Janet Mills had nearly finished her victory lap, of sorts, through the breakfast crowd at Portland’s Becky’s Diner on Wednesday morning when a patron thanked the governor-elect for “giving all of us so much hope and for your courage.”
“We are so excited,” the woman said as she embraced Mills.
A little more than eight hours earlier, Mills had learned she was the last person standing out of a field of gubernatorial hopefuls that once numbered in the dozens. The Farmington resident also became the first woman elected governor in Maine’s 198-year history.
Speaking to reporters outside Becky’s — a waterfront establishment that’s become a mandatory campaign stop for statewide candidates — Mills acknowledged that it all felt somewhat unreal Wednesday morning. Unofficial election results show Mills maintaining an 8-point advantage over Republican businessman Shawn Moody with independent Terry Hayes trailing in single digits.
Yet Mills was excited about turning campaign goals into accomplishments when she replaces Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Jan. 2.
“Health care is the No. 1 priority,” Mills said, her voice sounding a bit hoarse after a late night. “We are going to work very hard on Medicaid expansion, No. 1. … And the opiate epidemic: We’ve got to tackle that now. No more waiting. We’ve lost thousands of lives in the last few years. When nearly 1,000 babies are born last year affected by drugs, we can’t stop. We can’t drag our feet any more.”
Wednesday kicked off a months-long transition in Augusta that brings a return to Democratic rule of the State House after eight years of the LePage administration and a divided Legislature for the past four. Democrats flipped enough seats to gain control of the Maine Senate and to expand their majority in the House, meaning the Blaine House and Legislature will be in Democratic hands for the first time in nearly a decade.
“I expect it will be important in getting our agenda accomplished, especially the first priorities of health care … the opioid epidemic, renewable energy, and moving the state forward when it comes to renewables and addressing climate change,” Mills said. “I know we share those principles and I know many Republicans do, too. Those aren’t necessarily partisan issues, so I have some hope about getting the agenda through.”
The Mills campaign did not release any specifics Wednesday. But if the past is an indication, she is likely to set up an advisory commission to help identify individuals to fill the 15 Cabinet-level department head positions and other appointed slots within her administration.
LePage stacked his 35-member transition advisory team in 2010 with members of the business community, which was no surprise given his business background and campaign platform. Some governors-elect ask department commissioners to stay on into their administration, although several of LePage’s Cabinet members already have left.
Asked about assembling her Cabinet, Mills said she did not have a “specific plan.”
“But I am ready to go on day one and ready to start today, getting the best ideas from all of the people of Maine … for how to put a new administration together,” Mills said.
A TRUE BLUE WAVE IN MAINE
Mills, 70, proudly describes herself as a lifelong public servant after eight years as attorney general and a dozen as district attorney for Franklin, Androscoggin and Oxford counties. A member of a prominent political family in the Farmington area, she also served three terms in the Legislature before being elected attorney general for the first time in 2008.
She defeated six other Democratic contenders for her party’s nomination in June in the nation’s first ranked-choice voting retabulation in a statewide election.
On the campaign trail, Mills hit such bedrock Democratic issues as health care, access to abortion and fighting discrimination against the LGBTQ community. And she clearly benefited from a “blue wave” that brought out Democratic and left-leaning voters in droves.
Early analysis of voter participation rates by the Portland Press Herald showed high turnout in southern and coastal areas that typically vote Democratic and lower turnout in many rural, more conservative areas of the state.
In Portland, Maine’s largest city, Mills received 78.8 percent of the vote versus 17.1 percent for Moody and 4.1 percent for Hayes. She also captured more than 65 percent of the vote in Kittery, South Portland, Freeport, Yarmouth, Brunswick, Camden, Belfast, Orono and Bar Harbor.
Moody, on the other hand, won throughout interior, central and northern Maine. He carried many of the communities around his hometown of Gorham — such as Windham, Buxton, Standish, Hollis and Limington — with more than 55 percent of the vote.
(Interactive maps of town-by-town election results are available at pressherald.com/politics.)
The four candidates for governor on the ballot Tuesday — Mills, Moody, Hayes and independent Alan Caron, who dropped out last week but endorsed Mills — ran largely civil campaigns. With eight years of legislative service plus another eight as attorney general, Mills ran a policy-oriented campaign while pledging to bring a more collaborative and compassionate approach to Augusta than LePage brought.
She made Medicaid expansion, health care and the opioid crisis focal points of her campaign. But she also proposed creating a “one-stop shop” small business accelerator for start-up businesses, improving Maine’s broadband infrastructure, using grants and loans to stimulate job growth and improving technical education to fill a skills gap.
She also regularly discussed the challenges facing Maine from climate change — especially its impacts on the state’s commercial fisheries — and promised to work to expand renewable energy after eight years under a governor who has openly worked to undermine wind and solar energy development in Maine.
GLASS CEILING SHATTERED
The margin of Mills’ victory over Moody — the founder of a chain of auto body repair shops who campaigned on improving Maine’s business climate — came as a surprise to many. For Democrats, it was a much-needed victory after two disappointing losses to LePage as well as President Donald Trump’s capture of one Electoral College vote in Maine by winning the 2nd Congressional District.
“Who thinks this has been a heck of a party?” a fired-up Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, yelled to a fired-up crowd of Mills supporters moments before her victory speech early Wednesday morning. “Just you wait until she gets to the Blaine House. It’s going to be an amazing party for every single person, as she is never going to miss a day of making sure that you are represented, that there is an open door and that every single one of us has a say in the future of the state of Maine.”
Among the crowd early Wednesday was Betsy Sweet, a veteran advocate and lobbyist in Augusta who has known Mills for decades. A former director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, which Mills co-founded in the 1990s, Sweet was one of three other women who competed against Mills for the Democratic nomination last spring.
But on Wednesday, Sweet said she was happier than she had been in the past eight years to see voters elect an experienced, policy-oriented candidate who will bring “understanding and hope” to the Blaine House.
“I was just so thrilled for the people of Maine and especially for the women and girls of Maine who have finally been able to break that glass ceiling that has existed for all of our history,” Sweet said Wednesday afternoon. “To see that brought tears to my eyes. And for my three daughters, I know it was huge for them to know that women can not only run, but can also win.”
Being elected governor is actually the third glass ceiling Mills has broken. She was Maine’s first female attorney general and the first female district attorney in New England.
Mills acknowledged the historical significance of her victory Wednesday, but as she frequently did on the campaign trail she also sought to avoid making it a focal point of her bid for governor.
“I’d like to think I am the most qualified person for the job, first and foremost,” Mills said outside Becky’s Diner. “And I’d like to think that every girl in Maine can think of herself as being governor, president, or taking up whatever trade or whatever career or whatever choice she makes and being able to accomplish what she desires in her heart.”
Janet Mills, center, poses for a selfie with Leah Burns of South Portland, left, and Doris Santoro of Portland at Becky’s Diner on Wednesday. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)