Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, seen Friday on the pedestrian bridge that connects the mills in Saco and Biddeford, stands to become the youngest speaker of the House in any U.S. state legislature.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

BIDDEFORD — Rep. Ryan Fecteau will become the youngest speaker of the House in any Legislature in the United States when he takes the gavel from outgoing House Speaker Sara Gideon next month.

The 28-year-old Biddeford native also will become the first openly gay man to lead the Legislature, doing so during a historic pandemic that has created uncertainty over how a State House steeped in tradition will function under restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Fecteau, who was unanimously nominated Thursday by the incoming Democratic House majority caucus to be the state’s 130th speaker of the House, said he is looking forward to the challenge.

“We have a generation of Americans who are becoming more politically engaged than ever before,” Fecteau said in an interview Friday. “There’s a lot happening in our country and our world that has commanded the attention of young people to get involved and to have their voices be heard, while I didn’t necessarily expect for myself to be this person, in this position, I can say I’m not surprised that now’s the time for someone young to serve as a presiding officer in a (legislative) chamber in this country.”

The entire incoming House of Representatives will still have to vote on his nomination, and minority Republicans will likely nominate a lawmaker from their ranks for the speakership as well, but with 80 of the 151 House seats in Democratic hands, Fecteau’s election to the post is all but a foregone conclusion.

A product of  Saco and Biddeford public schools, Fecteau said his childhood wasn’t always easy. He grew up in low-income housing, raised by a single working mother, who often struggled to make ends meet, he told his colleagues before he they formally nominated him to the post. As a young student he struggled learning to read, he said. He was pulled from his regular classroom for two hours each day, helped by special education teachers, who used different strategies until he could read as well as his peers.

He said he remembers the day it was announced to his fourth-grade class that he had “graduated” from the special reading program and would no longer need daily interventions. His classmates all cheered, Fecteau said. It was a moment, he said, he felt pride and embarrassment all at the same time. But it also helped solidify his belief in public schools and how important they could be in the lives of poor families.

“The public education system did not let me down,” Fecteau told his colleagues during the nomination proceedings. “It stuck with me and deployed learning techniques that slowly improved my ability to read.”

Fecteau would go on to be the first in his family to earn a college degree.

Ryan Fecteau says young Americans have become more politically engaged than ever before, so “I’m not surprised that now’s the time for someone young to serve as a presiding officer in a (legislative) chamber in this country.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He said his upbringing was much like that of many Mainers in working-class families, scratching to make a living, with few resources and limited educations.

He said his focus as speaker of the House will continue to be on improving the lives of those families.

“Obviously we are living in the midst of a pandemic that is causing tremendous harm to our communities, it has changed all of our lives in many, many ways, and first and foremost I’m concerned about families being able to make a living, put food on the table, to pay their mortgage, their car payments,” Fecteau said.

“All of those things that are so important to our economy and to our way of life. COVID has substantially changed the course of the state’s economy and direction, so the Legislature’s priority, regardless of Republican or Democrat, is making sure that Maine families can get by. That they have the ability to stay afloat and that includes businesses. That’s definitely top of mind.”

He said he also aims to help Maine’s health care workers. “They’ve been on the front lines of this for months now,” he said. “I’m concerned about them as well.” He said the stress of dealing with COVID across all sectors of the workforce has been enormous, and he believes recognizing that for business owners and workers is important.

During his first six years in the Legislature he’s focused on affordable housing and health care issues, equal rights and on making so-called “conversion therapy” illegal in Maine. The practice is deployed by some religious counselors and is aimed at changing a minor’s sexual orientation. His first effort to ban the practice in 2018 ended in defeat, after then-Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, vetoed a bill banning the practice, and minority House Republicans voted with LePage to sustain the veto.

The same year Republican governors in other states, including New Hampshire and New Jersey, signed similar bills into law banning the practice. But in 2019 Fecteau pushed ahead with the legislation again, the measure was easily passed and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills making Maine the 17th state to ban the practice.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, photographed with his dog, Pancake, will become the first openly gay man to lead the Legislature. He said Maine has come a long way on equality issues, but has a long way to go. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“By signing this bill into law today, we send an unequivocal message to young LGBTQ people in Maine and across the country,” Mills said in a bill-signing statement. “We stand with you, we support you, and we will always defend your right to be who you are.”

Fecteau said he doesn’t hang his sexual orientation on his sleeve, but is proud of being an openly gay man while acknowledging that the struggle for LGBTQ equality is still real. He said Maine has come a long way on equality issues, but has a long way to go.

“For the last six years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with folks on both sides of the aisle,” Fecteau said. “I feel like I’ve built meaningful relationships without ever having any of those relationships at odds because of my sexual orientation. I’m proud of the fact that we have made substantial progress in this country – that someone like me can be proudly open with who I am and be nominated by my caucus to serve as speaker of the House. And I don’t expect anyone on any side of the aisle to question my integrity as a person because of it.”

Former state Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican from Scarborough, served as the Senate co-chair of the then Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee with Fecteau as the House chair. While she and Fecteau disagreed on many issues around labor, they got along well and respected each other, Volk said.

“He and I definitely had a good working relationship, there were certainly times when I would have liked to have more negotiations,” Volk said. “But there are always larger forces at work. I would really hope that (as speaker) Rep. Fecteau could enjoy the same positive working relationship with Republican leaders that he and I were able to enjoy. He’s a good guy and I don’t think he fails to understand where people are coming from.”

Fecteau said he’s worked with many of the lawmakers now in Republican leadership and feels he will be able to negotiate fairly with them on contentious issues that will invariably arise.

“I hope that all leaders will see this is an opportunity for us to work together to find solutions and not try to undermine and pit each other against one another,” he said.

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