PORTLAND, Maine — A small but growing number of independent state lawmakers who have weakened Democrats’ hold on the House hope to promote compromise as independents seek to gain ground nationally in 2018.
The Maine House has its highest number of Independent and third-party members recorded in the last two decades, and several such lawmakers say they hope to maintain their individual independence while gaining a stronger voice in debates.
“We’re at a point where neither major political party has the necessary votes to pass legislation without having to have support from members of the other party or the independents,” said Rep. Norman Higgins, who left the Republican party in mid-October.
Defections by five voting Republican and Democratic House members this year mean that Democrats have lost their majority for the first time in more than a decade, with Democrats down to 74 seats, Republicans at 70 and independents at seven.
Nationally, fewer than 1 percent of state and federal legislators are independent, according to The Centrist Project, a national organization focused on recruiting and electing independent candidates to office.
“We believe Maine is leading the way for the independent movement in our country at a time when an alternative to both parties is strongly desired by voters,” said the group’s executive director, Nick Troiano, who’s seen a jump in interested independent candidates in Maine and elsewhere since President Donald Trump’s election.
New England is home to the country’s two independent U.S. senators, and in independent-minded Maine unenrolled voters make up the largest electoral bloc.
Rep. Henry Bear said Maine residents are issue-driven, not “strictly tied to Republicans or Democrats or unenrolled.”
“Mainers for the most part are frugal, very conservative and also they’re very independent,” said Bear, a non-voting tribal member who represents the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and is running for Congress.
Two Republican representatives and three Democratic representatives left their parties this year in addition to Bear. They join two unenrolled House members who ran as independents. Two — Bear and Rep. Ralph Chapman — registered as Maine Green Independents and say they’re among the highest-ranking Green lawmakers nationally.
The lawmakers’ reasons for leaving the major parties vary from frustration over partisanship and the influence of lobbyists and corporate donations on Maine policy-making to discontent at Republican and Democratic lawmakers’ steps to undo, change and delay several laws approved by voters at the polls in 2016.
Chapman said he’s concerned that Democratic statehouse leaders value loyalty to political donors over the common good.
Rep. Denise Harlow, who’s unenrolled, said independent lawmakers are always ready to work with anyone willing. She said she shares similar concerns about lobbyist’s influence over a party system that marginalizes differing voices.
“In the process of doing that, you’re dismissing a lot of good ideas,” she said.
Rep. Martin Grohman, an unenrolled Biddeford lawmaker who left the Democratic party in September, said he hopes independents will have some leverage to demand action on implementing voter-approved Medicaid expansion and legalization of recreational marijuana sales.
“In its way, I think that the independence move will break up the influence of really entrenched lobbies,” he said.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon was unable to comment Tuesday. She previously said she was disappointed by Democrats who unenrolled but looks forward to continuing to work with them.
Legislative leaders recently approved a request to provide a room at the statehouse for the independent and third-party lawmakers and their staffs. Independent lawmakers said they plan to caucus daily.
Higgins stressed that independents and third-party lawmakers aren’t their own party and won’t be expected to vote as a bloc. But Higgins said he hoped his fellow independents can help lawmakers avoid the political battles that led to this year’s three-day state government shutdown over a $7.1 billion, two-year state budget.
Meanwhile, Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling said she doesn’t anticipate next year’s session going much differently than this year’s. But she said she’s hopeful.
“I think it’s important for us in anything we do to consider what we can do in a bipartisan, collaborative way, and that includes the unenrolled as well,” she said.
The idea that a few more lawmakers want to work outside the nation’s two main parties was welcome news to Valerie Wisch, a South Portland resident who browsed a local bookstore Tuesday.
“I think people are very disillusioned,” she said, “and I think these guys are doing the right thing.”