Gov. Paul LePage has nominated a former Democratic lawmaker to become the state’s next public advocate for utility customers.
Saco attorney Barry Hobbins has been tapped for the post currently held by Timothy Schneider, whose chances of getting another four-year term were doomed after he angered the governor for attempting to broker a deal on a landmark solar bill.
The governor picked Schneider for the public advocate post four years ago and seemed pleased with the Portland attorney’s work on behalf of Maine utility customers, until last year.
That’s when Schneider supported a bill aimed at balancing a call to expand the state’s solar portfolio with easing the effects on the ratepayers whose energy bills help subsidize the industry.
“That’s the thing I know that he’s publicly expressed that he’s not happy with me about,” he says.
LePage blasted the bill and he worked hard to make sure it was defeated. Along the way, he described Schneider’s appointment in 2013 as one of the “worst decisions” he has made as governor.
Undaunted, Schneider continued to support the bill, which died after House Republicans helped sustain LePage’s veto last session.
Schneider says he knew the solar bill might cost him, but he felt the proposal was in the best interest of ratepayers.
“The office is independent, which means we can take positions that the governor doesn’t agree with,” he says. “I took that independence seriously, so I knew if we took a position that the governor did not support, this was a risk.”
While Schneider’s fate seemed sealed last year, his successor was unknown until Friday.
Barry Hobbins has served 13 terms in the Legislature, where he forged a reputation as a dealmaker. He also served on the Energy and Utilities Committee, the same panel that will vet his nomination as public advocate.
Hobbins is also known as one of the few Democrats with a working relationship with the governor. He has been critical of Democrats for their withering criticism of LePage.
That stance, as well as his failed bid to become speaker of the House in 2015, put him out of favor with some members of his own party.
Last year, Hobbins attempted to take a vacant Senate seat, but was defeated by Sen. Justin Chenette in the Democratic primary. During that campaign, the governor spoke fondly of Hobbins, advocacy that may have actually hurt the Democrat more than it helped.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hobbins would serve a four-year term.
In a press release, LePage praised Hobbins and blasted the state’s energy policies. He made no mention of Schneider.