AUGUSTA, Maine - On the Maine Legislature's opening day, partisan lines were drawn in the Republican-led Senate, which rejected a demand from Democrats that would have effectively left the voters of southern Maine's District 25 without a state senator.
In a party-line vote, the Republicans chose to provisionally seat GOP candidate Cathy Manchester, of Gray, as the official winner in the race, which is at the center of controversy following a recount.
Democrats had hoped that Republican Senate leaders would agree not to seat a senator for District 25 while the mystery associated with 21 so-called phantom ballots remains unsolved.
Democrat Cathy Breen, of Falmouth, had initially been declared the winner on election night, with a 32-vote margin of victory over Republican Cathy Manchester. A recount reversed those results, giving Manchester an 11-vote lead, bolstered by 21 ballots from Long Island that the town clerk said were not initially included in the total count.
Breen says she wasn't surprised when Republicans voted 20-14 to provisionally seat Manchester - but she wasn't pleased. "Nobody should be really sitting in that seat," Breen said, at a news conference.
Now the focus of the disputed election moves to the deliberations of the Senate's seven-member Special Election Committee, comprised of Republicans Roger Katz, of Augusta, Thomas Saviello, of Wilton, Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls, and Andre Cushing, of Hampden. Democrats include Dawn Hill, of Cape Neddick, Stan Gerzofsky, of Brunswick, and Bill Diamond, of Windham.
Republicans have the votes to control the mechanics of the probe into the District 25 vote, but Breen says the integrity of voting process is at stake, and she's confident that the panel will do its job.
"I have a lot of confidence in Sen. Diamond and Sen. Gerzofsky and Sen. Hill," Breen said. "I also think the Republican members are taking this very seriously. Sen. Katz has a great reputation as a very fair and middle-of-the-road type of person, so I'm confident that with the questions in front of them, they understand the issues and they understand what is at stake. And I really believe that all of them will take this very seriously."
"Close elections are tough, but you know what?" said Sen. Garrett Mason. "This is the hallmark of our democracy."
Mason, the Senate majority leader, says Republicans chose to provisionally seat Manchester because last month's recount left her as the apparent winner, and to refuse to seat her would have been a distraction from an otherwise celebratory day in the Maine Senate. He says that, while Breen was disappointed, Manchester was also in a difficult spot.
"She's a woman who holds her head high and she did that today," Mason said. "I'm sure it wasn't very comfortable for her to come into the Senate the way that she did."
The Senate Special Election Committee agreed to a number of ground rules during their initial meeting as they outlined the scope of the election review of District 25, which encompasses seven communities. Although nine ballots were contested from other communities, Katz says the Long Island vote should be the panel's primary concern.
"Unless we hear something from my perspective, the focus is only on what happened on Long Island," Katz said. "There are nine ballots in dispute but the margin was 11, so if all of those ballots were decided in favor of the other candidate, it wouldn't make a difference."
Democrats say they want to physically inspect all of the Long Island ballots to see if there are any irregularities that were overlooked during the recount. Democrat Bill Diamond, of Windham, a former secretary of state, says he foresees a thorough review.
"My expectation is that this committee will do whatever it wants to do with no restrictions and no timelines," Diamond said. "And if that includes examining every ballot if we think that we want to do that, then I think that will happen."
But that decision will ultimately be up to majority Republicans when the committee meets again next Tuesday.