AUGUSTA, Maine — It was after 1 a.m. on June 13, 2009, the last day of the legislative session, and Peter Mills was livid.
A proposal for a $150 million bond package had been altered in eleventh-hour negotiations among legislative leaders, redirecting $4.5 million for dredging at Searsport to fund a port expansion in Eastport. Part of Mills’ ire was the fact that the Searsport money would have attracted a $12 million match.
“I think we’d better discuss this in caucus,” said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, the assistant senate minority leader, to Mills after the Senate went into yet another recess.
“I guess we probably should,” spat a visibly angry Mills.
An hour earlier, Mills had stood on his head demonstrating yoga poses on the Senate floor and trounced two younger senators in a push-up contest, but that jocularity was long gone in the discussion about the bond package.
When the Senate reconvened, Mills moved to restore the money for Searsport, but his amendment was defeated by a vote of 18-14, with Mills voting with most of the Democrats.
During his 16 years in the Legislature, Mills has earned a reputation for not always voting with his party.
In the 2009 session alone, he was the only Republican in favor of tax reform legislation — which is the subject of a people’s veto attempt on June 8 — and one of the only Republicans to support a same-sex marriage bill that was overturned at the polls last November.
“I think Peter Mills would do better if he ran as a Democrat,” said a Republican Party loyalist at a recent event for the staunchly conservative Paul LePage.
Now that Mills is one of seven Republicans vying for the party’s nomination to run for governor, his record of independence is seen as a liability among some. Others see that record as making Mills the most electable Republican in the field.
“I have always fought for what I think is right, regardless of political gain or loss,” said Mills during his speech last weekend at the Republican State Convention in Portland. “That’s what Maine people expect in a leader.”
Ronald Schmidt, a political scientist at University of Southern Maine, said Mills may well be the most electable Republican against a Democrat. But his most formidable challenge is the June 8 primary, when he faces only Republican opponents and only Republican voters.
“Mainers tend to like politicians who can be seen as independent from their party,” Schmidt said. “Primary voters are different from general election voters. They’re a lot more partisan.”
With a groundswell of conservatism sweeping across Maine and the nation, this might not be the year for a moderate Republican, said Schmidt.
“Mills is probably right [about his electability against a Democrat], but I’m not sure that’s going to be a winning argument in his party this year,” Schmidt said.
It wasn’t in 2006, when Mills placed second behind conservative state Sen. Chandler Woodcock of Farmington in a three-way GOP primary race for governor. Democrat John Baldacci soundly defeated Woodcock in the general election.
Mills has a lot going for him, not the least of which is near-universal respect from legislators of all stripes.
His reputation at the State House involves a legendary work ethic and a passion for the legislative process. Most of the times he carries a tote bag bulging with hundreds of pages of documents and reports, and he spends days on end sitting through legislative committee hearings — whether he’s on the committee or not.
During his 16 years in the Legislature, he has been the ranking Republican on the tax, labor, judiciary, appropriations, insurance, education and health and human services committees.
He has led on a variety of major issues, including reform of the state’s workers compensation program and more recently the creation of a “Fund of Funds,” which invites pension managers to invest in business development in Maine.
During a recent interview, Mills said now is not the time for a governor who lacks legislative experience.
“I don’t need to conduct any audits to figure out how we can save money,” said Mills. “I’ve got actual experience in solving some of these problems.”
Mills favors most of the initiatives being discussed by most of the GOP candidates for governor, such as the creation of an incentive program to help people remove themselves from welfare.
For just about any problem facing the state, Mills has a lengthy response that usually involves the intricacies of Maine law or the nuts and bolts of the latest legislative proposal.
During a recent round-table discussion with business owners in the Hampden area, Mills answered a question about economic development with a detailed description of the state and federal barriers to business development — and recent attempts by other legislators that Mills said would exacerbate the situation.
“We need a Republican governor who would say that all of these proposals for a new and larger regulatory environment will not be entertained,” said Mills to the group. “It would immediately change the political posture of this state. Businesses would no longer have to put up with vagueness in the rules that makes everything contestable and ultimately deferrable.”
Asked whether his experience as a legislator is a liability when most of the other Republicans are referencing their “outsider” credentials, Mills said Maine needs someone who understands the issues, right down to the wording of the actual laws.
“I like finding things that other people can’t see,” said Mills, who claims to be reading all of President Barack Obama’s more than 1,000-page health care reform bill. “We could all be good legislators if we’d focus on the words and not the politics.”
Mills said he would use his power as governor to forge consensus among legislators, even on the issues where there is the widest disagreement. He said his favorite thing to do is battle it out in the halls and chambers of the State House — especially during the most difficult times.
“I have never felt more alive than I do in those last three weeks of the legislative session,” said Mills. “Those are the finest times of my life. A lot of governors isolate themselves. I think the governor should be out there and engaged in the debate.”
As a student at Harvard, Mills once took a test that was supposed to indicate his calling in life. The answer wasn’t Navy veteran, attorney or legislator — all of which Mills has been in his life.
Instead the test gave him universally high marks across numerous professions, which Mills said might account for his interest in a variety of issues. But one profession scored slightly higher: Archeologist.
“Maybe I should be out digging for Native American relics,” said Mills with a laugh. “I do like digging, but I’d rather dig for stuff in statutes and laws.”
Name: S. Peter Mills
Age: 66. Born June 3, 1943.
Education: Graduated from Harvard with degree in English 1965; University of Maine School of Law 1973, graduated No. 2 in the class.
Career: U.S. Navy 1965-70. Attorney in Portland 1973-82; owner of the Wright & Mills law firm in Skowhegan since 1982. Maine Senate 1995-2002, 2005-2010; Maine House of Representatives 2003-04.
Family: Lives in Cornville with his wife, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills; three daughters.
Quote: “Every baby born in Maine begins life owing at least $4,500 to the state. That’s each citizen’s share of $6 billion in retirement benefits owed to teachers and state employees. Maine’s financial structure is tottering because of promises it cannot keep. Until we have funded our binding promises, our budget motto must be, ‘Pay as you go or do without.”’
Funding: Clean Elections