NEWCASTLE, Maine — Frances Perkins was a hero of Laura Fortman long before Fortman knew that the country’s first-ever female cabinet member had Maine roots.
This week, Fortman was named executive director of the Frances Perkins Center, a nonprofit policy organization in midcoast Maine that’s dedicated to carrying out its namesake’s social and economic values.
Perkins, a Massachusetts native whose parents both hailed from Maine, was labor secretary for 12 years under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a principal architect of the New Deal.
Among other things, Perkins championed fire safety regulations (she witnessed the historic and devastating Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in Manhattan in 1911), improved infant and maternal care and workplace standards and also was partly responsible for creating Social Security.
Fortman, Maine’s former Department of Labor commissioner, said Perkins was an inspiration during her time but said her ideas are just as relevant today.
“One of the things she came up with was unemployment insurance,” Fortman said in an interview Thursday. “If she could figure out how to create such a critical program like that during the Great Depression, we should be able to do something just as meaningful during our own recession.”
The Frances Perkins Center, located in the Lincoln County town of Newcastle, was established in 2008. It thrives on donations and some foundation and grant support and also operates as a homestead in Perkins’ memory.
Although Fortman, who knows the inner workings of the State House intimately, will lobby on behalf of social and economic causes, she sees her role a little differently.
“One of the things we provide that’s unique is a historical perspective,” she said. “We care about the policies, but one of the things Frances Perkins was known best for was making sure citizens knew that the people mattered.
“We’ve lost some of that. Government should aim to give all people the best possible life,” she said.
Fortman said she plans to advocate for causes she has believed in for many years, including increasing minimum wage, improving worker safety and health and stabilizing and improving unemployment insurance and Social Security.
“Laura Fortman is a tireless advocate for working people and we are thrilled to have her at the helm of the Frances Perkins Center,” said Leah Sprague, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors. “At Maine’s Department of Labor, Fortman administered the very laws and regulations that Perkins set in place.”
Before her time as labor commissioner, Fortman was executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center.
Although Fortman held the labor commissioner post for seven years, her tenure is now marked by her connection to the labor mural that Gov. Paul LePage ordered removed from the Department of Labor’s waiting room.
Some Republicans claimed that a face in the mural, a face that shares a panel with none other than Frances Perkins, bears a striking resemblance to Fortman.
The mural’s artist, Judy Taylor of Tremont, who was paid $60,000 in federal grant funds to create the mural, has said she did not include Fortman in the mural.
For many months, the mural’s removal has been the source of a continued public relations headache for the governor, who recently said that the only reason he took it down is because of its funding sources. Previously, he had said that the mural’s message was a one-sided view of Maine’s labor history.
Fortman said she couldn’t really comment on the mural debate because there is still a pending court case that she’s a part of. Fortman is on the side of a group of plaintiffs who are suing the LePage administration for taking the mural down and keeping it hidden.
“I can say that I do believe that understanding our history is critical and that’s what the mural depicted,” she said.