AUGUSTA, Maine — When Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell was elected speaker of the House in 1996, the veteran state lawmaker became the first woman to hold one of the Maine Legislature’s two top leadership positions.
Mitchell made history again 12 years later — this time on a national scale — with her election as president of the Maine Senate, thereby becoming the first woman to lead both chambers of a state legislature.
Now, the former teacher, housing administrator and lawyer is waging a campaign for governor that, if successful, would make Mitchell the first woman to occupy the Blaine House.
But while Mitchell said breaking the last remaining gender barrier in Maine politics would be an honor, that is not her reason for seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
“This election presents an extraordinary opportunity for me to use the experience I have gained,” said Mitchell. “The culmination of all of the things I have done I believe make me ready to lead at this very important juncture.”
The 69-year-old Vassalboro resident is one of four candidates hoping to capture the Democratic nomination on June 8. She is competing against former Attorney General Steve Rowe of Portland, former conservation commissioner Pat McGowan of Hallowell and businesswoman Rosa Scarcelli of Portland.
Seated in the lobby of a Bangor hotel, where she and the other Democrats would later vie for the endorsement of a papermakers’ union, Mitchell has the mannerisms and speaking style of someone accustomed to delivering both classroom lessons and political speeches.
She speaks slowly and deliberately like a teacher, but also talks about the importance of public service and continuing the bipartisan style of politics that she says Maine people expect.
And despite nearly four decades in Maine, she retains the accent of her native South Carolina.
Mitchell graduated from Furman University — a private liberal arts college in Greenville, S.C. — and went into teaching. She earned her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She and her husband, Jim, moved to Maine in 1971 because Jim took a two-year position in the administration of Gov. Ken Curtis.
“We fell in love with the state and have been living in the same 1840s farmhouse since,” Mitchell recalled recently.
The couple had only been in Maine three years when Mitchell was elected to her first term in the Legislature, largely on an education platform. She eventually worked her way up to become the chairwoman of the Education Committee.
Mitchell served several years in the late 1980s as director of the Maine State Housing Authority. After raising her four children, she enrolled in the University of Maine School of Law, receiving her law degree in 2004 at age 64.
Since her first campaign victory, Mitchell has served nine terms in the House and three in the Senate, including the past two years as Senate president.
University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried said Mitchell’s decades of political service — including her status as the first woman in U.S. history to preside over both chambers of a state Legislature — have given her an edge in name recognition.
Several polls during the past year have shown that voters recognize Mitchell’s name more often than those of her Democratic opponents.
But Fried said Mitchell’s lengthy political career could carry risks this election year given the apparent growing voter frustration with politicians and Congress in particular. The question, Fried said, is how strong that anti-incumbent mood will be in Maine.
“That could potentially be a problem, maybe not as much in the primary as in the general election,” Fried said.
Indeed, Scarcelli routinely portrays herself as the only political outsider in the Democrats’ race and Mitchell, Rowe and McGowan as part of an Augusta establishment in need of spring cleaning. The anti-Augusta rhetoric is even stronger among the Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Not surprisingly, Mitchell views her resume as a benefit, not a liability.
That experience, Mitchell contends, helped her win the two-thirds bipartisan support needed to pass two successive budget bills that cut $800 million in state spending while minimizing harm to education and critical social services.
Mitchell also frequently points out on the campaign trail that, with her leadership in the Senate, the Legislature passed two bond bills with a two-thirds majority and the first major tax restructuring initiative in decades.
“Look at my record over the years in terms of getting results,” Mitchell said in an interview. “I think that is what people are looking for — a leader that they can trust and that can also get things done.”
House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, also credited Mitchell for her leadership and management skills and for helping maintain a bipartisan atmosphere during difficult budget talks. Pingree’s mother, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, also served as majority leader in the Maine Senate while Mitchell was House speaker.
“I have a lot of respect for the whole field” of candidates, said Hannah Pingree. “But working closely with her over the past few years really made me appreciate her, and that’s why I’m supporting her for governor.”
Of course, Mitchell has not always been successful in shepherding legislation through the political process.
During the 2010 legislative session, Mitchell suffered a significant defeat when lawmakers rejected a bill that, as originally introduced, would have required many business owners in Maine to offer employees paid sick days.
Faced with staunch opposition from the business community, lawmakers even rejected a stripped-down version of the bill. Several observers have questioned whether Mitchell’s sponsorship of the bill could haunt her in the general election.
Out on the gubernatorial campaign, Mitchell has once again made education a key platform. Her priorities include: expanding programs to increase high school graduation rates, involving more businesspeople in the classroom to teach students entrepreneurship and using technology to expand access to higher education.
Her campaign also has focused on the importance of making Maine a producer of not only renewable energy but also the technology, such as wind turbines and blades, needed for the industry to grow.
On the issue of economic development, Mitchell has called for a program similar to Michigan’s “No Worker Left Behind” program that aligns state-sponsored work force re-training with the needs of industries and the state’s economic development goals.
Mitchell announced her candidacy for governor last August, but only began campaigning full time when the 2010 legislative session adjourned last month. She now spends most days driving — frequently by herself but sometimes with her husband or campaign staffers — to events all over the state talking about her experience and vision for the state.
“The reason I’m running for governor is I’m ready,” Mitchell recently told a few dozen people gathered at an early-morning breakfast forum at the University of Maine at Farmington. “I have spent a lifetime preparing for this.”
Schedule of coming gubernatorial profiles
May 4: McGowan
May 5: Mitchell
May 6: Rowe
May 7: Scarcelli
May 10: Abbott
May 11: Beardsley
May 12: Jacobson
May 13: LePage
May 14: Mills
May 17: Otten
May 18: Poliquin