Capitol Notebook: Term limits will change the 2016 Legislature

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While 2016 brings the final, short session of the current Legislature, for politicians it heralds an election year. While it is still early, nomination papers for next June’s party primary elections are available in January, and must be returned by March 15, 2016.

The biggest change for the 2016 election will be new leadership of the House of Representatives, resulting from Maine’s term limits law. The law limits legislators to four two-year terms in the same office. It should be lifted, but legislators balk at changing the rules, viewing it as a “third rail” of Maine politics.

Long-time Democratic legislator and former House Speaker John Martin of Eagle Lake offered a bill to end term limits in the past session, but later withdrew it. It was Martin’s accrued power after 10 terms as speaker that led to the term limits initiative, and the law that took effect in 1993.

The 2016 election will bring a new speaker of the House of Representatives, since the two Democratic Party leaders will be termed out of office. For current House Speaker Mark Eves, this will mark the end of this phase of his political career, and his deepening battle in the Legislature with Gov. Paul LePage. Eves’ lawsuit against LePage remains in federal court, after the governor’s attack on the speaker cost him a high-paying job at the Good Will-Hinckley School.

Also termed out is House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, the Democratic second in command, who was frequently at the speaker’s rostrum in the last session. He is reported to be seeking the Senate seat in his Skowhegan district.

Assuming Democrats retain their majority in the House, next in line for speaker would be Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport, who is well-liked and seen as effective. A possible candidate to run against her is Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco, who is now serving his 13th term in the Legislature.

Since recent presidential election years have been good for Maine Democrats, party leaders hope they can win back the state Senate in 2016 and increase their majority in the House. If they do take over the Senate, Assistant Minority Leader Dawn Hill of York might be in line for its presidency, although term limits would force her out in 2018. Sen. Mike Thibodeau would likely remain as Senate president if Republicans retain control.

Portland will have two new state senators, as longtime legislator Sen. Anne Haskell is calling it quits, and former Senate President Justin Alfond is termed out.

Potential candidates for Alfond’s seat, which includes Portland’s downtown peninsula districts, are two legislators: Rep. Diane Russell, who represents the East End, and Rep. Matt Moonen, who represents the West End. A name also mentioned is Portland Rep. Ben Chipman, although his status as an Independent could complicate his effort. He would either have to change affiliation and run in the Democratic primary, or run in the general election as an independent, which would be a tough battle in Portland.

Among those lining up for Haskell’s current seat are Rep. Mark Dion and long-term Portland City Councilor Jill Duson. That should yield a lively primary next year; Dion is well liked by fellow legislators, and Duson is well known from her long service on the council.

Also termed out of the Senate is Democrat Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick, who has been an outspoken leader and has chaired the Criminal Justice Committee. Possibly looking to replace him is Rep. Mattie Daughtry, now serving her second term in the House.

The 2016 election will bring big changes in the powerful Appropriations Committee, which will lose its current House chairwoman, Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, to term limits. Even-tempered but sporting a spine of steel, her experience on the all-important budget committee will be a huge loss. One possible candidate to replace her is Rep. Eric Jorgensen, two-term legislator from Portland.

The attention to 2016 will ramp up quickly after the upcoming November election, which features local races (including mayor of Portland), bond issues, and the Clean Election referendum. And as in all elections, the path towards 2016 will bring surprises along the way.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.