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New Leadership for the Maine Senate Republicans
11/09/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins
Michael Thibodeau, Maine Senate Minority leader

At the beginning of the week, state Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) was considering a run to become the next Republican president of the Maine Senate. But by Friday morning, the reality of a dramatic Election Day reversal of fortune saw the Augusta lawyer accepting the role of assistant Senate Minority Leader. Sen. Michael Thibodeau, a Winterport Republican, has been selected to lead a much smaller group of GOP state senators into a new legislative session where the agenda will be determined by majority Democrats.

Before Tuesday, Republicans in the state Senate held 20 seats to the Democrats 14 and one independent. The day after Election Day, the balance of power was almost identically reversed with Democrats holding 19 seats to the Republicans 15 and one independent. And even that number could change pending a likely recount in Androscoggin County's Senate District 17 that, for the moment, is presumed to be Republican. Two years ago, Republicans declared that Maine voters had had enough of Democratic policies when the GOP took control of the State House and the governor's office. Now, newly-elected Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau is striking a more conciliatory tone.

"The bottom line is we have a lot of really important things to work on during the 126th Maine Legislature," Thibodeau said.

The new Republican minority in the Senate is a mix of moderates, conservatives and ultra conservatives who must now find a way to agree with majority Democrats when it benefits their interests while being prepared to stand alone on principal in order to preserve the integrity of their philosophical positions. For Thibodeau finding that balance will almost certainly be driven by three long-standing GOP principals: supporting bills that encourage and expand job creation, advance measures that improve the overall economy while holding the line on tax policies enacted during the last legislative session.

"The Senate Republicans are poised and absolutely ready to go to work on them issues and make sure that an agenda that creates jobs and encourages a better economy here in the state of Maine is the one that's looked for," Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau will be assisted in managing his 15 Republicans by state Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta lawyer who has accepted the post of assistant minority leader. Katz, a moderate voice in GOP caucus who has at times been critical of positions taken by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, says the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle just went through a blistering $3.5 million legislative campaign. He complimented the Democrats on their big wins in the House and Senate and says it's time to move on.

"The elections was extremely partisan on both sides, but it's time at this point to put away the R's and the Ds and try to work together and I expect that we'll do that," Katz said.

Katz remembers well the excitement that electrified Republicans two years ago when the House and Senate won GOP majorities for the first time in more than 30 years. He hopes Democrats will exercise some restraint and not perceive their victory as a rejection of many of the policies that were passed by majority Republicans and supported by many Democrats. He says that while Democrats can now pass pretty much pass anything they choose, there would be consequences for asserting partisan dominance.

"The Republican governor is still there with a veto pen and I suspect that what's going to happen and I hope that what's going to happen is that they're going to understand that if they really want to get things done, they're going to have to work with the Republicans in both houses," Katz said. "We will be able to work together and maybe we can actually pass some sensible things here."

But the Senate Republican caucus's relationship with the governor has been anything but cozy over the last two years, marked by rifts over failures in the Senate to support some of LePage's initiatives. The GOP leadership team won't have any problems convincing senators whose districts have largely supported Republican positions. But there are also senators from districts in which Republicans represent a distinct minority view. University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer says those senators may split form the GOP program if they have legitimate concerns about losing a reelection for being characterized as being in lock step with the governor.

"If you come from one of those more moderate Republican districts or a swing district, if you want to get reelected, I wouldn't cast my lot with the governor," Brewer said. "I'd try and reach deals across the aisle."

State Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton Republican who has also been an independent and a Democrat as a member of the House, says in the end, it will be up to LePage to develop a new strategy to replace what Democrats have dubbed the governor's "my way or the highway" approach to public policy.

"I think the opportunity is in his hands," Saviello said. "It's up to him. It's totally up to him,"

Senate Democrats will gather at the State House Tuesday evening to select their new leaders.

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