AUGUSTA — Despite a public admonishment by Republican Gov. Paul Le- Page, the new Democratic majority in the Legislature emphasized unity and collaboration during swearing-in ceremonies at the State House on Wednesday.
Newly elected Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland and House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick vowed to work with their Republican colleagues, who lost legislative majorities in November’s elections.
Alfond challenged lawmakers to defy expectations that Democrats will clash with LePage and create gridlock, saying people on both sides are “spoiling for a fight” and expecting “a showdown between the Legislature and the Blaine House.”
“I say let’s disappoint them,” he said.
The lawmakers’ celebratory day was nearly upstaged by LePage, however, who used the event to repeat his criticism of a “tracker” hired by the Maine Democratic Party to videotape him at public events.
“I want to thank (them) for providing me with my own paparazzi. The next two years should be interesting,” Le- Page said, before administering the oath of office to House members to officially launch the 2013-14 session.
“I would like to make one slight objection. Next time you hire a paparazzi, would you give the job to a Mainer instead of a person from Massachusetts. Thank you,” LePage added, drawing laughs from the lawmakers.
But some were not amused by his remarks.
“It was odd,” said Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth. “What a way to start.”
On Tuesday LePage abruptly canceled a meeting with the incoming Democratic leaders over the videotaping, which he called “vulgar, vicious and vile,” to him and his family.
Party operatives and other progressive activists have tracked LePage at various public events since he was elected in 2010. A spokeswoman for the party said Tuesday that they have videotaped the governor because he has a habit of saying things that are untrue.
Democrats also questioned why LePage decided to make an issue of the practice on the day he was scheduled to meet with the new Democratic leadership about the upcoming legislative session.
Along with criticizing, LePage told lawmakers he is willing to work with Democrats.
“As elected officials, we have a duty and responsibility to Maine people,” LePage said. “It’s not about us or whether we like it or not any of things that we go through. I will endure and have pledged to work (for) the people of the state of Maine.”
LePage made similar remarks in the Senate chamber before swearing in 35 senators.
Senate Democrats declined to engage the governor over his comments.
“We’re going to stay above the fray on that kind of stuff,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond.
The governor stuck to the script while swearing in Alfond, whom he once called a “spoiled brat.”
LePage shook hands with the new Senate president and playfully tugged on the finger of Alfond’s 1-year-old son, Jacoby, on his way out of the chamber.
Alfond was elected by the new senators, defeating Republican nominee Garrett Mason of Livermore Falls in a 20-15 vote.
While Republicans challenged Alfond’s presidency, Eves was unopposed. Republican House leader Ken Fredette of Newport seconded Eves’ nomination in a show of unity.
“As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I recall with pride how we passed a biennial budget that had been proposed by a Republican chief executive with a unanimous committee report, followed by passage of a supermajority of Democrats and Republicans,” Fredette said. “We passed four more budgets in the same fashion.”
Lawmakers have a host of challenges, including a projected $100 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services for the budget year ending June 30.
The Legislature is also facing a projected $880 million shortfall in the next two-year budget.
Additionally, Democrats have hinted that they likely will make changes to the controversial health insurance overhaul that Republicans passed in 2011, and they may propose delaying or eliminating tax cuts for wealthy Mainers that were passed by the previous Legislature.
“We will fight to defend those things, I can tell you that,” said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner.
Democratic leaders also have hinted that one of the first initiatives will be related to training Maine’s work force to better meet business’ needs.
“We know our work force faces a skills gap,” Eves said in his speech Wednesday. “Ingenuity and hard work are built into Maine people, but we need to give them the skills they need to compete.”
Such an initiative may be an early opportunity for collaboration. LePage has repeatedly lamented the skills gaps in Maine’s work force and Republicans have often echoed his concerns.
Also Wednesday, former Maine Attorney General Janet Mills of Farmington and former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of Old Town retook the positions they vacated after the Republicans gained control in the Legislature two years ago. Mills and Dunlap will be sworn in sometime in January, replacing William Schneider and Charlie Summers, respectively.
State Auditor Neria Douglass of Auburn won election as state treasurer, replacing Bruce Poliquin. Pola Buckley of Hallowell will replace Douglass as auditor.
Democrats have 89 seats in the 151-member House, Republicans have 58. There are two unenrolled members and two independents.
Democrats have a 19-15 edge in the Senate, with one unenrolled member.
– The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: