has perhaps never been higher. Amid a nationally watched recount, Georgia’s Republican SoS faced down members of his own party in certifying that Joe Biden had, in fact, scored a huge upset.

Maine’s position is open and has attracted six candidates – probably a record, exceeding the five who contested the 2018 Democratic nomination for attorney general to succeed Janet Mills, and won by Aaron Frey.

Unlike Georgia and most other states, Maine leaves the decision not with voters, but the Legislature. So despite the highly visible race – the first-ever online candidate forum, co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the League of Conservation Voters, was held Nov. 17 – the public has no direct role.

On Dec. 1, the day before the Legislature convenes at the Augusta Civic Center, House and Senate Democrats will gather at the civic center to hear speeches, then choose among Shenna Bellows, Tom Bull, Justin Chenette, Craig  Hickman, Erik Jorgensen, and Matt Moonen.

As is traditional, all are current or former legislators. Chenette is leaving the Senate after two terms, while Bellows was just reelected to a third term. The other four are term-limited House members except for Bull, who served in the House from 1996-2004.

Yet they are a reasonably diverse group, including one woman (Bellows), one person of color (Hickman), a House leader (Moonen), the co-chair of the Oversight Committee (Chenette), a current agency employee (Bull), and an Appropriations Committee member (Jorgensen.)

Handicapping the race is probably impossible, in part because of the selection method, which uses a secret ballot and resembles ranked-choice voting –  but with a distinct difference. Instead of an instant runoff, in each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated – more of a “Survivor”-like contest – until just two remain.

The 103 “electors” are Democrats who won House seats (80) and Senate seats (23). That breakdown ordinarily provides an advantage for former representatives, as it did for Frey. But with so many candidates, even that factor may not be decisive.

While Republicans sometimes field candidates, they’re unlikely to do so because Democrats hold a decisive overall majority.

As befits a party that fought off a Republican attempt to eliminate same-day voter registration – overturned by a 2011 people’s veto campaign – the six Democrats remain focused on election law reform.

There’s broad agreement Maine needs online voter registration, enhanced privacy protections, and further limits on campaign contributions, although with differing views about implementation. The cost of an online registration system, for instance, has stymied efforts to date, although the pandemic has made this a higher priority.

Where they differ is mostly their view of the office, the best qualifications for it, and how they would carry out their responsibilities in succeeding fellow Democrat Matt Dunlap, who served 14 of the last 16 years and became a hero to many by disrupting the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.

The panel, appointed by President Donald Trump to investigate “voting fraud,” was abandoned by Trump in 2018 after Dunlap exposed many false contentions, then successfully sued for access to the panel’s records.

While acknowledging that Dunlap is a tough act to follow, several candidates said they envision a more activist role, and a greater commitment to leading the Legislature toward reform.

Chenette

Justin Chenette

Saco resident Chenette is an unabashed advocate. He listed more than a dozen reform proposals during his two-minute online forum introduction, including making Election Day a holiday, extending ranked choice voting to all state offices, and banning corporate contributions. The pace of change must accelerate, not diminish, he argues.

Although without previous management experience, Chenette said his work on the Oversight Committee, which reviews and investigates government programs and is, by design, bipartisan, shows he can work across the aisle and produce good results: “Every single vote has been unanimous.”

He’s also aware of the hazards of being out in front, and said “It doesn’t make me a ton of friends, but it has earned me a lot of respect.”

Jorgensen

Erik Jorgensen

Jorgensen, who represents Portland’s District 41, may be at the other end, temperamentally. A former director of museums and the Maine Humanities Council, he’s most familiar with the secretary of state’s office through the State Archives, where he’s done extensive research.

Jorgensen said he sees the office as “the most outward-facing agency” in state government because it touches almost everyone through voting, motor vehicles, or business registrations. “It’s a pillar of trust between people and their government, and we have to work to build and maintain that trust,” he said.

The non-partisan nature of the work “is one part that really appeals to me,” and he said he believes the archives division can do more. “This is an extraordinary state-level collection,” Jorgensen said. “It’s all part of knowing the past, understanding the present, and looking forward to the future.”

Moonen

Matt Moonen

Moonen, the current majority leader, representing Portland’s District 38, points to his varied experience in the nonprofit and public sectors as key to his approach.

From the days he worked for Citizens for Clean Elections, he said, “I can understand the current focus on elections and voting. Seeing the results of voter suppression, messing with the post office, and safety during the pandemic (presents an opportunity for) modernization and reform.”

He said his current position as executive director of Equality Maine has helped him understand the disparate impact on marginalized communities of something as simple as driver’s licenses. Suspending licenses because of unpaid fines is a “bizarre policy” that can end up with escalating consequences, Moonen said, “because if you can’t drive, you can’t work.”

It took some doing, but his bill to end the policy eventually became law.

Bull

Tom Bull

Bull is business manager for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles but works on property and procurement throughout the secretary of state’s office. Before the election, he was checking the ranked choice tabulating machines and running simulations. He represented Freeport in the House for four terms and chaired the Marine Resources Committee.

Bull said his candidacy has been embraced by fellow employees, with the prospect of “having a leader who has an appreciation and understanding of the people who work there.” He said that, while elections get more attention, there are 380 people working for BMV, and little more than a dozen on elections – though many employees, such as himself, shift to election work when needed.

When he was in the Legislature, “the work of this office was more low key,” Bull said. Now, “there’s an astounding level of interest. That’s something very new.” And the agency, he said, must respond.

Bellows

Shenna Bellows

Manchester resident Bellows is the only current officeholder. Should she win, there would be a special election in Senate District 14 in Kennebec County, as there was in Bangor when Aaron Frey became attorney general. She said she’s confident a Democratic candidate would do well.

Bellows may have the highest electoral profile, after running against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2014 when the Republican won her fourth term. Two years later, she captured a Senate district also carried by Trump.

But it’s her earlier work for the ACLU of Maine and currently for the Holocaust Human Rights Center, both as executive director, that best fits her for the position, she said: “I’ve left every organization I’ve served stronger than I found it.”

Her experience in government and as a manager, she said, “is a unique combination. I’ll be ready on day one to lead one of the state’s largest and most important agencies. It’s fundamental to participation in democracy and every aspect of civic life.”

Hickman

Craig Hickman

Hickman, whose rural House district lies in Winthrop, Wayne, and North Monmouth, often surprises those who don’t envision a gay black man running an organic farm and bed and breakfast, as he does with his husband.

After growing up in Milwaukee, which he calls “one of the most segregated cities in the nation,” he said he has advanced to managerial positions by “learning while doing,” from a McDonald’s franchise to IT firms.

In the secretary of state’s office, he said, he’d take a similar approach: “I have to take inventory, look at the lay of the land.” With employees, he added, “act like you know nothing, and they’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

Hickman is unabashed that his election would be good for Maine’s tourist economy, of which he is a part.

“Maine used to seem like a utopia for young families,” he said, “(but in the LePage years) it made people wonder what the heck was going on here. … If I can live my dream in Maine, anyone can.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

Should Mainers elect their secretary of state, attorney general?

About this time in the political cycle – and especially with six candidates in the running – Mainers may ask why we don’t elect the secretary of state, as 37 other states do. Amid protracted post-election disputes over this year’s presidential race, the question may be even more relevant.

Short answer: This is the way it’s always been.

Selection by the Legislature of the three “constitutional officers” – the others being attorney general and treasurer – is part of the 200-year-old state Constitution.

Other states have changed their selection process; Maine has never changed, though not for lack of trying. Over the decades, there have been 35 bills to make the office elective, or appointed by the governor, but none have succeeded – for another, perhaps more subtle, reason.

To send an amendment for ratification by voters, it needs support by two-thirds of both houses, who’d essentially vote to remove their own authority – something many are reluctant to do.

So Maine remains one of just three states – New Hampshire and Tennessee are the others – where the Legislature selects the secretary of state, and the only one for attorney general.

All six current candidates were asked if they’d support a constitutional amendment and if it passed, whether they’d seek the office.

Shenna Bellows was the only one who answered “yes” to both parts, although she added a caveat: “It would have to be clear the Legislature remains in charge of policy.”

Craig Hickman initially expressed skepticism but said if “the people presented a powerful petition,” he’d reconsider.

The other four said they are largely comfortable with the existing system. “It may not be perfect, but I’m not convinced (popular election) is better,” Tom Bull said.

Matt Moonen acknowledged he has voted against amendment bills, and called it “a complicated question” that no one currently running “could answer without self-interest.”

Justin Chenette said, rather than change the selection method, he sees “a lack of public involvement,” lamenting that there was only one online forum presenting the candidates – which was the first time that had happened for any constitutional office.

Erik Jorgensen said he doubts he’d be interested in a statewide campaign. “I can see the value of having a direct election,” he said, but doesn’t like the campaign fundraising and conflicts of interest that might ensue.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, now concluding 14 years in office, said he’s “agnostic” on the election question, but pointed out that, if legislators removed themselves from the process, they’d lose a traditional point of access.

“Every day during the session, I’m over there for an hour or two,” Dunlap said, hearing both personal and constituent concerns. “If there was an election (directly by voters) why would I do that? You’d never see me again.”

— Douglas Rooks

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Dunlap’s advice: ‘Don’t go looking for trouble’

Matt Dunlap was just a month into his first term as Maine’s secretary of state in 2005 when he decided his prospects for reelection were slim.

Today, Dunlap cheerfully admits he had no managerial experience amid an eclectic work history, and he soon faced twin crises, either of which could have sunk him.

The first was a simmering revolt among legislators about the new license plates many of them hated. It seems that his predecessor had approved a design, prepared by a senator’s family member, that featured a pastel depiction of the Statehouse, instead of the traditional red or blue plates denoting House or Senate.

Once the plates arrived, they were the talk of the third floor, and Dunlap, who had just completed four House terms, immediately figured out the implications. “Where the hell did this thing come from?” he heard again and again on his rounds.

Then, “the hostage-taking began,” Dunlap said. “Bills were being tabled, contracts held up.” He quickly realized “I’ve got to get in front of this or it will hit the papers, and we’ll be a national laughingstock.”

Fortunately, during a tough Maine winter, the plates were already deteriorating from road salt, and he and his staff came up with the solution: ordering new versions of the old plates, which quieted the clamor; they’ve remained unchanged ever since.

The second crisis was more consequential, involving a new software system for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to replace ancient mainframe computers. It, too, was ordered by his predecessor but delivered on Dunlap’s watch.

Unlike the state’s Medicaid computer billing system, which imploded in public and took years to fix, this one didn’t get up and running, but would have been an “an end-over-end disaster,” Dunlap said.

“We knew enough not to start up a computer system that hadn’t been properly tested,” he said. “It’s like trying to change a tire on a car going 75 miles an hour.”

Dunlap asked around and found an expert the Department of Environmental Protection was willing to lend. Donna Grant became deputy secretary for information technology in 2005, a new position, and has headed the office ever since.

“She looks like everyone’s grandmother,” Dunlap said. “You’d never know she had the top security clearance at Los Alamos” – the secret New Mexico base that designs America’s nuclear weapons. “She completely turned around projects and made them a success. She really saved the day.”

Dunlap was easily reelected in 2006 and 2008, only to see Republicans capture the Legislature in 2010 and Charlie Summers become secretary of state. By 2012, Democrats regained the majority, and both Dunlap and Janet Mills, then the attorney general, returned to offices they’d briefly left. Dunlap was even able to return a favor when Mills “asked for a loan,” and got Donna Grant for a few months.

This time, Dunlap kept his post for the eight years permitted by term limits, making him the second longest-serving secretary. Only Harold Goss, who served from 1942-1960 amid Republican dominance, had more terms – but apparently overstayed his welcome. Goss seemed inattentive to Republican legislators, who encouraged his chief deputy, Paul MacDonald, to run and ousted him.

Dunlap is making an easier transition. Unless something changes, he’ll soon become the new state auditor – not a constitutional office, but one also selected by the Legislature.

The term-limited auditor, Pola Buckley, suggested it to him last year, and at first, he wasn’t interested. “What do I know about auditing?” he said he thought. But when he was told it was a managerial role overseeing systems, he decided “I can do that.”

During an eventful 14 years, Dunlap has faced many changes and controversies, many of them involving elections and voting – from implementing the nation’s first statewide ranked choice system to handling referendum petitions, appeals, and court cases – almost all of which he won.

He’s probably the most visible and well-known secretary in Maine’s history. Yet his advice to his successor is decidedly low key.

“You want to define the job,” he said, “not have it define you.”

Other Dunlap-isms: “Don’t bullshit people. They’ll figure it out.” “Do it now. Ban Post-it Notes.” And, “Don’t worry about things you can’t control.”

He sums up with a cautionary phrase: “Don’t go looking for trouble, because it has a nasty habit of finding you.”

In other words, he said, “You don’t have to put on your sword and buckler and ride out. The ‘routine’ things provide plenty of challenges.”

— Douglas Rooks