Members of the Maine House take the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday, set apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

AUGUSTA — The 130th Maine Legislature was sworn into office Wednesday in historic, pandemic-adapted ceremonies at the Augusta Civic Center, with legislative leaders calling for bipartisan cooperation to tackle the state’s challenges even as demonstrators outside noisily protested restrictions aimed at protecting public health.

With COVID-19 cases surging statewide, newly elected lawmakers gathered at the expansive civic center rather than inside the Maine State House to allow members to safely distance from each other. While the main business of the day was ceremonial and procedural – such as taking the oaths of office and electing chamber leaders – Wednesday’s gathering was also a dry run for a session likely to be dominated by the ongoing pandemic.

“Maine people are struggling,” said Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat unanimously re-elected to lead the chamber. “To pretend that anything about this is normal would do a disservice to the people that we represent. And to carry on with the pomp and circumstance of swearing in today would fly in the face of the sacrifices Mainers have made and the hardships they are facing.”

On the convention center floor, House members elected Democratic Rep. Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford to serve as House speaker. Fecteau, 28, is the youngest person to serve as House speaker in a legislature across the country and is Maine’s first openly gay speaker. He urged his colleagues to work across the aisles to help Maine respond to and recover from the pandemic.

Anti-mask protesters wave flags and signs in front of the Augusta Civic Center before the opening session of 130th Maine Legislature on Wednesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal  Buy this Photo

“We have to pledge to each other to see every person at every desk in this auditorium as a partner and not a partisan,” Fecteau said.

Meanwhile, outside of the Augusta Civic Center, a crowd of protesters – many holding signs or wearing clothing supporting President Trump’s re-election – shouted things such as “Masks are medical tyranny!” and “Take off your mask!” to those entering the building.

The ceremonies, which are usually open to the public, have been closed to only the lawmakers, support staff and credentialed State House media to limit exposure to COVID-19. Everybody that was allowed inside the facility was also required to wear a mask or face shield throughout the day. Compliance with the rules appeared universal in most public spaces with few complaints or protests.

The Legislature’s 186 lawmakers were sworn in by Andrew Mead, the acting chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, in the unusual setting of the 39,000-square-foot, city-owned sports and concert arena. Space in the facility allows physical distancing of at least 6 feet between lawmakers and their staff.

Senators watch a message recorded by Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday in the Senate room of the Augusta Civic Center North Wing on opening day of the 130th Maine Legislature. The governor usually administers the oaths of office, but Mills is quarantining at the Blaine House Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Mead stood in for Gov. Janet Mills, who is quarantining after a member of her security detail tested positive for the virus. Mills was not exhibiting any symptoms of the virus as of Wednesday but planned to remain quarantined and work from the Blaine House until at least Dec. 12.

The Senate was sworn in with only two of the 35 members absent. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend and is quarantining at home, while Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, was elected Secretary of State later in the day and did not take the oath of office.

Representatives stand and take the oath of office from Andrew M. Mead, acting chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, on Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center. Each representative had their own table in the auditorium. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Senate moved quickly to nominate and unanimously re-elect Jackson as senate president. A logger from Allagash now serving his ninth term in either the House or Senate, Jackson is the first resident of Aroostook County to ever be elected to two consecutive terms as Senate president.

Jackson said the absence of both Mills and Bennett due to COVID-19 helps put the pandemic in perspective. Jackson added that just because the Legislature is not meeting in the ornate chambers and marble-lined hallways of the State House does not mean its responsibility to the people of the state has changed.

“Over the next two years, we are going to be working alongside each other day in and day out and we will attempt to solve some of the state’s greatest challenges,” he said. “We definitely won’t agree all of the time. But like a family, we need to put our differences aside and recognize each other’s humanity for the good of the state. We need to put the hostility of the election behind us and work together for the sake of our health and our economic recovery.”

Those tensions – even hostility – were on full display Wednesday as pro-Trump, anti-Mills protesters shouted at lawmakers, staff and media as they walked into the civic center.

Rep. Ryan M. Fecteau, D-Biddeford, is sworn in as speaker of the House on Wednesday. At 28, he became the youngest House speaker in the nation.  Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Protesters held signs reading “Stop the steal,” a reference to the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the election of Democrat Joe Biden as president. Some protesters railed against Mills and screamed “Shah lies,” a reference to Dr. Nirav Shah who, as director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, has earned widespread praise for his steady leadership during the pandemic.

Mead later administered the oath to 149 of the 151 members of the House of Representatives. The lawmakers then went through the lengthy and time-consuming process of casting ballots to elect the person to succeed House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat who was prohibited from running for her seat again because of term limits.

During remarks to House members, Fecteau said he will embrace his age as he champions a message to other young people to live, work and raise families in Maine.

During a joint session of the House and Senate later Wednesday the Legislature elected the state’s three constitutional officers.

Bellows won the race to replace outgoing Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Bellows, will now have to leave the Senate, setting up a vacancy in state Senate District 14 and a special election. Bellows will become the first woman in Maine’s 200-year history to be secretary of state. She is the executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and previously was the executive director of the ACLU of Maine.

After winning election as secretary of state, Shenna Bellows waves to legislators as outgoing Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who was elected state auditor Wednesday, cheers for her. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

She also made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014 against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

The joint convention also voted to return Aaron Frey, a Bangor Democrat, to the post of attorney general and Henry Beck, a Biddeford Democrat, to the post of state treasurer.

Dunlap was also elected to serve a four-year term as state auditor. Not considered a constitutional officer, the auditor is also elected by the Legislature.

The new legislative session is not expected to ramp up until January, although an official return date had yet to be set. But Wednesday’s proceedings illustrated the major changes to the way lawmakers will operate because of the pandemic. Lawmakers adjourned the 2020 session several weeks early in March as the coronavirus pandemic began hitting the U.S. and have not convened as a full Legislature since then.

Next month, the House and Senate are expected to continue holding floor sessions at the Augusta Civic Center in order to allow for more distancing. Legislative committees will continue holding public hearing, work sessions and other meetings virtually but with some members located in their traditional State House rooms, as has been the practice in recent months.

Fecteau told reporters full meetings of the Legislature at the Civic Center would likely proceed in a more vigorous pace than is typical in order to limit the time lawmakers are together to help protect them and support staff from possible exposure to the virus.

As the State House is still closed to the public because of the pandemic, people interested in testifying before committees will have to participate virtually via live video conferencing or submit written comments. Jackson welcomed that change, however, pointing out that it will allow Mainers to testify from their homes rather than drive to Augusta – a roundtrip of nine hours or more for some residents.

Reps. Patrick W. Corey, R-Windham, left, and Jonathan Connor, R-Lewiston, sit socially distanced while waiting for the swearing-in ceremony to begin at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Lawmakers will have to address the economic turmoil that has created large holes in the state budget. Recent state revenue forecasts have suggested the state could face a budget gap of close to $500 million. The state’s constitution requires a balanced budget so bringing spending in line with revenues will become one of the biggest friction points between the two dominate party caucuses. Additionally, Republican lawmakers are pushing for the Legislature to reassert more oversight and take back some of the emergency powers granted to Mills during the pandemic.

But Democrats hold 80 seats in the 151-seat House and 22 seats in the 35-seat Senate so they will likely work collaboratively with Mills to advance her policy agenda.

Under one proposal being submitted by Rep. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, lawmakers would rescind the emergency order issued by Mills and require the administration to work with the Legislature on a pandemic response.

Without naming Mills or repeating his Republican caucus’s frequent criticisms of the restrictions she has imposed during the pandemic, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Timberlake told his Senate colleagues that “the Legislature needs to play a key role in the discussion on where Maine is headed.”

“Senators, representatives and the chief executive need to sit at the same table to achieve or retrieve any of the sense of balance in our lives that we had nine months ago,” said Timberlake, R-Turner. “Our neighbors, our families and our friends across the state want us to work together. They need us to work for them.”

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