AUGUSTA (AP) — With her two young children and belongings packed in a car, Libby Mitchell and her husband Jim headed to Maine, where his new state government job awaited. Mitchell never dreamed that four decades later, she would be an election away from becoming the state’s first female governor after carving out her own public service career.
A lot’s happened since her arrival in 1971.
Besides raising a family, Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell became the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, then its first female speaker. Later, she gained the distinction of being the first woman in America to serve as a legislative House speaker and Senate president.
Self-effacing and bubbling with enthusiasm and charm, Mitchell, 70, downplays all that and looks ahead to her next quest: governor. The Vassalboro Democrat faces Republican Paul LePage and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott in the race to be decided Nov. 2.
With more than two decades in the Legislature — currently as the No. 2 elected state official as Senate president — plus experience on public finance and housing boards and agencies, Mitchell says she’s the best fit for chief executive. She’s undaunted by a looming budget deficit that could amount to $1 billion, saying she’s been through that before.
“It’s not going to be easy. But I’m someone who understands government, who makes sure the cuts are strategic and the investments are strategic, rather than just saying we’re going to cut state government. I don’t even know what that means,” Mitchell said in an interview at her law office in Augusta.
Mitchell said a variety of factors and influences brought her from her youth in Gaffney, a small city in South Carolina, to a step from becoming Maine’s first woman governor.
The daughter of a father who was a salesman and a mother who taught in a one-room schoolhouse, Mitchell said politics was part of the family tradition. Her grandfather was sheriff and later became a legislator.
Growing up, she packed peaches in the summer and worked in her parents’ grocery store. She was elected class president and was selected homecoming queen.
Her eyes widened when, as a college student, she spent a summer as a counselor at a Fresh Air camp in upstate New York, where inner-city youths got a taste of rural life.
“That was a game-changer for me in understanding how other people live,” said Mitchell.
She was further influenced by the social changes taking place around her as the civil rights movement unfolded. Mitchell said she’s admired her sister, who as a teacher helped to integrate local schools.
Mitchell graduated from Furman University in South Carolina in 1962, and taught high school English for a couple of years in North Carolina. Feeling a yen for travel and having some knowledge of French, Mitchell went to Switzerland in 1965 to teach at a high school for students living overseas. Mitchell finished master’s degree work the same year from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
She became engaged and married James Mitchell, a Princeton graduate who later served as a Marine in Vietnam. While her husband was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1966-67, she taught at a middle school there.
Both Southerners, they chose Maine for their honeymoon.
“Maine was just a place that seemed very beautiful. Neither of us had been there before,” she said.
The couple later headed back to New England where her husband earned his law degree. Through connections at Yale, James was invited to work as a federal-state coordinator in Maine for then-Gov. Kenneth Curtis. James Mitchell, now a probate judge, and Libby settled on a small farm in Vassalboro, where they raise horses and use their red barn as a big campaign billboard for Libby or her children when they run for office. Of their four grown children, two have served in the Legislature.
In the wake of Watergate in 1974, Libby Mitchell won her first election, for an open seat in the state House of Representatives, starting a five-term skein that saw her rise to majority leader. In 1984, she ran in her first statewide race as she challenged popular Republican U.S. Sen. William Cohen. After a crushing defeat, some questioned Mitchell’s political future.
After a stint as head of the Maine State Housing Authority, Mitchell was back in 1990, this time in a five-way primary race for the 1st District congressional seat. She finished third.
It was back to state politics after that. Mitchell served four more Maine House terms, capping it as speaker in 1997-98. Since 2004, she’s served in the Senate, rising in leadership to the presidency. And after years of making laws, she earned her law degree in 2004 from the University of Maine School of Law.
Almost as a footnote to her resume, Mitchell sat on the select board of Vassalboro from 2000 to 2009.
Her big challenge as a candidate will be the counter her characterization by other candidates that she’s out of the political mainstream — some observers say she’s too liberal — and convince voters she can work across the partisan aisle to solve the state’s problems, said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville.
Ideology aside, Mitchell and LePage are both appealing people, said Maisel, who’s also director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby.
“Those who don’t care about the swamp of partisan politics genuinely like them,” Maisel wrote in an e-mail. “Cutler has not yet made that kind of emotional connection to Mainers.”
Mitchell points to her service as housing authority director from 1986 to 1990, and on the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, a post she held from 1994-2000. Mitchell, who was appointed to the board by then-President Bill Clinton, was the first woman to chair the bank.
Her past as a teacher shines through Mitchell’s legislative portfolio, which includes sponsorship of a bill that made Maine the first state in the country to used state funding to expand the Head Start program. She’s played instrumental roles in difficult budget deliberations amid vanishing revenues and helped guide through bipartisan borrowing plans.
Mitchell faced three other candidates in the gubernatorial primary, two of whom also had significant experience in state government. Mitchell prevailed with the help of an efficient campaign organization and endorsements from such groups as the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine Education Association, not to mention Clinton.