AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine politics might have a very different look today if a tight 1990 congressional race had ended differently. But then-U.S. Rep. Olympia Snowe kept her seat, and the manager of the near-miss Democratic campaign is now a prominent Republican.
Fewer than 5,000 votes separated Snowe, a moderate Republican, and Pat McGowan, an insurgent Democrat, in that 2nd Congressional District race nearly 28 years ago. His 25-year-old campaign manager, Mary Mayhew, has come a long way since then.
“She probably would have been working for Nancy Pelosi if the result in 1990 was different,” McGowan mused of Mayhew in a reference to the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, “or maybe she would have been Nancy Pelosi.”
But Mayhew, 53, of South China turned from President Ronald Reagan-era Democratic politics to an arch-conservative six-year tenure as commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services under Gov. Paul LePage, and is running to succeed the term-limited Republican and guard his legacy as a government-shrinking technocrat.
Her six years at an agency consuming a third of state spending is one of the most consequential and complicated stories of the LePage era. Once infamous for Medicaid shortfalls, the department doesn’t have them anymore.
A Mayhew leaflet touts shrunken numbers of Mainers on various welfare programs since around the time LePage took office in 2011 — a 70 percent decrease in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a 28 percent decrease in food stamps and 24 percent in Medicaid.
But Democrats and advocates argue that demand hasn’t decreased. The share of Mainers in poverty was higher in 2016 than it was five years earlier, according to census data. Under Mayhew, a state psychiatric hospital was decertified by the federal government, and a state-funded report on Maine’s Medicaid system was found to be plagiarized.
This has made Mayhew perhaps the most polarizing state politician not named LePage. But her identification with him could help in the June 12 primary. A poll released by the Bangor Daily News this month found her in second place among four Republicans, behind businessman Shawn Moody.
“It’s about recognizing that government cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be accountability that government is, in fact, producing good results and is managing taxpayer resources efficiently and effectively,” Mayhew said in an interview.
Mayhew’s policies have become somewhat of a road map for national Republicans. President Donald Trump recently touted tenuous and contested links between food stamp work requirements and higher incomes that the LePage administration identified during her tenure.
Around the time Trump took office, Mayhew said there were “preliminary conversations” with officials who were interested in hiring her as an administrator of the food stamp program, but she said they never got far because she was committed to running for governor.
Still, Mayhew has traveled the country pushing conservative welfare policies for the Opportunity Solutions Network, a project of the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability. The Florida group is run by former Maine legislator and LePage transition team leader Tarren Bragdon. His brother, Trevor, runs the New Hampshire-based Rockwood Solutions, which is working for Mayhew’s campaign.
Mayhew’s conversion to the Republican Party is recent, and much of her work to push LePage’s agenda came when she was still a Democrat. She became a Republican in 2014 and is a Pittsfield native from a staunch, old-guard Democratic family with roots in Aroostook County.
After her family moved to Arkansas when she was 14, she graduated from the University of Arkansas and worked as an aide to a liberal congressman from that state. Later, she came back to Maine and managed the campaign of McGowan, a family friend who was seen as a giant underdog to Snowe and got little to no help from national Democrats.
McGowan, who lost in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary and supports Democratic attorney Adam Cote now, remembers her as a hard worker, “a good part of a family effort” that came up just short and an example of Democrats’ dwindling support in rural areas.
Mayhew “represents a lot of people who used to be strong, active, supportive Democrats who have gone … to the middle and to the right,” he said.
Life as a lobbyist
She parlayed that performance into lobbying work. Her last high-profile job before joining the administration was for 11 years as chief lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, a group whose positions don’t fall easily along partisan lines. It is liberal on health care access and conservative on taxation.
Mayhew argued for a relatively small 2002 Medicaid expansion and against a 2004 expansion as part of then-Gov. John Baldacci’s Dirigo Health program. Republicans and hospitals have blamed that one for runaway spending and deep state debt to hospitals.
But Mayhew’s former employer backed expansion during LePage’s tenure as she led the fight against it. The governor hasn’t implemented the law approved by voters last year. Mayhew wants to repeal it, but she still has friends in the hospital lobby.
Steven Michaud, the association’s president, donated $1,600 to Mayhew’s campaign. He called it a “personal donation” to a longtime colleague. He said her “intellect” and “experience” make her qualified for the job, though his group has agreed and disagreed with her on certain issues.
“That’s very consistent with my history with commissioners and governors,” he said.
Mayhew said her ideological shift toward Republicans came in the mid-1990s after judging that Democrats treated her business clients poorly, but that she didn’t bother to switch parties. She has given money to Republicans and Democrats. Her last gift to a Democrat was a $100 contribution to former state Rep. Emily Cain’s political committee in 2010.
She is also running a conservative campaign. She has derided “socialists” in Portland. In an interview, she said, “Exactly what I did at DHHS, I’ll do in the Department of Education,” saying there is a “lack of transparency” in how school districts spend state money.
Vestiges of moderation remain. She is the only Republican running who supports same-sex marriage, and the anti-abortion Christian Civic League of Maine deems her “mixed” on abortion, though she backs anti-abortion proposals including parental consent and waiting periods.
That may not be enough for social conservatives. Bob Emrich, a Plymouth pastor who formerly chaired the civic league and backs Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason for governor, said he would “like someone a little more staunch,” though he would likely support Mayhew in a general election.
“It’s not just a matter of signing bills; it’s also a matter of promoting bills,” he said. “It goes beyond specific legislation. There’s more to it than that.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Bob Emrich is the chair of the Christian Civic League of Maine. The Plymouth pastor is a former chair of the league.