While she will be known as “Madam Speaker,” friends and even political rivals say it’s Sara Gideon’s ability to listen that’s propelled the Freeport Democrat’s political career from the Town Council to the top seat in the Maine House of Representatives.

Her ability to connect with Mainers from all over the state and from all walks of life – coupled with her personal belief that politics and public service really can be about improving the lives of others – has garnered Gideon the kind of respect that has staying power, said former state lawmaker Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat who served in the House and Senate and has run twice without success for Congress.

Cain, who also served as a caucus leader in the Legislature, knows the challenges of trying to serve a party caucus, the Legislature as a whole and the public at large. She said Gideon’s determination to see concepts she believes in to fruition, along with her no-nonsense sensibilities, will serve Maine well in the months ahead. But that doesn’t mean Gideon is a pushover, Cain said.

“Sara is tough and Sara is very committed to not letting things get off track,” Cain said. She said Gideon showed that tenacity when she fought to expand legal access to the opioid overdose antidote Narcan in 2015 and 2016.

As Maine plunged deeper into an addiction crisis that is still taking as many as five lives a week, Gideon won key Republican allies in the Legislature and national media attention for her political battles with Gov. Paul LePage. The Republican governor opposed expanding access to the antidote, saying it provided too much of an incentive for addicts to keep using.

In 2016, Gideon ushered through legislation allowing pharmacists to sell Narcan over the counter without a prescription. In 2015, she shepherded a bill into law that allowed family members of addicts to purchase the drug with a prescription so they could have it on hand in case of an emergency.

Speaker of the Maine House Sara Gideon speaks to a reporter at her State House office.

Speaker of the Maine House Sara Gideon speaks to a reporter at her State House office. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“She handled that with ease and a clarity of message and purpose in what that was about, and that resonated beyond partisan politics and it resonated at the community level and it resonated at the personal level, ” Cain said.

In an interview, Gideon said her work to help save lives was successful in large part because Republican lawmakers, even some of LePage’s staunchest allies, were willing to listen and, if nothing else, keep the conversation going. Upon being elected speaker on Dec. 7, in her first speech to the full House of Representatives, Gideon was quick to acknowledge by name her Republican colleagues, who she said deserved equal credit for literally saving hundreds of Maine lives.

Gideon’s supporters within her own Democratic caucus said it was a clear example of the kind of leadership she displays frequently.

“She’s the kind of leader who allows for a process where everyone, regardless of party, is going to have a voice on the House floor,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston.

On the other side of the aisle, Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, said she and Gideon share a friendship and mutual respect, even though the two seldom agree from a policy perspective. Espling said Gideon, who previously served as assistant majority leader in the House, made it a point to meet face-to-face before House floor sessions as a way to develop trust and limit the kind of political surprises that lead to excessive partisanship.

“We do recognize that we have a lot in common, but we do not agree on policy a good chunk of the time,” said Espling, who acknowledged Gideon’s assessment that while she is “pretty liberal,” Espling is “pretty conservative.”

“But I’m OK with that and she’s OK with that,” Espling said. “I think that’s just where you have to be sometimes and not let that get in the way of other things you can do.”

Espling said their contrasting views don’t stop the two from occasionally commiserating about their roles in leadership or their lives in general as lawmakers, mothers and people working in public service as elected officials.

POLITICS TO IMPROVE LIVES

Gideon was born and grew up in Rhode Island. After college at George Washington University, she and her husband, Ben, now a Lewiston-based attorney, worked in New York City, where she was an advertising sales representative for USA Today and he practiced law. But the couple both wanted to move back to New England after their first son was born and decided on Maine, where Ben had grown up.

The couple’s oldest son, Julian, now 13, was 5 weeks old at the time, and Gideon said Maine immediately felt like home to her.

Her second son, Alek, 12, and daughter, Josie, 9, kept Gideon busy as a stay-at-home mother. But as she was looking to work outside her home again, former state Senate President Beth Edmonds tried to recruit Gideon’s husband to run for Freeport Town Council.

“And I said, ‘Ben’s not going to do that, but I’ll do that,’ ” Gideon said. From there, she’s flourished as an elected official.

She developed an interest in politics and how it can be used to better people’s lives when Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan were president. In college, she got her first exposure to politics by working as an intern in the offices of former U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.

Pell, known largely for the federal college grant program that bears his name, was one of those politicians who could accomplish things that made a positive impact on the lives of many people, Gideon said.

She said serving on the Town Council in Freeport is when she realized she had “come full circle” – from somebody who believed her involvement in politics would mostly be in roles “behind-the-scenes,” to somebody who found satisfaction from being able to identify and solve problems in a public way.

“I realized doing this work, identifying either issues or challenges or thinking about opportunities to actually impact people’s lives, I could actually make things better, and bringing people around the table for solutions was something I liked doing and was actually something I was able to do fairly well,” Gideon said.

STEADY, INCREMENTAL CHANGE

Gideon said patience is one of her strongest personality traits, and with that she’s able to cultivate steady and incremental change.

Those traits will likely be put to the test during the new legislative session when, as House speaker, Gideon serves as the Democratic counterpoint to LePage. She has already had her share of battles with the governor, prevailing on issues like the Narcan law changes but losing the battle to expand solar energy production in Maine.

Gideon said her relationship with LePage remains one of open communication, candor and mutual respect. She said they return each other’s phone calls and meet upon either one’s request.

LePage’s relationship with former House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, was rocky and punctuated by an ongoing lawsuit Eves filed against the governor after he threatened to withhold state funds for a charter school that Eves had been hired to run unless the school rescinded its job offer.

LePage’s office declined to comment on his relationship with Gideon.

The Freeport Democrat has also been willing to step into the fray with LePage. After he left an obscene voice mail message for a fellow Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook, Gideon called on LePage to either get professional help or resign.

“When it comes to the governor, there’s really not much to say,” Gideon said. “When he has called me or asked for a meeting, I promptly respond and vice versa, and I think that is maybe the first and most important thing that is essential and that we have with each other, and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that continues.”