In a political climate that has many longtime lawmakers watching their backs, Libby Mitchell isn’t apologizing.
“I can’t run as an outsider,” Mitchell said after a recent rally at a union hall in Brewer as a folk singer crooned of jilted workers. “Maine did not create this recession, but Maine has weathered the storm as best we can. Maine needs a governor with a long-term plan, and I hope my ideas resonate with Maine people.”
Her opponents are quick to point to Mitchell’s 24 years in state government — most recently as Senate president — as a strike against the Vassalboro attorney.
“Same old, same old. Thirty-five years of failed policies,” Republican Paul LePage laughed when asked at a press conference about Mitchell’s education plans before they were even released.
As a pioneering political veteran whose place in history is already secured as the first woman to lead both chambers of a state’s Legislature, Mitchell’s gracious demeanor isn’t easily soured — at least not in public. But when her gaze hardens and her tone drops a half note, you know there’s fire inside. That’s the way it was recently when she was told of LePage’s comment.
“When we talk about people who have served the state of Maine, like George Mitchell, for instance, we don’t call them career politicians. We call them public servants,” Mitchell said. “I was not appointed. I have to go out every two years and hold myself accountable.”
Mitchell, 70, a native South Carolinian, moved to Maine with her husband, James, in 1971. Since 1974, she has served nine terms in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate, rising to House majority leader, speaker of the House and most recently, Senate president.
Her past as a teacher shines through Mitchell’s legislative portfolio, which includes sponsorship of a bill that made Maine the first state in the country to used state funding to expand the Head Start program. She has played instrumental roles in difficult budget deliberations amid vanishing revenues and helped guide through bipartisan borrowing plans.
In Mitchell’s view, her record is a string of laurels, not a political noose around her neck — and Democratic rule of the Legislature has served Maine well, regardless of what opponents say.
While she and other Democrats are painted by some as tax-and-spenders, Mitchell said the truth is that Democrats focus on what’s best for Maine people, including cutting taxes.
The homestead exemption program, the creation of Pine Tree Economic Development Zones and cuts to businesses’ personal property taxes are all evidence that Republicans aren’t the only ones who want to reduce the tax burden, she said.
Mitchell also backed the tax reform package pushed through the Legislature almost exclusively by Democrats in 2009. It was later repealed by 60 percent of voters, but Mitchell said the proposal’s core — reducing Maine’s top income tax rate by 2 percent — would have paid huge dividends for individuals and businesses.
“Our income tax problem is still there,” she said. “We need to lower it, but we need some method of paying for it that’s acceptable to the Maine people.” Asked if she would pursue tax reform again as governor, Mitchell said she would consider it.
As for whether she would support or propose a tax increase, Mitchell refuses to rule it out. “Maine people are hurting,” she said. “Raising taxes right now is really tough.”
With tea party ideals flourishing among some voters and LePage promising deep spending cuts, Mitchell’s refusal to take a pledge against new taxes is seen by some as predictably Democratic.
But Mitchell again points to history. In the 1990s, among a slew of new taxes and fees, the Legislature added a penny to the state’s sales tax. Though the increase was always meant to be temporary, Mitchell said the fact is that a Democratic-led Legislature repealed it.
“We kept our word on that promise,” said Mitchell. “For all these years, my party and I have been fighting to protect people.”
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Washington County, referred to Mitchell’s championing of a so-called “soda tax” in 2007 and her support of a more than $300 million bond package in 2009 as two examples of Mitchell’s attitude toward new taxes and spending.
In 2008, voters repealed the soda tax at referendum. The Democrats’ 2009 bond package was reduced after extensive negotiations with GOP leaders.
“It certainly would be a revision of history to suggest that Libby Mitchell and the Democrats have been the voice of lower taxes,” said Raye. It also would be inaccurate, he said, to call Mitchell anything other than a “tough partisan,” despite her efforts to portray herself as a collaborator on the campaign trail.
In 1997, while Mitchell was House speaker, a Democratic majority voted to adjourn the session immediately after a majority vote on the budget, said Raye. According to Michael Cote, assistant clerk of the House, it was the first biennial budget in Maine history to not receive a two-thirds majority vote. The Legislature then returned to session to finish other business.
“They devised a pretend end of session to avoid the constitutional environment,” said Raye. “That was probably one of the most sharply partisan maneuvers in the history of the Maine Legislature.”
The Mitchell camp responded by providing several examples of Raye praising bipartisan collaborations — including in the most recent session, which included the bond debate.
“This session ended exactly as it began, with bipartisan cooperation,” said Raye in a June 2009 Republican radio address.
Even some members of Mitchell’s own Senate caucus said that, behind closed doors, she can be overly critical and relentless in her demand that her colleagues toe the party line.
“I don’t think Libby is without talent,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, an Orono Democrat. “But I have worked with her and I don’t think the collaboration is nearly as much as I would like to see, even amongst her own party.”
Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven of Lewiston, however, summarily rejected any notion that Mitchell is dismissive of those within her party.
“Libby has never once diminished my ideas,” Craven said.
But recent polls suggest Mitchell is having some trouble holding onto her Democratic base, and two of the party’s sitting Democratic senators — Schneider and Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, have broken ranks to support independent Eliot Cutler, citing policy differences with Mitchell.
A North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling survey released earlier showed only 61 percent of Maine Democrats favor Mitchell, while 75 percent of Republicans favor LePage, who is also attracting more independents than Mitchell.
In order to win, Mitchell says she needs a strong turnout and few, if any, Democrats voting for other candidates.
“Democrats have an uphill battle in this race,” wrote the polling firm in a Sept. 8 posting on its website. “It’s another reminder that the party’s in trouble in some places, no matter how blue they’ve been in the last few election cycles.”
Mitchell, for her part, said most Maine voters are just beginning to tune into the gubernatorial race and that candidates are still developing their policy ideas.
“Maine people are still making up their minds,” she said. “I think they are going to start to see the difference between me and my opponents.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.