Down East 2013 ©
Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell has a history of firsts. She was the first woman in Maine to serve as House Majority Leader, the first female Speaker of the House, and when she was elected Senate President last year she became the first woman in the country to have served as head of both chambers of a state's legislature. She now seeks, along with fellow democrats Donna Dion, Rosa Scarcelli and Dawn Hill and Green Independent Lynne Williams, to be the first woman to become governor of Maine.
Mitchell has had a long legislative career. She was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1974.
“That was during the outrage against Watergate,” said Mitchell. “That was the first time the House went Democratic and I think that was the first time it became common practice to go door-to-door. It was an extraordinary grassroots experience.”
Mitchell has also had a diverse career outside of the legislature, including a stint as director of the Maine State Housing Authority, a post at the Muskie school and, more recently, a law practice.
“As a matter of fact I got my law degree and my Medicare card in the same year,” said Mitchell. “So I certainly believe in life-long learning.”
Mitchell says that her time managing the Housing Authority, a multi-million dollar finance agency, which at the time had a staff of seventy, as well as her management roles in the legislative leadership, give her more applicable executive experience than other candidates in the race with business backgrounds.
She also notes that the business experience touted by some of her opponents aren't exactly divorced from what goes on in Augusta and Washington.
“The housing projects that are managed by Rosa are subsidized and financed by the federal government. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I think we need to acknowledge that business and government can work together to do successful things,” said Mitchell. “The wonderful ability of Matt Jacobson to go out and talk about the tools for coming to Maine – those are tools that the legislature created.”
“It takes partnerships and government subsidies for Maine and Company to go out and talk to a company about why they should come to Maine.”
If Mitchell is elected in 2010 and serves a full term, she won't just be breaking ground because of her gender, but because of her age as well. Midway through her term, Mitchell would become the oldest governor in Maine's history.
The record is currently held by Sebastian Streeter Marble, who served from 1887 to 1889. Marble was Senate President and assumed the post of governor after the death of Joseph R. Bodwell (the previous record holder at 68). Marble was seventy years old upon taking office, served for just over a year, and was defeated for re-election in 1889.
Mitchell was born in 1940 and will also be seventy years old upon taking office if she's elected next November.
Mitchell says that her age will likely be an issue in the race because “everything is an issue” but that it's not one she'll be worrying about. “I have no more control over how old I am than I do over the weather,” said Mitchell.
When discussing some of the important issues in the race, it quickly becomes clear that Mitchell is still very focused on her current job as Senate President and is mostly interested in bringing her current legislative priorities over to the governor's office.
She calls health care reform “excruciatingly important” and says she would continue scholarships and training funds for health care providers, especially primary care physicians, as well as incentives for health care cost control.
Asked about a universal single-payer health care system, Mitchell says that “the state can't do that alone” but that Maine should investigate programs that other states have implemented to make care more widely available.
“Dirigo Health was a step in the right direction, but it was public-private,” said Mitchell. “It was not wildly embraced but at least it has a stable source of funding now and I have many constituents who have nothing without that program.”
Mitchell cites the Compact for Maine's Future estimate of Maine's need for 40,000 new post-secondary graduates and pledges to work towards better access to college, which she says is one of the best ways to improve Maine's economy.
Mitchell says she would have the best ability of any candidate to create jobs because of her “experience at knowing how to get things done” and her “vision for the future.”
According to Mitchell, the biggest hurdle facing Maine businesses is not taxes but energy costs and the availability of a trained workforce.
“The people of Maine get it,” said Mitchell “They've voted for bonds for research and development.”
Asked about her broader political philosophy, Mitchell says that she is a pragmatist and an optimist and wants to see the state try new things.
Early in her career, Mitchell says she was not a big supporter of the clean elections system of public financing for campaigns, but now sees its value and the support it has gained from the people of Maine.
“For me, it would be impossible to run without this option,” said Mitchelll, noting that, unlike some of her opponents, she is not independently wealthy, and she can't raise campaign funds while actively serving in the Senate.
Mitchell says the legislature has placed a high but fair bar for access to clean elections financing with the new requirement of raising $40,000 in contributions of $100 or less. She likens it to “trying to fill your bathtub with a table spoon.”
“Both Peter Mills and I are in uncharted territory at this point because there's really no road map to see if the funds are enough to get your message out,” said Mitchell. “It requires you to be a very careful manager of funds.”
Mitchell says that the early expenditure limits in the clean elections system have meant that her campaign is starting slowly. She is currently assisted by “professional volunteers” and is just beginning the process of staffing the campaign. She is interviewing a potential campaign manager this week and is currently vetting possible polling and media firms.
Mitchell says that a poll conducted by Kiley and Associates showing her with high name recognition relative to some of her potential opponents was shown to her before she entered the race and was “rewarding” and “a bit of a surprise” but was not the reason she chose to seek the Blaine House.
“A poll alone would never get you into the race, said Mitchell. “Anybody could change those numbers any day by spending the money to go up.”
Instead, Mitchell says what made her jump in was the determination that she was personally willing to give up her senate seat and another term in the leadership in order to seek to make a greater difference as governor.
Mitchell says she has no illusions about the difficulties of a statewide race, noting that she ran as a “sacrificial lamb” against Republican Senator William Cohen in 1984.
In addition to her legislative service, Mitchell has also been involved locally as a Vassalboro selectwoman and recently dealt with conflict and publicity surrounding the The Grand View Topless Coffee Shop, a local adult business that tested the town's ordinances and was recently destroyed by arson.
“I did not burn it down,” joked Mitchell. “With my fellow selectmen we shepherded through a reasonable ordinance [to regulate adult entertainment], not one that was trampling on people's rights.”
“The Constitution protects even topless coffee shops.”