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Libby Mitchell: Augusta insider again seeks statewide success

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Libby Mitchell: Augusta insider again seeks statewide success

Editor’s note: Part of a series by the non-profit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting examining the claims and records of some of the leading candidates for governor.

Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell has enjoyed a highly successful legislative career: first woman elected speaker of the House, third woman elected president of the senate and the first woman to hold both offices.

Yet her every attempt to rise above the Maine Legislature has failed.

Her quixotic campaign against then-U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen in 1984 ended in one of the most lopsided losses in recent history. In 1990, she came in a distant third in the primary for an open congressional seat.

Now, in what may well be her last hurrah in politics, Mitchell is trying to rise again, this time to the Blaine House. At 69, she is one the remaining four candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the June 8 primary.

A key theme in her campaign has been to suggest she is the very soul of bipartisanship, that she has a special ability to bring people from across the political spectrum together to solve Maine problems.

From her campaign biography: “On opening day of the 124th Legislature, President Mitchell set a tone for the session by calling on everyone, regardless of party, to work together.”

Kevin Raye, the Republican leader in the senate, notes that under Mitchell in this the most recent session, the Legislature passed a budget with both Democratic and Republican votes.

With major and painful cuts required in the budget, “we worked it through together,” he said.” Besides, I think everyone wanted to be able to spread the blame.”

But that has not always been the case.

In 1996, The Democratic-controlled Legislature changed the rules to allow a budget to be passed with only a majority vote – meaning the Democrats could ignore what the Republicans had to say.

That’s just what happened, according to Republicans.

“The first time we did a majority budget was in 1997, during (Mitchell’s) term as speaker,” Raye recalled. With Democrats in control of both bodies, they could – and did – effectively cut the Republicans out of the budget talks, Raye said.

Early in her career, according to legislators who served with her, Mitchell’s leadership style was low-key and cooperative.

“She was never an arm-twister,” said Rep. Herbert E. Clark, a Millinocket Democrat who served with Mitchell in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was House majority leader, “and she knew never to make a mountain out of a mole hill.”

In that respect, Mitchell was the opposite of the speaker she served under, the fiery John Martin, and the stories from that era have a good cop-bad cop air to them. Mitchell was a soft-spoken Southern lady (she was born and raised in South Carolina) who persuaded, rather than bullied.

But Mitchell also learned from Martin’s encyclopedic grasp of the process.

“Libby has gone from relying on her Southern charm to knowing how the whole system operates,” said Sen. John Diamond, who served as assistant majority leader under Mitchell in the early 1980s.

Even though Raye gives Mitchell credit for keeping the personal out of politics, he also said he expects a Mitchell governorship would retain her partisanship.

“If you looked at the issues Libby has pushed in the Senate, she would certainly take the state in a liberal direction,” he said.

Little excess baggage

Mitchell’s political baggage is surprisingly light despite her long history in Maine politics.

Her opinion of political action committees, for example, seems to shift depending on who is benefitting from them.

She finesses her position on the controversial 2008 school consolidation bill, in which she was deeply involved, by shifting much of the blame to Gov. John Baldacci.

Her attempt this year to push through a law that would have required Maine businesses to provide paid sick leave for their employees ended in an embarrassing failure, which she nonetheless defends as only an opening act.

Her early support for Baldacci’s signature Dirigo Health program has morphed into something just short of outright dismissal.

Mitchell is running as a Clean Elections candidate, dependent on public financing for her primary campaign, and she promotes the fact that her organization is PAC-free. Yet her acceptance of PACs to raise and distribute money goes as far back to 1982, when she chaired George Mitchell’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, and as recently as last year.

According to an Aug. 3, 1984, article by John Day in the Bangor Daily News, George Mitchell took in $628,000 in PAC contributions, thanks to his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. For Libby Mitchell (the two are not related), it was just part of the game.

“George Mitchell always said when he was trying to do campaign finance reform he would like to do certain things, but he would not go into a fight with one arm tied behind his back,” she said.

When she ran against Cohen two years later, she criticized his heavy reliance on PAC money while renouncing PAC donations herself.

Yet Mitchell operated a personal PAC in 2007-2008 that raised and distributed $81,000. The "vast bulk" of it, she said, went to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee PAC, but she also used the money to cover her travel and other expenses to support individual candidates, as well as make donations to non-Clean Elections candidates – whose support she could call on if they were elected to the Legislature.

She also oversaw the Senate Democratic Campaign PAC, which spent more than $695,000 during 2007-2008 to support Democratic Senate candidates.    

“I think it’s so important to have a Democratic majority that shares my views in terms of job growth, the environment, labor issues,” she offered. “I wanted to make sure we increased our majority, and we did; we went from 18 to 20 Democrats in the Senate.”

Gov. Who?

In a wide-ranging interview, Mitchell never once mentioned fellow Democrat and Gov. John Baldacci by name. She expressed considerable bitterness over Baldacci’s heavy-handed treatment of the 2008 school consolidation bill. Education has long been one of the former teacher’s major interests, and Mitchell said she put considerable effort into the school reform bill.

Mitchell was a member of the Education Committee when it held hearings about school consolidation and structural reform to lower costs. The committee spent months drawing up a proposal, she said, that reduced administrative overhead while providing incentives for centralizing purchasing and other activities.

But the Baldacci administration had little patience with a go-slow, “stake-holder” approach.

“We went to the Appropriations Committee with it, and I have never been met with such hostility by the committee, the governor’s staff, and every editorial board in the state,” she said. “It was like stepping in front of a fire hose of opposition and criticism.”

The committee was accused of being a tool of both superintendents and the teachers’ unions and of moving too slowly on a reform that was vital to resolving an impending budget crisis.

“The Education Committee was rendered totally impotent,” she said, “because the governor had decided this was the most important thing he wanted. ... There was no room for discussion.”

Ultimately the bill was rewritten by the Appropriations Committee to shorten the timetable for consolidation and eliminate local school districts in favor of regional entities, a loss Mitchell said she still mourns.

Mitchell allowed that she voted for the revised measure, but only because it was part of the larger budget bill. A referendum to overturn the plan failed last year.

Although she trumpets the need for streamlining state government in her debates, Mitchell went to the wall to effectively kill a plan by the University of Maine system trustees to reduce the number of campuses. She was an especially fierce defender of the University of Maine at Augusta, and in 2005 her opposition was a key factor in stopping a cost-cutting plan to merge the campus with the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Reforming the system “doesn’t mean dismantling the access points of our campuses,” she said.

Baldacci’s Dirigo Health program, originally designed to provide low-cost health insurance to low-income citizens and small businesses and now widely considered an expensive failure, gets short shrift from Mitchell. She said she will keep it just long enough to replace it.

“There are 10,000 people currently dependent on that, and I will not pull the rug out from under them,” she said. Dirigo Health “will stay in place until I have a place to put them.”

Paid sick leave

Mitchell is still smarting from the drubbing she took earlier this year over her attempt to force employers to give all employees paid sick time. The bill came under fire from the state’s business community before the ink was dry, and Mitchell found herself backpedaling furiously as Republicans and Democrats alike lined up to criticize it as a job killer during the worst recession in memory.

“It certainly had a political downside to it, but it was an issue she believed in,” Sen. Bill Diamond said.

Outside observers saw the bill as an overt attempt to appeal to women voters. Mitchell herself said that she was thinking largely of women workers, especially single mothers, when she introduced the bill, although she denied trying to pander to a particular voter demographic.

“If that were true it wasn’t very smart, was it?” she shot back. “There are other things that I’ve done for women that I’ve done successfully. It was high risk from the beginning. If you just do what’s popular, you don’t get very much done.”

The experience, she said, brought back memories of a similar and, to her, even more embarrassing episode in 1998 when, as speaker of the House, she tried to pass a bill that would pay the first year of college tuition for Maine high school graduates. “I ended up killing that bill myself under the gavel,” she said.

The sick leave issue, she predicted, “will be back.” And what did she learn from the experience? “I learned that being president of the Senate does not guarantee success, but I knew that already.”

Jeffrey Clark, a freelance writer from Bath, is a contributing writer at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit and nonpartisan journalism organization based in Hallowell. The center's e-mail is mainecenter@gmail.com. The website is pinetreewatchdog.org.