Capitol Notebook: Out of the political wilderness

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In a deeply cynical political world, a truly optimistic moment seems difficult to comprehend. And in a world full of critics, it is challenging to suspend disbelief and embrace a political moment that could bring welcome progress in addressing Maine’s challenges.

Maine has found such a moment, and last week’s buoyant inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills brings new hope after eight years in the wilderness of Paul LePage.

Instead of a bellicose philosophy of division, Mills launched her new administration with a speech that celebrated Mainers’ diversity, calling for unity in the shared love of this state.

The Sandy River, which flows through her hometown of Farmington, was a unifying metaphor.

“Many days I awake to see the mist rising from the Sandy River as it steers its course to the Kennebec, the winter’s breath unveiling a new day in my hometown, a new day in this state,” Mill said.

“Then I hear the familiar sounds of chickadees, church chimes and Jake brakes.”

Mills drew on this love of the land to build a strong plea to address the issue of climate change.

“But today our connection to the land is endangered. After 80 years of studies warning that carbon emissions are destroying our environment the danger is now at our doorstep,” she continued. “… Our coastal waters are growing acidic, temperatures are fluctuating, and sea levels are rising endangering our shellfish industry. Our forests are less suitable for spruce and fir and more suitable for ticks.”

Another key issue in the speech was health care. She recalled her friend Patty, “a vibrant, intelligent and charitable woman, an athlete, a mother of three wise children, loved by all – and uninsured,” who succumbed to breast cancer.

Noting that early detection could have saved Patty’s life, Mills said the circumstances were “unacceptable” and called for the expansion of health insurance coverage. And she noted that the lack of coverage fuels an opioid addiction epidemic that has cut a large swath through a young Maine generation.

The optimism generated by Mills’ first words as governor has been justified by her early cabinet and staff appointments. She has called on Mainers with deep government experience to lead her departments, and has attracted Maine’s top talent onto her team. And she has already followed through on her promise to expand Medicaid coverage to the 70,000 uninsured Mainers under the Affordable Care Act.

After this festival of change and unity, the new governor will face myriad challenges. Republicans, fractious and reeling after a stunning rebuke in November, will feel obligated to resist new ideas. And pent-up demand for the pet projects of Democrats will bring an even greater pressure as the party adjusts to its new reality of total State House dominance. It won’t take long for differences to emerge among Democrats.

But with experienced leaders running the Legislature and a willingness to work together on key goals, the Legislature and governor could find great success.

Mills, with a deep respect for Maine history, called in her speech for civil discourse, citing the words of the 1861 inaugural of Gov. Israel Washburn, a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Washburn urged his listeners to “'(wave) aside petty schemes and unseemly wrangles,’” Mills said, as they debated the great arguments of that fateful year.

If the new Legislature and governor can keep that in mind, they can overcome small differences to achieve big goals in Augusta.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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