Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross made history Wednesday when she became the first Black speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, taking her oath of office half a century after her father was sworn in as the state’s first Black lawmaker in the very same chamber.

“My story, our African American story, our laborer story, the stories of our neighborhoods, is Maine’s story,” the Portland Democrat told a packed House in her acceptance speech. “There is opportunity and possibility. I am so glad for this blessing. And yes, there can be no doubt, I am my father’s proud daughter.”

After being elected Speaker of the House, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, acknowledges the applause from members and spectators on the first day of the 131st Legislature Wednesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Her father, Gerald Talbot, and a dozen family members gathered to witness the historic event from the upper balcony of the House, a place where Talbot Ross used to sit when she watched her father debate legislative matters.

“I remember when he first started, sitting in the gallery and looking down,” Talbot Ross said. “Little did I imagine then that 50 years later that I would be standing here today.”

As speaker, Talbot Ross will control the flow of action on the floor, set the agenda and have an outsized say on which bills come up for a vote. She appoints representatives to standing committees, plays a key role in state budget negotiations, recruits new candidates and is third in the line of succession to be governor.

Talbot Ross was one of 147 representatives and 35 senators sworn in Wednesday, the first day of the new legislative session. In addition to Talbot Ross, House members voted Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, minority leader. Senators voted Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, as president and Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, as minority leader.


Lawmakers also voted to create a Joint Select Committee on Housing and, in a joint afternoon session, voted to reelect the state constitutional officers: Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and State Treasurer Henry Beck.

Swearing-in Day at the Maine State Capitol is usually an exercise in pomp and circumstance, with new lawmakers getting to know each other, the process and the building, and rookies and veterans alike on the hunt for good committee assignments.

Representatives take the oath of office administered by Gov. Janet Mills on the first day of the 131st Legislature Wednesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

But the vote on Mills’ proposed $474 million emergency winter energy relief plan made this first day of a new Legislature different than almost any other, with hush-hush party caucuses and emergency legislation bouncing back and forth between the chambers.

Republicans in the Senate blocked the bill’s passage Wednesday night. The 21-8 vote – six senators were absent – went along party lines with Democrats supporting the plan and Republicans opposed, and fell short of the two-thirds support needed to pass the legislation as an emergency measure so that the aid can reach Maine households this winter.


House Democrats picked three women to lead them last month: Talbot Ross, Majority Leader Maureen Terry of Gorham and Assistant Leader Kristen Cloutier of Lewiston. Also sworn in Wednesday were two Somali-American women, Democrats Deqa Dhalac of South Portland and Mona Abdi of Lewiston.


Another woman, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, kicked off Talbot Ross’ election by nominating her for speaker with a moving story of a 15-year friendship between two civil rights activists – Stover advocating on behalf of newly settled immigrants and Talbot Ross on behalf of the incarcerated.

Stover called Talbot Ross a selfless servant leader who once asked the Legislative Council to take money from a bill that Talbot Ross had been working on for two years to instead fund a Stover bill to guarantee legal representation for poor families going through a child welfare investigation.

“She has spent a lifetime putting others before self,” Stover said. “She has put the needs of the caucus before self. As the sole African American woman out of 151 legislators she has endured, sacrificed and put this body before self. She has put her beloved Maine before self.”

In her House address, Talbot Ross hailed the 131st Legislature’s historic diversity, and urged lawmakers to come together to solve Maine’s biggest challenges: high costs of housing and heating, food insecurity, unequal access to education, poverty, economic justice, natural resource protection and climate change.

She also called on lawmakers to improve Maine’s relationship with the Wabanaki Nations by holding a joint legislative session for a State of the Tribes address. That has only happened once before in Maine, Talbot Ross said, but it was over 20 years ago.

She wove personal anecdotes and policy goals throughout her speech and concluded by reassuring the House that she would be a leader for all Mainers. “I will be a speaker that listens, that has an open door, and that no one should feel that they are on the outside,” she told the chamber.


Talbot Ross talked about knowing the struggle facing many Mainers of sometimes not having enough. She recalled her father’s life as a legislator: living on four hours of sleep, driving to the Capitol, driving home to Portland for dinner with the family and then heading to work as a typesetter at the Press Herald.

“I am grateful to my father, who is here today, for being such a clear guiding light and role model,” she said, glancing up at the gallery where he and her family watched. “I was 12 years old at the time, and my sisters and I couldn’t have been more proud.”


The election of Talbot Ross, a Portland progressive, could make for an interesting dynamic between the Democratic-led House and Mills, a centrist from Farmington who cruised to reelection, beating former Republican Gov. Paul LePage by 12 percentage points.

Talbot Ross has been an outspoken advocate for reforming Maine’s criminal justice system and for the restoration of full tribal sovereignty, a position she highlighted by multiple Wabanaki references in her opening day address. Mills, a former prosecutor and attorney general, has opposed both measures.

Talbot Ross sponsored a bill last session to give Maine’s four tribal nations the same sovereignty rights as 570 other federally recognized U.S. tribes. The sovereignty of Maine tribes is limited by a 1980 deal in which tribes settled a land claim to two-thirds of the state in exchange for an $81.5 million cash settlement.


Talbot Ross’ bill passed the House and Senate, but died on the appropriations table. Mills threatened not only to veto that bill, but also a compromise that would have given tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting. Mills said she prefers targeted, incremental reforms.

As assistant House majority leader in the 130th Legislature, Talbot Ross was Maine’s first black legislative leader. She led the Portland branch of the NAACP before it disbanded and had a 21-year run with the city of Portland as its director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs.

On the Senate side of the Maine Capitol, the chamber was packed with newly elected senators and their families, who formed a line to have their photos taken in front of the dais. They were sworn in by Mills, who flashed a big smile, waved and pumped her fists when greeted by enthusiastic applause.

“I look forward to working with every one of you. My time is your time,” Mills said after swearing them in. “In the next few months we will accomplish a great deal together, remembering what the people (on the campaign trail) told us over the last few months.”

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