AUGUSTA – In his eight years in the Maine Senate, Mark Lawrence worked his way through term limits, a tumultuous government shutdown, and the replacement of two politicians who were considered institutions – House Speaker John Martin and Senate President Charles Pray.
On Thursday, the outgoing Senate president started packing his office and Augusta apartment, clearing space for the next occupant of the corner spot. As he spoke, it was unclear who would occupy the vacated space, since the Senate is split with 17 Republicans, 17 Democrats, and one independent.
An agreement to share the presidency and committee assignments is scheduled to be announced by both parties on Friday. The Legislature will convene on Wednesday, Dec. 6.
“It will work out one way or the other,” said Lawrence. “They will find a way to develop a working majority. But it will be difficult to share the presidency. It could work to weaken the institution in relationship to the House. You need direction and guidance from a single person, especially in dealing with the other body. If you have a different president each time, and he does not speak for a majority, it will be difficult to negotiate.”
The problem of selecting committee chairs will be easier to deal with, he said.
The outgoing president has made no recommendations to either party on the impasse. “I have stayed out of it,” Lawrence said.
But if pressed, Lawrence said he would tell the next president about his own ABCs of leadership.
“Everything I learned about politics I learned from Sesame Street: Love thy neighbor and learn how to count. That is the most important thing for a Senate president,” he said.
When Lawrence was elected president in 1996, he decided to avoid the bitter partisanship that filled the chamber under previous leadership. “It was a tough two years [1994-1996] after we lost. The Republicans wouldn’t give us stamps or labels. They refused to take recommendations on committee assignments. They once held a vote while we were meeting with the governor. It was the Newt Gingrich approach,” he said.
He emphasized a more neutral approach and appointed Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor, the lone independent, to the chair of Marine Resources.
Looking back at his eight years in the Senate after four years in the House, Lawrence said, “I think we have been able to do some dramatic things. I think people will always remember me as the one who took the Senate back for the Democrats and really played a significant role in turning the party around after the 1994 election,” he said.
The outgoing president is proud of his legislative record on education funding and health care, including passage of a patients’ bill of rights and a prescription drug price control bill that is being considered by 20 other states.
Politics is in Lawrence’s bloodstream and he expects to run again, but not for the State House. He started in politics with his focus on Washington and it remains there, unchanged by a landslide loss to Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in November.
Despite that loss, Lawrence said he remains a viable candidate for federal office. “I think we ran a good race. We got a third of the vote running against an institution like Olympia Snowe. I have compared running against her to driving on ice. The harder you try, the more you fall behind,” he said.
The Blaine House has no appeal to Lawrence. “We have a slew of cadidates from both parties running for governor,” he said. But another lesson that Lawrence has learned in politics is to “never say never.”