Janet Mills’ mission: Break yet another glass ceiling

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Democratic candidate for governor Janet Mills, the state’s attorney general, greets supporters at the South Portland home of State Rep. Lois Reckitt on Sept. 8. Described by her brother Peter as “an incredible fighter,” she defeated six opponents to win her party’s nomination in June. (Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald)

FARMINGTON — In the summer of 1948, Margaret Chase Smith had reason to celebrate. The four-term congresswoman had just defeated a former governor and the sitting governor to win the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, which in those days meant she was all but certain to become the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.

She finished her campaign activities one day in Farmington, then joined two of her closest friends on the porch of their home, holding their 6-month-old baby on her lap while sharing her triumph over the establishment wing of the state’s ruling party and the shattering of a very high glass ceiling.

She couldn’t have predicted that the baby in her lap would shatter some of her own, growing up to be Maine’s first female criminal prosecutor, the first female district attorney in New England, the first female attorney general of Maine, and a co-founder of the Maine Women’s Lobby. Along the way she would head the Maine Prosecutors Association, serve three terms in the Legislature, and remain a lifelong friend of Sen. Smith.

Now, after winning a seven-way primary, Janet Mills is the Democratic nominee for governor, an office her Republican brother twice sought, and which, 70 years after Smith’s Senate victory, a woman has yet to occupy. She has campaigned to expand Medicaid, food assistance to children and fiber-optic internet lines; to increase investments in research and development and meet the state’s funding obligations to school districts; to expand opioid treatment options and make the anti-overdose drug Narcan widely available; and to repair the tattered relationship between Augusta and Maine’s tribal communities. The only public poll of the four-way race, released Aug. 8, has her neck and neck with Republican nominee Shawn Moody.

“There is one thing that needs to be said: She is a hell of a lot tougher than anybody estimates,” says Peter Mills, her eldest brother. “Janet is an incredible fighter, better than my dad, and he was one tough cookie.”

A POLITICAL LEGACY

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Janet Trafton Mills was born into an influential Farmington political family on Dec. 30, 1947, the third child of Sumner Peter Mills Jr. and the former Katherine Louise Coffin.Her mother grew up on a potato farm in the Aroostook County town of Ashland, where both of Janet’s grandparents had served as town clerk. While they had struggled during the Great Depression, they were able to send their eldest son to Bowdoin and George Washington University Law School, and he ultimately became the head of the Law Library at the Library of Congress. Janet’s mother went to Colby, and taught English at Wilton Academy and later Mt. Blue High School.

Her father was the namesake son of a lawyer and two-term state senator from Stonington who relocated to his wife’s hometown of Farmington in 1911, after the Penobscot Bay granite industry had collapsed. At the time of Janet’s birth, S. Peter Mills Jr. was the Republican floor leader in the Maine House, where he was one of only a handful of sitting lawmakers who bucked his party’s establishment to support Congresswoman Smith’s Senate campaign.

“The other major candidates represented the establishment: Pierce Atwood, the railroads, Verrill Dana, the power companies,” says family historian Paul Mills, Janet’s younger brother, who practiced law with their father until the latter’s death in 2001 and says Smith was an aunt-like figure in his family. “There were darn few people of his stature supporting her, so there was this strong bond that held them together.”

That bond – which originated in the friendship between their father and Smith’s late husband, Clyde Smith, who preceded her as U.S. representative – propelled the elder Mills’ career and, by extension, helped advance his own children’s political prospects. It was Smith who persuaded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to appoint Janet’s father U.S. attorney for Maine in 1953 and backed his reappointment in 1968, when another Republican, Richard Nixon, was seated in the Oval Office. The Mills family, in turn, campaigned for her, with Janet distributing her fliers while still in elementary school.

“Smith was always a role model for me growing up,” Mills told a reporter in 2009. “She was a woman of both grit and integrity who held high public office with grace and vision. She held her ground and didn’t take any grief from anyone, even from presidents and foreign leaders.”

‘QUIET, UNASSUMING KID’

The family lived in Gorham during their father’s first, nine-year stint as U.S. attorney to shorten his commute to Portland. Janet finished elementary and middle school there, while her older brother, Peter, attended Gorham High School and – it being a small state – hung out with his friends at the junkyard owned by the future stepfather of current Republican gubernatorial nominee Shawn Moody.

Peter remembers Janet as a quiet, deferential kid growing up, possibly because she was younger and smaller than her classmates – she started kindergarten at 4 because her mother had already taught her to read and write – but also because their parents were so voluble.

“My mother was an English teacher, and my father was a trial lawyer, and I remember a childhood in which the kids didn’t get a word in edgewise,” he recalls. “Janet was a quiet, unassuming young girl, and I don’t remember her being active in politics or anything else in school.”

For a year of her life, she couldn’t so much as move. At 14, she was sent to Delaware’s Albert DuPont Hospital for Children for two surgeries to correct her scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that, left untreated, can be disabling. The procedures left her in a body cast for the better part of the year, confined to a bed in the living room where tutors came to give her school lessons. Her father later described her as a “stoic and courageous patient.”

For a Farmington High School contest, she memorized Smith’s most famous speech, the Declaration of Conscience, in which the senator denounced Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagoguery, saying she did not want her party to “ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.” Smith was a regular visitor to their house and hosted the Mills family at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, when they visited Washington. Janet recalls the senator telling her “if you’re going to survive in politics, you mustn’t be gullible.”

But while politics and political role models swirled around her, Mills wanted nothing to do with it. “I absolutely did not aspire to be in politics or to be a lawyer – maybe the opposite at times,” she recalls. On graduating from high school in 1965, she had no idea what she wanted to do.

Following her parents’ wishes, Mills enrolled at their alma mater, Colby College. She hated it.

“Both my parents had gone to Colby, ’34 and ’39, and it was only 38 miles from my house, and they kept showing up,” she told an interviewer for the Bates College Muskie Oral History Collection in 1999. “You know, if I’d go to a fraternity party after the football game and try to have fun … my father and mother would walk in the door.”

Women also faced a battery of restrictive rules about where, when, what and with whom they could spend their time that were not imposed on their male counterparts. “It was a double standard, and it felt confining,” she says. “So I dropped out after a year and a half.”

NAVIGATING THE ’60s

It was 1967, the Vietnam War and a cultural revolution were raging. Mills moved to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love,” then to Boston, where she worked as a nursing assistant at a psychiatric hospital and, in 1969, enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a 4-year-old institution operating out of leased downtown office buildings. She joined the school’s first junior year abroad program, spending the 1970-71 academic year in Paris. She backpacked through Western Europe as it was undergoing its own youth-driven cultural revolution, and became fluent in French, which turned into her major.

“There was a lot of stuff going on in the ’60s that encouraged my somewhat rebellious nature, and the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War were very much a factor in my development,” she recalls. “There were a lot of things that needed fixing, and it was a time that was the opposite of apathy, a time of deep involvement, socially, emotionally and politically. And I became a Democrat.”

She also was edging closer to a legal career. On returning from Paris, she took up with an old boyfriend who lived in Cambridge and followed him to Washington, where she worked for two years at a law firm specializing in intellectual property, first as a receptionist, then secretary, and finally as a paralegal when the partners realized she could professionally translate French patent documents. “I saw all these guys – they were all guys – lawyers making money, and I was doing all the work,” she told the Bates interviewer in 1999. “I thought, gee, that doesn’t seem right. I could do that, and I could have the title too.”

Meanwhile, her relationship had taken a dark turn. “He was a lovable, intelligent, good-looking alcoholic, and when he was drinking he played with guns,” she says. “I was going to save him because, yeah, that always works!” One night he fell into a drunken rage and held a loaded gun to her head. She left him that night, returning to the apartment only once to dismantle his weapons and dispose of his stock of ammunition. “I didn’t want him hurting anyone else,” she says. “I never saw him again.”

For years, her father had urged her to come back to Maine and enroll at the University of Maine School of Law, where Peter was about to graduate. In the fall of 1973 she finally agreed.

“I think she’d had trouble in her mid-20s and was uncertain about who she was, and our dad helped her make the decision to go to law school, financially helped her, and brought her back to Maine,” Peter says. “She’s a fierce contender, as a debater or when she engages in a discussion, and that ability really came to the fore after that.”

Mills had found her calling.

BUDDING LAWYER, ACTIVIST

She excelled in law school, serving as editor of the Maine Law Review, developing the school’s first seminar on gender discrimination, and interning at the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, where she helped try criminal cases. As the Watergate scandal boiled in the summer of 1974 she interned for legendary civil rights attorney Charles Morgan at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, and then for pioneering women’s rights attorney Marcia Greenberger at the Center for Law and Social Policy the following summer.

In 1974 Mills was standing in line at Portland High School to vote in a Democratic Party caucus. Standing behind her in line were state senator (and future governor) Joe Brennan and attorney George Mitchell (who would become U.S. Senate majority leader). “They were laughing about my enrolling as a Democrat, saying, ‘If your father only knew,’ ” she later recalled. In reality, they had been more perturbed when she dropped out of Colby and bee-lined for the Golden Gate Bridge. “After that, nothing could shock them.”

“It was a very vibrant and socially progressive atmosphere, and many of the professors encouraged people to air different points of view,” says law school classmate Barbara Alexander, an environmental activist who’d helped organize the first Earth Day in 1970. “The doors were open for us as women, but what was on the other side was still a little bit of an unknown situation.”

She graduated in 1976, passed the state bar exam, and was hired by Brennan, who had become attorney general the year before. She was the first woman ever assigned to the criminal division of the AG’s Office, and ultimately tried a dozen murder cases, earning the respect of her boss. “Janet was smart, hard-working, a strong leader,” Brennan recalls. “I tried to appoint the ablest people I could find.”

Press Herald columnist Bill Caldwell interviewed her for a November 1978 profile with the unfortunate headline “The prosecutor wore pale powder blue,” just after she’d attended the sentencing of a man who’d shot his wife to death. “I like prosecuting murder trials the best,” she told him. “I like criminal law more than civil law. I prefer dealing with people rather than with stocks, ledgers, corporate paper.”

She continued to champion women’s issues, and was a member of Maine’s delegation at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, a federally sponsored meeting charged with developing a national action plan for President Jimmy Carter. “She could not have escaped from this conference and its Maine follow-ups without having feminism as a core of her belief system, and I define ‘feminism’ as the radical notion that women are people too,” says fellow attendee Lois Galgay Reckitt, who later was one of the founders the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBTQ advocacy group.

After the conference, Reckitt, Mills, and the late women’s rights activist Linda Smith Dyer met in Mills’ Portland apartment to sketch out the plan for what became the Maine Women’s Lobby. “We realized that key decisions were being made in the (Legislature’s) appropriations committee about funding things that were crucial to Maine women’s rights and health, and if you didn’t have a full-time lobbyist in the room, then your views weren’t taken into account as much as those who did,” recalls Alexander, one of the group’s charter board members. “Janet was one of the driving forces in making that happen.”

PERSECUTED PROSECUTOR?

“I’m sure some people are and some groups are aware that I have previously expressed interest in various ‘women’s issues’ such as rape and domestic violence, and they may contact me as opposed to someone else because of that background – not because I’m a woman prosecutor,” she told the Maine Sunday Telegram that September. “You don’t have to be a woman to be concerned about women’s issues. And at the same time, those areas are certainly not my exclusive concern.”

In 1980, Mills got a big break. Her former boss, Joe Brennan, was now governor, and appointed her to finish out the term of Thomas Delahanty, the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, who had been appointed U.S. Attorney by President Carter. She was the first female district attorney in New England’s history, and would be elected to four terms over the next 14 years.

Mills took up tennis and wound up dating her instructor, Stanley Kuklinski, a widower with five daughters aged 4 to 16. They were married in August 1985. “I learned a lot about love and relationships and child rearing, of course,” Mills recalls.

“I mean, I was a career woman and their mother had been pretty much a stay-at-home homemaker, and I was quite a bit different from her, so that was an adjustment for all of us. But we are all good friends.” The couple moved to Wilton, where Stan became a real estate developer. (Stan died in September 2014 from the aftereffects of a stroke at age 73.)

In the summer of 1990, Mills was one of three district attorneys who spoke out against the actions of the new Bureau of Intergovernmental Drug Enforcement, or BIDE, later renamed the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. The federal-state agency, they said, was targeting small-time street dealers to boost their tally of arrests, allowing major suppliers to stay in business. The dispute was politically charged, as Republican Gov. John McKernan – up for re-election against Brennan – was using the arrest figures in his campaign commercials.

Then, in December 1990, her world was shaken. Citing “law enforcement leaks,” television station WCSH reported BIDE was investigating Mills for alleged drug use and abuse of office, resulting in the convening of a grand jury.

Mills, furious, demanded an explanation from U.S. Attorney Richard Cohen, a Republican, who refused to confirm or deny anything. The confidential investigation made newspaper front pages for more than a year, with sources saying investigators had asked them questions about Mills’ sex life, while Cohen proclaimed he would not be “intimidated by self-proclaimed influential people.” The Telegram editorial board demanded an independent probe of BIDE, while lawmakers held hearings grilling the agency’s overseers on its behavior.

“It’s scary,” Mills told the Press Herald in November 1991. “Maine apparently has a secret police force at work that can ruin the reputation of any who oppose it.”

A month later, Cohen announced the probe was complete and no charges would be filed. Legislators denied John Atwood, who oversaw BIDE as commissioner of public safety, his first judicial appointment because he’d overseen the case (he later joined the bench), while a special probe supervised by Cohen’s Democratic successor was unable to determine if federal agents at BIDE had acted improperly, because they declined to cooperate.

“It felt like people were acting outside the rule of law, outside the justice system as I knew it,” says Mills, who subsequently learned the initial allegations had come from drug dealers she’d prosecuted. “I generally place my faith in the justice system, and that faith was gradually being shaken.”

PUBLIC TO PRIVATE AND BACK

By 1994, Mills was ready for a change, tried politics, and in a few months earned herself what she sardonically called “a reverse hat trick.” In the early spring she sought to succeed 2nd District Rep. Olympia Snowe but lost the Democratic primary to John Baldacci. Through the summer and fall she co-chaired Brennan’s gubernatorial campaign, which lost to independent Angus King. In December she sought to be selected attorney general by the Legislature but came in second.

In the new year, she joined her brother Peter’s Skowhegan-based law firm, commuting from her and Stan’s home in Wilton and, later Strong. She remained for 14 years.

In 2002 Mills decided to run for a state House seat her father had once occupied. “I missed the public policy aspect of what goes on in Augusta and I felt I could do it,” she recalls. “The seat was open, so I ran.” She won and was thrice re-elected, serving on the judiciary and appropriations committees at a time when Democrats still dominated the State House.

In December 2008, her legislative colleagues elected her attorney general, a position she’s occupied ever since, save for 2011-12, when Republicans controlled the House. During that break, she worked for Preti Flaherty’s litigation group and served as vice chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party. In 2009 she received the Maine Bar Association’s Caroline Glassman Award for removing the barriers to advance women in the profession.

Her time as attorney general was marked by public disagreements with Republican Gov. Paul LePage. She’s declined to represent his (unsuccessful) federal appeal of a ruling that prevented him from cutting the Medicaid benefits of 6,000 young adults; to defend his administration when it was sued over an effort to block reimbursements for General Assistance payments made by municipalities to asylum seekers; and to fight a suit connected with his possibly unlawful closure of a Washington County correctional facility. He sued her for joining a legal effort to provide protection to young immigrants facing deportation; last month she threatened to sue him for withholding $4.9 million in legislatively approved funds from her office.

LePage has accused her of “abuse of power” for not representing him, and called for her to resign from her post while she runs for office. “You are clearly not doing the job as attorney general for the people of Maine … and it appears you are using your office as a campaign headquarters,” he wrote Mills on Aug. 6.

They’ve also clashed over how to respond to the opioid crisis. When LePage vetoed a bill to provide law enforcement officers with the overdose antidote Narcan, Mills underwrote its distribution via funds from court settlements that are controlled by her office.

CLASHES AND RESPONSES

After she was re-elected attorney general by the Legislature at the end of 2014, LePage denied her the usual public ceremony, swearing her into office behind closed doors.

Mills also earned the ire of some tribal members and their allies while defending the state from a federal suit by the Penobscot Nation challenging the state’s assertion that the tribe has no special rights in the main stem of the river that bears its name. Mills also fended off a tribal challenge to Maine’s regulatory jurisdiction in a successful suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had ruled the state needed stricter water quality standards in the river to ensure fish there were safe for subsistence consumption by tribal members. While speaking at an anti-Trump rally in June 2017, she was interrupted by a dozen Penobscot protesters bearing signs and a banner denouncing her stances.

“We’ve been very clear in our communications with her that it’s problematic the way the (historic 1980 Indian land claims) Settlement Act has been interpreted and used against the tribes, and I think she has an understanding of that,” says the Penobscot Nation’s tribal ambassador to Maine and other governments, Maulian Dana. She nonetheless credits Mills for showing up at a gubernatorial candidate forum on the Penobscots’ Indian Island reservation in April; neither independent candidate showed up, she said, and eventual Republican nominee Moody never responded to the invitation. “I do think she’s trying, whether it’s from personal altruism or because she’s under a certain amount of pressure. But she has been more responsive, certainly, than the Republican candidate.”

Mills says the conflicts with LePage and the Penobscot Nation may have had a high profile but aren’t the best representations of her work as attorney general.

“Those things made the headlines, but I personally spent more of my time on consumer issues, multi-state litigation to protect consumers and the elderly, and natural resource matters,” she says.

“Since Trump’s election, the focus of litigation has changed dramatically, as we work with other states to protect due process and rule of law in education, immigration, health and welfare, and the environment. We feel in many instances the Trump administration has not complied with the rule of law and has done things to harm the safety and health of Maine people.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

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