August 19, 2022

Biddeford legislator rejoins Democrats Party regains its majority in House

AUGUSTA – Twomey or not Twomey?

That was the question House Democrats and Republicans wrestled with until about 5 p.m. Wednesday when the always unpredictable Rep. Joanne Twomey (pronounced TOO-mee) announced she had re-enrolled in the Democratic Party.

Only last month, the vacillating Biddeford lawmaker decided to abandon the Democrats and be independent, claiming the party no longer reflected her political philosophy or priorities for state government. The legislator’s return to the fold brought discussions for new power-sharing arrangements between the two major parties to an abrupt halt since Twomey’s reversion restored the Democratic majority by a single seat.

Democrats had lost their majority hold only the day before when Democratic Rep. Barbara Merrill of Appleton unenrolled, leaving Republicans and Democrats with 73 members each. Rounding out the 151-member House were one Green Independent Party member and four unenrolled, or independent, lawmakers.

Twomey’s transformation Wednesday managed to eclipse all activities on the opening day of the second year of the two-year session at the State House, including the swift enactment of a $5 million boost to the state’s low-income heating assistance program. Her decision was so unexpected that House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick, had already announced his party would give up the chairmanships of eight legislative committees to Republicans.

House GOP leadership had launched a full-court press for increased power Tuesday after Merrill’s announcement. With the major parties tied, Republicans reasoned they were entitled to the same number of House seats on policy committees as Democrats, and an equal number of chairmanships and office staff.

Richardson agreed to meet with Republican leaders Wednesday to discuss their demands, which seemed to increase as the GOP sensed the apparent strength of its bargaining position. By mid-afternoon, former House Republican leaders Joseph Bruno of Raymond and Walter Whitcomb of Belfast drove up to the State House to participate in the discussions, and there was talk about new elections for all constitutional officers and top House positions, including the job currently held by House Clerk Millie MacFarland.

But all of the Republican bravado soon evaporated. In a closed-door meeting with Democratic leaders, Twomey was told it was likely that Rep. Ted Koffman, D-Bar Harbor, could very well lose the chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee on which she serves if Richardson were forced to redistribute seats to meet GOP demands.

Not long after, Richardson was announcing to the House that he was rescinding all offers to share power with Republicans. Before introducing Twomey to make her announcement, he simply said: “I regret any confusion, drama or pain that this caused anybody. These matters were outside my control.”

In an emotional and occasionally rambling speech, Twomey was frequently on the brink of tears as she attempted to explain her reasons for jumping out of the party, only to jump back in again.

“I’m going to be honest with some of you guys who have [Republican] friends on the other side of the aisle whom I respect a great deal also,” Twomey told a stunned House. “I don’t want you in charge of Natural Resources because [Republicans] don’t have the same thoughts as I do on the environment.”

She also said Koffman had offered to step down as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and allow her to be chairman if she would re-enroll as a Democrat.

“I want to be up-front right now,” she said. “There were no deals made. I’ve never been in this for me. I haven’t been treated very good on this [Democratic] side of the aisle, to tell you the truth. … I thought that if I unenrolled, I’d get this party’s attention. That’s what it took for me, because I didn’t feel like I belonged.”

Twomey went on to say it was her belief that Mainers wanted a Democratic majority in the House, a further reason she cited for re-enrolling in the party. In the same breath, she said she had strong differences with Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, had no intention of attending Democratic legislative meetings, and wanted no thanks from anyone for her decision to rejoin the fold.

“I know what this session is about: It’s about giving up tax breaks for [business] equipment and for the corporations, the people who don’t need the help,” she said. “This isn’t what we’re supposed to be here for.”

Some Democrats sat focused on their desktops during Twomey’s speech while Republicans stared in wide-eyed disbelief. House Republican leader David Bowles of Sanford said Biddeford residents should really be asking themselves if they knew what they were doing when they re-elected Twomey to her fourth term in the Legislature. Bowles said he planned to continue talks with Richardson for greater GOP participation, despite the loss of parity.

“Even at 74 Democratic members and 73 Republicans, not having any power-sharing is inappropriate,” Bowles said. “There should be Republican committee chairs and parity in staffing. We will continue to press for those things.”

As of Wednesday evening, the composition of the Maine House stood at 74 Democrats, 73 Republicans, one Green Independent Party member and three independent legislators. Democrats control the Senate, 19-16.

Correction: A Page One story in Thursday’s Bangor Daily News described a Wednesday conversation as taking place between Democratic leaders and Rep. Joanne Twomey behind closed doors. The conversation, in fact, took place in a hallway and was between just Twomey and a legislative committee chairman.

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