It is only 12:30 p.m. on October 29, but Maine State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills has already had a long day. After receiving an endorsement from Alan Caron, an independent challenger who dropped out of the race, at the Portland Public Library, Mills dotted around to various gatherings in Southern Maine. She then arrived at Bowdoin, driven by her sister, to walk with students to the polls for early voting.
Now, she’s taking a quick breather to chat. She kicks off her shoes as soon as she sits down, but not without a quip about the ever-present need for a political brand.
“I should have ‘Vote for Janet Mills’ on my sock,” she jokes.
Mills is the Democratic Party’s candidate for Maine’s open Governor seat. Eight days from the election, she is laser-focused on the finish line.
“When I ran for office in the legislature, I ran in a Republican, independent-leaning district,” Mills said. “I won office by going to people’s doors and finding common ground.”
Mills has clearly attacked the statewide race in a similar manner. 15 Bowdoin students came to the polls with Mills on the drizzly Monday. As the group walked from David Saul Smith Union to the Town Council’s Office on the end of Noble Street, drivers slowed down to honk and shout their support.
In Maine, voters care deeply about their political leaders’ connection to the state; being labeled as “from away” can signal a death knell for a campaign. Mills’ campaign is attempting to represent the kind of grassroots, independent, personal politics with which Maine voters are known to connect.
In this race, Mills is staring across the aisle at Republican Shawn Moody, the owner of Moody’s Collision Centers, an auto-body franchise that has 11 locations around Maine. He speaks with a thick Maine accent. Everybody, including Mills, says that he’s a nice guy.
Mills has won endorsements from Maine’s two largest newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, as well as from the Boston Globe. All three call her the “pragmatic” choice. The Bangor Daily News is the most effusive in its praise, arguing that Mills “has the diversity and depth of experience to be an effective governor” and noting that she stood up to current Governor Paul LePage as attorney general.
The Press Herald’s piece, written before Caron dropped out, says that if the election were ranked choice, they would likely throw their support behind him. The Globe mostly presents Mills as an alternative to Moody, whom they call “LePage Lite.”
As the Press Herald’s Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich notes in a piece separate from the paper’s endorsement, “Mario Cuomo said, ‘You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’ But when you watch Janet Mills, you wonder if she got the message.”
From a foot away though, devoid of outside noise, it is clear that Mills holds a genuine excitement for ideas that she believes will make Mainers’ lives better. If she is elected, she promises a radical transformation in certain sectors of the state within her first term.
“I imagine us having community solar. Everywhere you go, you see schools, churches and community buildings powered by solar,” she says. “I see us having better infrastructure. I see us having broadband in all corners of Maine. [I have a] proposal for broadband districts across the state of Maine—coworking spaces where people can share overhead, start new businesses, enlarge existing businesses, come back to Maine and work remotely, that kind of infrastructure is very important. We’ll be there in four years.”
She has a fine line to walk in advocating for policy about which she clearly knows a lot while avoiding being categorized as a “career politician.” Twice in the interview, Mills referenced the fact that Moody has run for governor more times than she has.
Labeled a clear establishment Democrat by some of her primary opponents, Mills has attempted to use her facility with discussing issues to reject a stereotyping of her campaign.
“I don’t categorize myself as left, middle, centrist, right, blue dog, red dog, pink dog, I take each issue at a time,” she said. “People know where I stand on specific issues like the right to choose—I’ve always been there on women’s issues. Always protected the right to vote. I’ve always been a conservationist, environmentalist. I don’t think that’s a radical position, I think those positions reflect the thinking and values of Maine people.”
Nevertheless, Mills has been accused by some Mainers as not having the same care for indigenous people in the state. In 2015 and in an appeal last year, she represented the state in Penobscot Nation v. Mills, a case that she ultimately won in which the court upheld that the state of Maine has the right to regulate hunters, fishermen and paddlers on the Penobscot River. The Penobscot Nation argued that the area was part of its tribal land.
When asked about the case, Mills pointed back to her job description.
“My job as an attorney general is to defend the state of Maine unless the case is not defensible. In that case, it was not only defensible, the federal court ruled that the state was correct in its position,” she said.
She also stressed that she has had productive discussions with the Penobscot Nation.
“I’ve met with tribal leaders, chiefs and councilmembers, and I know that we can work together. We have worked together nationally to protect Maine’s environment and to improve our water quality,” Mills said.
While Mills may want to avoid the optics of being labeled a career politician in a state that values authenticity, she is proud of her career in public service and as a private legislator. Her interest in making positive change in others’ lives is utterly congruent with her preferred topic of conversation: issue areas.
Rather than run away from the “pragmatic” moniker, she appears to have embraced it wholeheartedly. And while Mills may have diverged from Mario Cuomo’s “you campaign in poetry” argument, if given the opportunity, she seems exceedingly likely to “govern in prose.”