Gov. Janet Mills breezed into the Blaine House reception room and took a seat near a sparkling Christmas tree.

It was the night before the arrival of a newly elected Legislature controlled by her fellow Democrats, and Mills was both energized and exhausted. That’s because lawmakers would take up a $474 million emergency heating and energy relief bill that she had spent weeks negotiating with Democratic and Republican leaders since her reelection.

The Legislature doesn’t usually decide big issues on the first day of the session, but it’s not unprecedented. Both sides of the aisle said negotiations would set the tone – and the prospect for bipartisanship – for the next two years. It would take Republican support to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill as an emergency measure.

Mills sounded hopeful, but also a bit uncertain. “We’ll know in a little bit,” Mills said Tuesday during her first extended interview since the election.

The Maine House voted 125-16 in a bipartisan show of support for the bill, which included $450 relief checks, as well as $50 million for home heating assistance and $21 million for emergency housing assistance. But it was short-lived. Senate Republicans blocked passage, leaving both sides in a staredown until the session resumes in January.

It was an early reminder that Mills won’t get everything she wants in a second term. But coming off a convincing reelection victory with a Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature and projected budget surpluses for the foreseeable future, Mills still has the wind at her back.


“The Republicans poured a big glass of cold water on that,” said Nick Jacobs, a political scientist at Colby College. But, he said, “she still has a majority … It doesn’t mean that she’s not going to be able to accomplish a lot.”

In a wide ranging interview last week with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Mills spoke about the election and her priorities for the coming session, including ensuring protection of abortion rights, addressing climate change, expanding access to pre-kindergarten education and extending a program that provides two years of free community college. And Mills said she plans to be more involved in shaping legislation before it gets sent to her desk for a signature.

Mills opened up about her goals one month after cruising to reelection over former two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage, winning by 13 percentage points. Her party maintained its 22 seats in the 35-seat Senate and gained six seats in the 151-seat House, where Democrats now hold 82 seats, keeping the party firmly in control of state government.


Mills’ easy victory came despite bleak predictions for Democrats here and nationally. Traditionally, the party in control of the White House usually loses seats in Congress, state legislatures and governorships.

During the campaign, Mills urged her supporters to ignore those predictions, as well as the polls showing she had leads of various sizes heading into the fall.


“I kept telling people, ‘Ignore that. Don’t let that pendulum thing sway anybody into staying home and not voting in this election, because that pendulum can swing harder and harder and become a wrecking ball that can tear down our democracy,’ ” she said. “That’s what will happen if people don’t exercise their right to vote. … Apathy does not work in a democracy.”

More than 75% of the state’s 904,674 voters cast ballots, which appears to be the second-highest rate in the country. And the “red wave” never came here, or nationally for that matter.

Mills earned more than 50% of the statewide vote for the second time – something she attributed to her track record, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that ended a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, climate change, education and the overall threat to democracy.

“I think young people came out especially, and voted on those issues more than any,” she said.

Mills also said she believes her candidacy was boosted by “traditional Republicans” who were repulsed by falsehoods and negative attack ads.

The state Republican party and outside conservative groups leaned into culture wars in an effort to turn voters against Mills. One national political action committee spent millions on ads accusing Mills and Democrats of teaching “pornography” in schools, “grooming” young students and trying to confuse them about gender identity.


“I think a lot of the tactics that may have played out in other states did not – and will not – play out in Maine,” she said. “When you mention pornography and such in a political ad – maybe that’s been a winner in some other states, I don’t know, but it’s not a winner here … It’s not credible. It’s pretty desperate. And it didn’t work.”

LePage, who has not responded to interview requests since the election, chalked up the results to the abortion factor during a speech to supporters on election night after it was clear he lost. The former governor had focused on inflation and economic issues while trying to fend off warnings that he and his fellow Republicans were a threat to abortion rights.

“If heating oil is not as important as abortion,” LePage said, “then I’m telling you I should have never gotten into politics.”


Not surprisingly, ensuring protection for abortion rights is among the priorities previewed by Mills.

Abortion is legal under a Maine state law proposed by former Gov. John McKernan, a Republican. But Mills and other Democrats warned that a future governor and Legislature could change or eliminate that law.


Mills said she is waiting for an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office about whether a woman’s right to abortion is protected by equal protection language in the Maine Constitution. If it’s not, and a simple change in state law could threaten that right, Mills plans to take action.

“I do envision advocating for a constitutional amendment if that’s the analysis,” she said. A constitutional amendment would take the support of two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Maine voters.

Gov. Janet Mills speaks with a Maine Sunday Telegram reporter at the Blaine House for her first extended interview since her reelection win and as incoming lawmakers take their seats in the 131st Legislature. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

More generally, Mills said, she’s looking to maintain initiatives from her first term, such as continuing to fully fund pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education and continuing health care investments, including dental care coverage under MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Mills also said she would like to continue to offer two years of free community college, expand access to pre-kindergarten and increase services for veterans.

At least some of those priorities are likely to be part of a two-year budget proposal that Mills will unveil shortly after her inauguration early next month.

State revenues are expected to be flush for the next two years, with revenue forecasters predicting an additional $489 million over the next biennium. But economic analysts are still concerned that a recession could upend those predictions and slow the economy, and the governor said she’s cautious about increasing the budget with new programs and ongoing spending.


“There’s a lot of talk nationally about a potential recession. Some states have seen it more dramatically than we have already,” said Mills, who helped cut the state budget years ago as a legislator. “We’ve got to be careful. I was on the appropriations committee for four years during the last recession and it was a really heartbreaking thing. I always called it the de-appropriations committee. I don’t want to see that happen again. We’ve got to be cautious.”

Jacobs, the Colby College political scientist, expects Mills to focus on the same priorities she always has, such as strengthening environmental protection, promoting renewable energy and investing in rural communities. But she has a big advantage now that she’s not dealing with a global health crisis, he said.

“She’s always going to be the COVID governor” because of her leadership through the height of the pandemic, he said. “I expect her to be doing the things that she wished she had time to do before COVID disrupted all of our lives.”

Despite Mills’ words of caution about the budget, Matt Gagnon, a conservative political analyst and chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute think tank, said he expects Mills and the Democrats to take advantage of their strong political position and turn some of the COVID-19-era initiatives into long-term programs.

“I have every expectation that she is going to be enormously aggressive and push the envelope as much as she can on budget-related matters,” he said. “I think that we are going to see an aggressive expansion of government programs and services.”

Gagnon said he’s looking to the upcoming budget process to learn just how aggressive Mills will be.


“A lot of this depends on how she intends to approve the budget,” he said. “If she’s serious about working with Republicans, they will have some ability to affect some things. To be honest, their power is limited.”

In the Blaine House interview, Mills said she will be seeking a bipartisan budget deal, one supported by two-thirds of legislators in the House and Senate.

“I don’t envision budget proposals that have a lot of drama in them because I think people in Maine want some sense of stability and consistency and continuity,” she said. “We’ve been through a lot these last few years. The pandemic threw everybody for a loop, and we’re sort of back to normalcy now. People don’t want to see any big swings one way or the other.”


Mills and the 131st Legislature faced their first test last week with the $474 million heating and energy relief package, an emergency measure that needed two-thirds support from each chamber to be enacted.

It showed, perhaps, that House Republicans may be more willing to wheel-and-deal with Democrats than Senate Republicans, who were unified in blocking the bill.


Gov. Janet Mills speaks about her second term priorities during an interview in the Blaine House last week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Mills may face increased pressure from within her own party, too. Robust revenue projections may trigger calls for bigger investments in existing programs, and perhaps the creation of new ones.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, whom progressives were urging to challenge Mills in a primary, said this week that “me and Janet have fought more than anyone in this building.” But the two leaders have continually found a way to work together, he said.

And Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, a progressive civil rights leader from Portland who made history as the first person of color to hold the position, has split with Mills on issues such as criminal justice reforms and restoring sovereignty to Maine tribes. Talbot Ross has championed both efforts while Mills was opposed.

Talbot Ross said she has worked well with Mills and has come to know and respect her and her family.

“So we have a friendship, first and foremost,” Talbot Ross said. “Then as trusted public servants, we have different opinions about how to get to an end result, but I don’t think we differ too much on what the end result is. For those issues that we do, there is a respectful debate.”

Mills said she has a good relationship with Talbot Ross and her family. Mills said last week that the two hadn’t talked in-depth about possible bills that may come out of the House because negotiations over the heating aid package had consumed much of their time since the election.


Throughout the campaign, Republicans accused Mills of being a closet socialist and now fear that she will cave to pressure from the left because she doesn’t have to worry about reelection.

Mills laughed at the suggestion, pointing to her long history of public service that began in 1980 when she was elected as a district attorney, which she said “is not a flaming progressive position.” She also served as a legislator and attorney general before becoming the state’s first female governor in 2018.

Mills said she will be more involved in shaping legislation, but she also said she will continue to use restraint with her veto pen. Mills has issued far fewer vetoes than LePage.

“I’ve been very careful about my veto letters. I’m not going to change that,” she said. “I want to make sure this coming session that we’re all talking at an earlier stage of things, so that when people have objections, including myself, that we get to voice them earlier on.”

Mills said she is also grateful to be starting her second term with an experienced leadership team and a return to a more normal working environment in the State Capitol Building. The last session was hindered by lawmakers’ inability to meet face to face and talk in the hallways.

“I just think back two years ago,” Mills said. “What a different atmosphere it is today.”

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