The Portland Phoenix

Cult of competency: Mills maps out her case for another four years

Janet Mills

Gov. Janet Mills campaigns at Bayside Bowl in Portland on Sept.26. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

There is a page on the Janet Mills for Governor campaign website you reach by clicking “Map” that is perhaps the dorkiest thing ever done by a large-scale campaign in Maine. Using the GIS mapping software ESRI, integrating data from dozens of sources, the campaign has plotted perhaps a hundred “accomplishments” of the Mills administration, punctuated and celebrated by visits to the site of the event. 

Color-coded and separated by a legend into 20 different categories, the map allows a visitor to click on a little water icon and learn that Governor Mills traveled to Rumford in July to celebrate $1 million in grant money for the Rumford-Mexico Sewerage District, part of a $22 million award to 20 wastewater treatment facilities through the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan. 

A map published on the Janet Mills campaign website that locates various projects that have been funded.

Anson-Madison Sanitary District got $2.3 million from that grant, which followed on the $850k it received earlier in the month from the Maine Department of Transportation through the Maine Infrastructure Adaptation Fund, which is designed to buttress Maine infrastructure against the effects of climate change, a recommendation of the 2021 Maine Won’t Wait climate action plan created by the governor’s climate council. 

Dave Clark, general manager of the Anson-Madison Sanitary District, created thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, told the Morning Sentinel they’re going to use the money to upgrade the stormwater system, expecting that heavy rain events will only get more common in the future as our planet warms. Pipes will be upgraded from 15 inches in diameter to 30, something they’ve been wanting money to do for 20 years or so. 

“The pipes currently are too small,” Clark told Sacha Feldberg. “So, what happens is, the pipe becomes so full it can’t take any more water, and Main Street Madison ends up flooded.”

In the past year, flush with federal money, the Mills administration has addressed similar 20-year headaches in places like Van Buren, Pittsfield, Livermore Falls, Hartland, Calais, Mapleton — the sorts of towns facing similar kinds of issues all over the state: aging population, a dearth of volunteers and government employees, bills piling up for projects long neglected and now demanded by climate change’s harsh reality, and citizens loathe to continue increasing the property tax. 

It’s easy to say that Mills is out there “buying votes,” and her “predecessor” (as Mills likes to call gubernatorial race opponent and former Governor Paul LePage) has certainly made that claim. Maybe you want to believe that any governor would have done the same with all that post-covid cash lying around. 

Gov. Janet Mills interacts with audience members at Bayside Bowl in Portland on Sept.26. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

Watching her address a group of Portland millennials on the rooftop of Bayside Bowl last week, though, it’s hard not to come to a different conclusion: Janet Mills is simply really good at being governor. 

The stuff that makes your eyes glaze over, the policy text and the budget line items and the blue ribbon commissions and the multi-stakeholder working groups? No administration in any Mainer’s living memory has been as good at that as Janet Mills’. When she says “we won’t go back,” a tagline that she trots out early in Portland, to applause that gets muted by wind gusts on a night that gets cold in a hurry, she’s talking as much about basic competence as she is about ideological orientation. 

“My god!,” she exclaims, recounting the five times LePage vetoed the Medicaid expansion bill. “Five times! Thank God we got that done. I expanded Medicaid on my first day in office.”

In conversation after her speech, she admits that she loves to rattle off her administration’s accomplishments, and much of her address is a reminder of things like the senior housing bonds she signed and the paid leave bill she wrote and the full funding of schools, but it’s notable that the biggest applause of the night comes when she mentions she hired Dr. Nirav Shah. 

“Dr. Shah has a posse” t-shirt

These Portland people love Dr. Shah. There are whoops and hollers. I, personally, have a “Dr. Shah has a posse” T-shirt (because I love that old Andre the Giant meme, but also because I got caught up a little, sure, and I think it was raising money for something important). The moment closes with a little chuckle when some folks are self-aware enough to realize there’s a bit of an outsized cult of personality going on there. 

Mills, for whatever reason, doesn’t inspire that kind of cult. When she closes her address by assuring the audience that she’s “running hard” and putting her heart and soul into it, she receives polite applause, but it’s pretty chilly by this point and most people just start eyeing the exits. There’s no long line to speak with Mills, only a couple of selfie requests, and we are quickly at her command to find someplace indoors to chat. 

Folks like these — with smart sport jackets and clean, white cable-knit sweaters and buckskin shoes with those skinny laces — are comfortable in the presence of the governor. They’ve been in these spaces before. They don’t really need the governor to solve their personal problems because they don’t have many. 

They’re looking for someone to tackle the big existential problems. The climate problems. The threats to democracy problems. The assault on reproductive healthcare problems (second biggest cheer of the night is for Mills’ abortion stance). The “will-my-kids-have-a-non-hellscape-future” problems. And there is no question in their minds that Janet Mills is eminently more qualified than the dude who moved to Florida in a huff so he could avoid income taxes (and, apparently, property taxes). 

They would like Janet Mills to be in charge for that stuff. They like it when they don’t hear much about her for long stretches because it usually means no bad things are happening. They will say things like, “a good governor is like a good referee — you don’t notice them much.” 

In the bowling alley

Even on a Monday night, Bayside Bowl’s lanes are full, though not overcrowded. No one seems to find it remarkable that the governor is walking through to sit at a table with me and press guy Scott Ogden, like a regular group of people sharing a basket of fries, with another set of staffers at the next table over, checking Twitter and Insta and TikTok on their phones. 

We’re all pretty unassuming. Governor Mills is hardly an imposing figure and while it’s clear that absolutely no one questions her authority, she is not one for grand entrances or calling attention to herself. 

I ask her what it’s like to campaign by celebrating Maine as a “safe and welcoming state,” where she tells a story about getting a letter from a 10-year-old during the pandemic who hoped covid “doesn’t isolate our hearts,” where she relates a funny anecdote about a constituent mistaking Mills’ reference to Cicero as an attribution to “sister Rose.”

(Although, “I thought to myself, ‘Who the hell is Sister Rose?!?,’” is a pretty great laugh line for a stump speech.)

When so many campaigns are driven by messages of fear and the need for “change,” how does one win with old tropes like love and kindness? 

“I think I learned a lot about that in the pandemic,” she says. “Families and communities had to take care of each other and watch out for one another and Maine people came through and showed their true character.” 

“It’s one of the traits of the Maine people,” she says. “They are community oriented and people oriented and independent, but resilient, and I think fundamentally compassionate.” She starts to go into her stump background, but I stop her. I know it. We were both born in Farmington and spend a lot of time in the area. Her friend Sue dated my Uncle Pete back in high school for a while and her friend Nan is working on a project with me. Everyone knows the Mills family — her and Peter and Paul and Dora. A lot of people felt betrayed when Janet supported the CMP Corridor that cut right through town, but that’s Janet. She’s never going to make everyone happy. 

It’s part of why she’s proud of that “A” from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. 

“It does feel good,” she allows. “I’ve been a member of SAM for 22 years or so and I believe in what they do when it comes to conservation, protecting deer yards across Maine … I love the outdoors, pure and simple.” 

“When we sent bonds to LMF” — I know that she’s talking about Land for Maine’s Future — “they always got overwhelming support at the polls, and now there’s $40 million in the budget, without having to wait for a bond, and without needing to borrow, and that’s enormous progress and they know I did that. And got it enacted. And that’s something that supports the outdoors and conservation and preservation of our outdoor heritage.” 

It seems like maybe there’s a part of her who wants to add, “and, yeah, I’m a woman, and a Democrat, and they endorsed ME. Not that bozo who drives around in a Lexus that had Florida plates on it a year ago.” I suspect that sort of language, and some a lot more colorful, comes out in unguarded moments on the porch of the family camp. 

With all of this talk about Mainers, and working across the aisle, and bipartisanship, though, what of the base of Democrats who have supported her to this point? She was the literal head of the state party. 

How is she telling SAM on their survey that she doesn’t support a ban on high-capacity magazines? Doesn’t want to raise the minimum age for purchasing guns to 21? Doesn’t want background checks for private sales? Doesn’t want to restrict the sale of “semi-automatic (so-called) assault-style weapons”?

Aren’t those the “common sense” measures Democrats support? 

And what about tribal sovereignty? Why did she veto that when seemingly everyone supported that bill? What does she tell Democrats who feel betrayed? 

“I explain to them what we did get done,” Mills says. “The progress we’ve made with tribal matters is significant. And what we did with firearm safety is significant. Three years ago, we got the Sportsman’s Alliance, the NRA, gun control advocates, all together at the same table, and it took hundreds of hours of and we got a significant bill drafted, passed, and enacted, with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, something that never would have happened if we hadn’t gotten people together. And it shows what we can do in a positive way. 

“That bill,” she notes, “recently the U.S. Senate touted that as a model, the yellow flag bill [which allows authorities to take guns away from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others], a model legislation for other states. To keep people from hurting themselves or others with a firearm.”

She doesn’t really raise her voice or get animated, it’s more of a tone that wonders how you can’t see this for yourself. It’s obvious. 

And if people want to try to paint her with a “woke” brush, good luck. When I respond to her call for civility by saying that many advocates in the anti-racist community see “civility” as part of the apparatus that upholds white supremacy, she seems utterly baffled by the argument. 

“I haven’t heard that,” she says, looking to Ogden like, “what’s this dude talking about? Civility is bad?” 

Later, when she’s touting the rule of law as part of our discussion of her time as Attorney General, I say the legal system can often be brought to bear to uphold a status quo that disenfranchises lots of people. She quickly clarifies:

“When I say the rule of law, I’m saying providing due process and constitutional rights. We had an aggressive civil rights division. We had a very aggressive consumer protection division in the attorney general’s office. We brought litigation against the Sackler family and big pharma; the Sackler family’s actions in purveying opioids also affected members of other races to a large degree. We provided foreclosure relief for thousands of Maine families, including people of racial minorities and others. So, when I say rule of law, I’m defining it more broadly.”

“We created civil rights teams!” She can’t stop herself. “We created more civil rights teams in more high schools in those eight years than any other district attorney.” 

She did warn me she likes to brag. 

Hearing her enthusiasm for her time as AG I’m forced to ask: Which job did she like better?

“You mean attorney general or governor?” she asks. I nod. 

“Oh,” she says with a grin, “I like being governor.” 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

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