Portland's Alfond promises benevolent Maine Senate presidency
PORTLAND — A state senator from Portland whom Gov. Paul LePage famously called a "little spoiled brat" is about to become one of the most powerful legislators in Augusta.
But the "brat" says he's not holding grudges.
"The Democratic Party and I are now partners with the governor," Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said after his nomination last week to become president of the Senate. "I look forward to working with (LePage), sharing my agenda with him, and finding common ground.
"Many people would rather talk about the fighting ... but it's not going to do any good to simply attack. That's not going to create another teacher, or train another firefighter. I won't partake in it."
Alfond was re-elected two weeks ago to a third term representing Senate District 8, which includes the peninsula, the islands and some western parts of the city. He previously served as the assistant Senate minority leader. But with Democrats now holding the majority, his nomination as president is expected to be confirmed when the Legislature votes Dec. 5.
When it is, Alfond, 37, will be the youngest senate president since Joseph Locke held the office in 1880.
LePage's criticism of Alfond came in March, after Democrats called for an investigation into management of MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program. Alfond said "tweaks to the insurance law" are on his agenda as president, but that he would avoid any "knee-jerk reaction" to his party's previous dealings with LePage.
"Mainers want us to get back to work. They don't want Maine to look like Washington, D.C., where people are pointing fingers and getting nothing accomplished," he said. "As senate president, I have to find ways to find common ground. There are big issues to tackle."
Alfond has already started work in his new role, meeting with the new minority leader, Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and the outgoing president, Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
Alfond said he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.
"There are a lot of things I'll try to emulate ... (Raye) was fair and firm with the rules, but he allowed senators to express themselves without gaveling them down," Alfond said. "I felt like I was treated with respect in the minority."
That experience as minority leader was "healthy, but hard," Alfond said.
"When you go into a committee room and you know you don't have the votes, despite your best arguments, that's very difficult. It's very humbling. It forces you to really understand how to build coalitions and work across the aisle," he said.
Alfond has chaired the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, but as senate president, he will not be able to serve on any policy committee. He said he'll miss that work.
"The committee work is some of the most fascinating and satisfying ... part of the fun is guiding and nurturing a bill through the legislative process," he said. But he said he will continue to introduce legislation that "has a big impact across the state."
Maine's economy, education and job training will be continue to be the focus of his work, Alfond pledged. "My priorities are the same," he said. "They're the same priorities that have been created over the past four years."
Alfond is a real estate entrepreneur who owns Bayside Bowl, an upscale bowling alley on Alder Street. He's also the grandson of Harold Alfond, the founder of Dexter Shoe Co.
And despite LePage's suggestion that Alfond is "very fortunate that his granddad was born ahead of him," Alfond said he appreciates the importance of cultivating business in Maine.
"What a lot of people don't know about Justin Alfond is that I'm a pro-capital Democrat. I believe in investing capital in the state ... that's going to be better than any social program we could create," he said.
"My family made things. I remember going to those factories with my father and grandfather ... you could see the pride that people took in working hard."
When he thinks of his own family and the legacy he might create, Alfond said he has ruled out running for governor in 2014, so that he can spend time with his wife and 15-month-old son. But he said he would consider a gubernatorial bid in the future.
In the meantime, he said his first priority is serving his district and "creating a pathway" for Democrats to control the Blaine House as well as the Statehouse.
And a run at national office? Alfond is skeptical. "I like to travel, but not enough to travel to D.C. every week," he said.