AUGUSTA – Mike Saxl never intended to have a career in politics.
The Portland Democrat, who is presiding as House speaker over a healthy Democratic majority in the Legislature this session, had always planned to be a country lawyer.
After graduation from Bowdoin College, Saxl moved to Portland to attend the University of Maine School of Law. He worked in the Legislature as a staff member for the Senate majority leader, but never intended to run for office.
It was the chance appointment of then-state Rep. James Oliver to the Peace Corps in 1994 that put Saxl on the road to Augusta.
When a special election was called to replace Oliver, Saxl was in his second year of law school. He called several prominent Democrats to urge them to run. Instead, they urged him to run. His mother, Jane Saxl, who was in the Legislature at the time, also said he should run.
“I didn’t have a lot on my plate at the time, so I figured that if no one else ran, I would serve a term or two,” Mike Saxl said.
He managed to win the race, just edging party activist Dave Garrity.
Once in the House, Saxl moved up quickly. “It is my nature to focus, work hard and try to do a good job,” Saxl said.
Then-Speaker Libby Mitchell urged him to seek a leadership post. He praised Mitchell as well as former Speakers Dan Gwadosky and Steven Rowe as “wonderful people who supported me and taught me.”
He credits term limits for his rise through the ranks to leadership. He calls himself “the greatest beneficiary of term limits in the state, if not the country.” But he continues to oppose term limits for their effect on leadership and experience.
“We have lost some wonderful people and wonderful speakers – Libby Mitchell, Dan Gwadosky, Steven Rowe. They all should have had the opportunity to continue,” he said.
Saxl, a 32-year-old bachelor, will be removed by term limits in 2002.
When Saxl took over the speaker’s gavel on Dec. 6, he spoke glowingly of his parents as inspirations for his life and political career. His mother was removed from the House by term limits and just lost a Senate race. His father, Joseph, was credited with reforming the Bangor Mental Health Institute by taking the bars off the windows, bringing dignity to the health care delivery system, and gaining accreditation for the facility, his son said.
“He was a wonderful person and a role model for me. He lived every day to the fullest and fought for what he believed in. He died at age 45 and obviously was a huge factor in shaping me,” he said.
Saxl’s role as leader of the House during the 120th Legislature will be complicated by an estimated $200 million to $250 million budget shortfall between anticipated revenues and expenditures.
“We will have a limited set of resources and we will have to set our priorities carefully,” he said.
Democrats hold an 89-61-1 majority in the House. The Senate is split 17-17-1. Saxl said he has worked well with House Minority Leader Joseph Bruno of Raymond and Assistant Minority Leader William J. Schneider of Durham, and he expects a minimum of partisanship in the session, which started in earnest last week.
The speaker will focus on health care and education in the session along with the persistent problem of violence against women and children, which he called “the only real criminal justice issue before the Legislature.”
Though the Legislature soundly rejected three gun bills during the last session, Saxl expects additional legislation will come before the House this session. He said Citizens Against Handguns and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine already have sat down to discuss possible common ground on the issue of gun safety.
“Maybe we can get past the rhetoric and limit shootings and gun accidents if all the people involved can work together,” Saxl said.