With so much attention (rightfully) being focused on the state budget – and the looming specter of a government shutdown – it was easy to miss, but another major showdown was heading toward a resolution last week.

The House and the Senate both voted in an overwhelming, bipartisan fashion to restore the minimum-wage tip credit, which had been due to be phased out as part of the citizen initiative that raised the minimum wage. The wide consensus on Sen. Roger Katz’s bill came despite fierce opposition from outside pressure groups, including those who campaigned for passage of the original referendum.

This was an excellent example of legislators stepping up to work together to solve a serious problem, rather than turning it into yet another partisan football. The issue divided Democrats, with the more pragmatic amongst them joining together with their Republican colleagues to support the legislation. Indeed, it not only divided rank-and-file Democrats, but leadership as well: House Speaker Sara Gideon voted in favor of reinstating the tip credit, while Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson was vociferously opposed.

That was especially interesting, as Democratic leadership is usually fairly united on the major issues of the day – witness the schism between House and Senate Republicans over the budget. The minimum wage issue shows, however, that unity is not a given for either party. If Republicans in both chambers stick together, they might be able to sway enough Democrats to their cause to get something good done for the people of Maine. This wasn’t the first time this has happened in recent years, either: Republicans banded together with moderate Democrats to twice elect independent Terry Hayes as state treasurer over the Democrats’ hand-picked candidates.

This debate was even more illuminating than the treasurer race, though, for a number of reasons. Unlike the secret-ballot treasurer’s race, this debate was completely on display for the public to see. There were floor debates, committee hearings, amendments and roll-call votes. That allowed us to see exactly how close the vote was, and precisely where the fault lines lay. It made it abundantly clear that the Democrats have yet to heal the wounds from their divisive presidential party, as many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters (including Troy Jackson) led the fight to eliminate the minimum-wage tip credit. The so-called unity tour that kicked off in Maine earlier this year was, apparently, a failure, doing little to close the rift between Sanders supporters and the Democratic establishment.

In this fight – as in party primaries across the country since the presidential race – the populist faction was unsuccessful.

Here, that failure came despite the presence of a powerful ally, the Maine People’s Alliance, who put enormous pressure on Democratic lawmakers to leave the referendum intact as is. It was a rare example of Democrats publicly doing battle with the MPA – and succeeding.

The question for the MPA now is, where do they go from here? Will they keep pushing Democrats, and continue to publicly pick fights with party leadership when they don’t adopt their views? They’re already doing this to a certain extent, as the MPA also recently attacked Gideon’s budget compromise offer to reduce the tax increase intended to fund education (another key MPA initiative). If they continue down this road, their obvious next step would be to begin gathering signatures for another referendum to repeal the minimum-wage tip credit.

If the MPA chooses this route, they might be successful, but the divisions within the Democratic Party will only continue to deepen. Indeed, Maine Democrats may be facing their own tea party moment, as an increasingly restive grass roots seeks to circumvent party leadership, rather than working with them.

At a state level, they could do this by making sure truly progressive candidates won in the primaries. As Republicans across the country have seen, a restive grass roots and populist anger can be an asset at times, propelling you to unexpected victories. However, they can just as easily lead you into pointless fights that cost you elections.

Divisions among liberals in Maine are nothing new, just as divisions among conservatives aren’t uncommon. What would be quite unusual, however, is a grass-roots rebellion that reached the upper echelons of party leadership. The last time that happened was when John Martin was ousted as speaker of the House, which helped lead to Clean Elections and term limits being passed.

If the disagreements in Augusta today are the start of something similar, the next few years may be interesting indeed.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel

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