April 06, 2020

How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him … Mr. Majority Leader?

Only two if you’re talking about House Majority Whip Mike Saxl. One of them is east of Bangor and the other is west. We know them locally as Route 9 from Calais to Brewer and Route 2 connecting Bangor to Gilead.

Someday, thanks to the vision of Saxl, his mom, Rep. Jane Saxl, D-Bangor and Reps. Dick Campbell, R-East Holden; Pam Hatch, D-Skowhegan; Joe Driscoll, D-Calais and others, we may see those two major roads unified into the East-West Highway connecting all of Maine to major markets in Quebec while improving access to and from New Hampshire and Vermont.

The bill that would initiate the lengthy process to build the $1 billion highway will be discussed before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Sponsored by Rep. Jane Saxl, the legislation recommends a $25 million bond issue to cover costs associated with environmental impact studies and design work for the four-lane limited access highway. A large chunk of the loan could also be used as the state’s share of a federal match to fund the project’s construction.

Legislative support for this ambitious plan goes beyond the bipartisan. In fact, it almost approaches the bipolar as the debate threatens to reveal yet another “north-south” fissure in the continuing “two Maines” phenomenon.

Enter Mike Saxl, the low-profile Democratic whip who represents what has been described as one of the state’s most left-leaning districts: Portland’s West End. Always Democratic to the core, Saxl is beginning to sound more like a consensus-building moderate in his party as he articulately describes benefits the east-west highway could bring to all of Maine.

And just in time for Democrats who next year will not only lose their speaker, Rep. Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro but also House Majority Leader Carol Kontos of Windham. Both are constitutionally barred from seeking re-election due to Maine’s term limits law.

Portland Democratic Rep. Steven Rowe has reportedly been mentioned as a possible future floor leader or contender to the speakership, but Saxl also possesses ambition and desire. He has already been singled out by the Casco Bay Weekly (the paper of choice in his district, it’s free) for risking the support of his liberal constituents, many of whom were opposed to widening the Maine Turnpike.

By assuming a leadership role in the east-west highway proposal, Saxl stands to win the respect of many northern, western and eastern Maine Dems who would be ecstatic to see a representative from Maine’s largest city initiate something besides “a Portland bill.”

Saxl is not as Portland-esque as he might appear. He’s a Bangor native who was named the first captain of Bangor High School’s fledgling varsity hockey team. He visits the Queen City regularly and probably has a better idea than most lawmakers of how the fruits of an East-West Highway would narrow the economic gap between northern and southern Maine.

He grins as he considers suggestions that his support is somehow contrary to the interests of his left-leaning constituents.

“I thought it was kind of funny in that it was the first time I’ve ever heard of a politician being criticized for not being parochial,” he said. “Sure, due to my office as a leader of my entire caucus, I have my eye on a ball that needs to deal with the benefits for the entire state of Maine. But I think it also has added benefits for my community.”

VEEP YUKS: On Thursday upon hearing Maine Gov. Angus King complain about losing power again at his Brunswick home, Vice President Al Gore couldn’t resist an opportunity to level a good-natured shot toward the man who refuses to hang his hat at the Blaine House.

“Well if you’d just move into that big fancy house, you’d be alright now,” Gore said, gesturing toward the governor’s mansion while thumping King on the back.

King managed an uncomfortable laugh not nearly as loud as others in the room.

A. Jay Higgins is the NEWS political editor. He can be reached at State House Station 50, Augusta 04333 or e-mailed at bdnmail@bangornews.infi.net.

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