Back in mid-December, then Gov.-elect Janet Mills announced that she had chosen Judy Camuso to serve as the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
In the last paragraph of the press release announcing the news, it was pointed out that if confirmed, Camuso would become the first female DIF&W commissioner in Maine history.
At that time, I thought the placement of that paragraph was appropriate. After all, Camuso was not going to be performing duties as a female commissioner. She would become commissioner. The boss. Period.
And that, I figured, ought to be enough.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I’m a member of the most privileged group in the country: I’m a white male.
On Wednesday, as members of a legislative committee considered Camuso’s nomination, I listened intently as a parade of speakers followed Camuso to the microphone. All but one praised the choice of Camuso to lead the department, and many mentioned the fact that she had become the first woman commissioner as an event worth celebrating.
But before that parade even began, I heard enough to know that my initial reaction, back in December, had been at the least uninformed, perhaps bordering on ignorant.
The fact that Camuso is a woman is a big deal. And it deserves to be celebrated.
I never had any doubt that Camuso was up to the task of leading the state’s fish and wildlife department, and I figured she would coast through the final Senate vote, which she did on Thursday. I had spoken with plenty of people who know her well, and who have worked for her and with her. None had a single negative word to say.
And I’ve worked with her on several stories and found her to be a smart, funny source, providing the kind of interview that journalists enjoy the most.
But I did not stop to think about her ascension to the top spot in the department from her point of view.
Early in Wednesday’s proceedings, Camuso told a story that made me do just that.
Several times, she said, she has been sitting in a clearly marked state-issue pickup truck, wearing an official DIF&W uniform, when she has been approached by strangers who have asked the same question.
“Are you a game warden’s wife?”
Consider that for a moment. The person wearing that familiar DIF&W patch didn’t earn it herself? The truck she’s in can’t be her own work vehicle? The department is not a place for women to work?
What year is it?
Now, join me in appreciating how big a deal her promotion from the leader of the department’s wildlife division to commissioner truly is.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Erin Merrill told legislators that though the number of female hunters and anglers in the state still lags well behind the number of men, progress was being made.
Merrill, speaking for Women of the Maine Outdoors and the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, said that nearly one-quarter of the fishing licenses sold in the state are now sold to women. Just over 13 percent of the hunting licenses are now held by women. And both of those percentages is on a steady upward trajectory.
Before Merrill stood up and shared those numbers, Camuso alluded to that reality and vowed to help change that dynamic. Helping to convince more women to hunt and to fish will be a priority, she said.
Camuso herself is leading by example and has taken up deer hunting. She knows that familiarity with firearms — and becoming comfortable with them — will take time. But despite her new job and the time constraints it may place on her, she vowed to not let a busy schedule keep her out of the woods come fall.
Here’s wishing her luck, both in the field and at her new job. And here’s hoping that all Mainers will join me in congratulating her for her achievement.
Judy Camuso is not a game warden’s wife. She’s the commissioner. Get used to it. Welcome it. Celebrate it. I will.
“Seeing Judy lead this department will not only be inspirational,” Merrill told legislators Wednesday. “It will be aspirational.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke