April 8, 2011

Sen. Barry Hobbins in his office at the State House photo by Ramona du Houx

Senator Barry Hobbins, a lawyer from Saco, is the lead Democrat serving in Augusta. He’s been involved in public service since the ’70s. In his career he has led the Democratic Party and once ran for Congress. He is currently the minority leader of the Maine state Senate. He recently sat down to talk about working with a Republican administration.

The LePage proposals seem so radically different from Democratic ideals. How do you resolve those issues?

We have to find common ground on many issues. But there are fundamental issues that are so entrenched in Democratic roots and principles — of social justice and equality, and of being stewards of the environment, that we simply have to continue to uphold them to the best of our abilities. It’s the right and only thing to do.

We will be realistic with regard to permitting and licensing. We will accept changes that make it more efficient and effective, but we won’t allow Maine to regress to the time when our rivers were polluted and our forests were stripped from clearcutting. We will not regress back to where we were in reproductive freedom. We will not give up collective bargaining rights that enable workers to get better wages and working conditions. These are fundamental issues we are going to stand up for.

There are many instances where the language the LePage administration uses in its proposals has constitutional scholars saying certain provisions are unconstitutional — both in Maine’s Constitution and in the U.S. Constitution. What will you do about that?

At some point we might need court action if he has violated Constitutional tenants. We will have to review the documents if rights have been violated.

But it is incumbent to remember that nothing has been done so far. We are in the middle of the budget process. I’m confident that the budget proposal that is being worked on now will not be the final budget. People are taking their stories to the Appropriations Committee, testifying. They are sharing their stories of how the proposal affects them and their communities directly. Their lives and livelihoods will remain our chief concern.

But we do have limited funds. It’s very difficult. There will be shared sacrifices. We have to make sure that one sector of society is not unfairly asked to take on more of the burden than others. Our public servants and teachers dedicate their lives to help all the people of Maine; they deserve to be treated with respect.

Gov. LePage signed an executive order creating a special committee to advise him on business. The order exempts the business advisory council from the state’s Freedom of Access Act, which means its meetings and records will not be open to the public. What are you doing about that?

I wrote a letter to the governor voicing my concerns. I commend the governor for forming the council and offered to help, but I am concerned that what we have here is a shadow government forming — one where we don’t know who is involved or what’s on their agenda.

Forty years ago, the Maine Legislature was the first in the nation to enact a freedom of access law. Denying Maine people a right to know what is going on in their state is not in keeping with the spirit of the way Maine people do business.

We want transparency in government. We don’t want issues talked about in secrecy.

Maine is noted for bipartisan budgets, but this current budget proposal is targeting areas that democratic legislators feel strongly about. How do you find working with LePage?

I respect the office of the governor. I’m trying to build a relationship with him. It’s very important to have a working relationship. I’m a consensus builder. But I will not hesitate to constructively criticize him, when I feel he’s not going down the right route.

Democrats are not obstructionists. We want to progress with our own agenda and not just react to the administration’s proposals. We have to offer solutions. We are working with different stakeholder groups to hold back the attack that is going on regarding basic human rights and the environment.

All major economists say the economy won’t grow without investment. There are certain areas where the state and federal government invest, like infrastructure, because the private sector doesn’t. LePage has said he doesn’t want to bond. What about progressives?

We are going to continue to promote Land For Maine’s Future bonds, transportation infrastructure bonds, and research and development bonds. We have to continue to make investments in education as well. We simply can’t afford to regress.

Last session, we passed a bond package which created about 3,000 jobs. We need to continue that process, otherwise we will fall behind. Bonding is a prudent, long-term investment. Bonding is like buying a house. If everyone waited until they had enough money to purchase a home, the majority of people would never own their own homes.

What about Maine’s emerging clean-energy economy?

The last six years we have made great strides in renewable energies. We are a model for the country when it comes to ocean energy, onshore and offshore wind energy. We are way ahead of the curve in those areas, producing 95 percent of New England’s wind energy.

Wind jobs, created temporarily or long-term, have come by developing our renewable energy sources. I hope the governor will continue in that direction — especially now with energy costs going up and up.

We cannot continue to use fossil fuels like we do. Unfortunately, we’ve had another wake-up call in Libya and the Middle East. We cannot rely on an energy source that’s controlled by politically volatile countries.

We have laid the groundwork and the infrastructure. We interfaced the University of Maine with entrepreneurial individuals who are developing these renewable resources. There are companies using the composite technologies developed at UMaine. These new businesses are creating jobs.

I hope we can have that vision to keep the momentum going.

Democrats took a “shellacking,” as President Obama said, in the last election. Do you think, in Maine, Democrats got too complacent?

Yes. Now it’s time to fight back. We call ourselves the Mighty Fourteen of the Senate.

Democrats have a huge responsibility. I think its harder being the minority party. We want to empower people who are in communities across the state, so they know that their grassroots efforts make a difference. I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party. I’m confident we can turn things around in 2012.

In 2012 the Mighty Fourteen will become eighteen. We are the party of the people, of workers, of jobs, of the environment, and human rights. We believe in and fight for equal opportunity and justice for all. We need to get that basic message out to the people of Maine.