When the Republican tide swept across Maine on Nov. 2, it carried rural Maine along with it and left traditional Democratic strongholds — particularly Portland — stranded on a political sandbar.

Over the past decade, lawmakers from Maine’s largest city held the Legislature’s most powerful jobs. Half of the last six House speakers — Steve Rowe, Mike Saxl and Glenn Cummings — came from Portland.

Portland lawmakers also served as majority leaders in both the House and Senate and also were chairmen of several key committees, including the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Now, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, those leadership positions and committee chairmanships are out of reach for Portland lawmakers.

That’s because the city’s 10-member delegation does not include a single Republican.

Maine’s most populated county, Cumberland County, has seen a similiar decline in influence: Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the assistant minority leader in the Senate (where Democrats have only 14 of 35 seats), will be the county’s highest-ranking lawmaker.

But the city still has more representatives in Augusta than any other. In the short term, veteran Portland lawmakers will use their experience to make up for their minority status, said Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland.

Brannigan recognizes the city’s clout has been reduced significantly.

“Power is what is important,” he said, “and we don’t have it.”

As the state’s most populous city, Portland has many unique challenges. The community of 64,000 can double in size every day, when the commuters who pour across its borders are counted. It is the regional hub for recreation, entertainment and social and medical services.

Because poor people from around the state are drawn to Portland, which has several homeless shelters and soup kitchens, Portland’s loss of political clout could have real implications for city taxpayers.

The city authorizes more than 40 percent of all General Assistance dollars distributed in Maine, making it vulnerable to cuts to General Assistance funding as lawmakers look to fill a budget gap of almost $1 billion.

The city last year spent $6.7 million in General Assistance, of which about $5 million was reimbursed by the state.

Gov. John Baldacci last year proposed a budget that cut General Assistance spending, saving the state $1.8 million, with three-quarters of the savings coming through cuts to Portland.

Because the state would have required the city to still provide most of the services, city taxpayers could have ended up footing the bill.

In the end, the Legislature restored the funding.

Other potential threats to Portland include cuts to its share of state education funding and revenue sharing. Changes to funding formulas could shift money away from property-rich communities such as Portland to towns where property values are lower.

Rural Maine was critical to Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s election victory. He won in virtually every community with a population of less than 1,000, and his strongest electoral showings were within the rural interior of the state, including Androscoggin, Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.

Most of the incoming Republican leadership in the Legislature hail from small towns. Senate President Kevin Raye is from Perry, population 847; Rep. Robert Nutting, whose position as speaker still must be confirmed by the full House, is from Oakland, population 5,959; and Majority Leader Phillip Curtis is from Madison, population 2,733.

Sen. Jonathan Courtney, the incoming Senate majority leader, is the singular exception on the Republican side. He’s from Sanford, the largest town in York County.

Courtney said the Legislature needs to avoid regional factions.

“The worst thing that can happen is when people start creating walls of rural Maine versus urban Maine,” he said. “I’m for the opportunity to tear down those walls.”

LePage has not indicated where Portland stands in his budget plan, which is now under development by a team of advisers.

His spokesman, Dan Demeritt, said the governor-elect understands Portland is an economic engine. “It’s Maine’s largest city,” he said. “If it’s disadvantaged, it hurts all of Maine.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6962 or at:

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