AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine House Republicans, who will be in the majority for the first time in three decades during the upcoming 2011-12 legislative session, nominated veteran Rep. Robert Nutting on Friday to be the chamber's presiding officer.
The day started with a five-way race for speaker. After a series of votes — including one in which Nutting tied with Rep. Paul Davis of Sangerville — Nutting emerged as the GOP caucus choice.
"I am humbled beyond words," Nutting told the caucus moments after his nomination was announced. "This is an awesome thing, and I can't thank you enough."
Nutting, a pharmacist from Oakland, is about to begin his sixth House term. He served two terms as a member of the Appropriations Committee, which will play a central role in dealing with a huge, looming state budget shortfall in the months ahead.
While saying the Republicans finally had a majority "after years of asking," he warned caucus members that voters will now expect action if the GOP is to remain in control in the years ahead.
"They'll be watching for the next two years," said Nutting. Republicans campaigned on promises to ease regulations, stop government growth and oppose tax increases.
Voting for a speaker and other GOP House leaders came on top of good news for Republicans, who recaptured the House majority on Nov. 2 for the first time since 1972. House Republicans bolstered their numbers Friday by one seat as Rep. Michael Willette of Presque Isle announced he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Maine's House of Representatives now has 78 Republicans, 72 Democrats and one independent.
"This was not an easy decision," said Willette, who was re-elected last week to his second term in the Legislature. Willette said he's been convinced that Republicans have the clearest vision for an economic recovery.
The other two speaker candidates were Reps. Andre Cushing of Hampden and Meredith Strang Burgess of Cumberland. A fifth candidate, Rep. Stacy Fitts of Pittsfield, dropped out of the race before Friday's voting.
Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage addressed the caucus briefly, saying he looks forward to working with leadership and members in what's widely expected to be a difficult session.
"The state of affairs in the state is in pretty tough shape ... upside down," said LePage. "Well, it's our job to put it right side up."
The GOP House caucus also chose Rep. Philip Curtis of Madison as majority leader. Curtis, who served as assistant minority leader during the last session, defeated Rep. Kathleen Chase of Wells for the post. In the race for assistant majority leader, Cushing defeated Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon.
The full House will formally elect a new speaker after newly elected representatives are sworn in Dec. 1.