The Universal Notebook: Mary Mayhew’s war on the poor

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When Mary Mayhew moved from Maine to Arkansas at age 14, she became known as “the brain from Maine,” a Yankee nerd with an interest in politics.

Back then and until she went over to the dark side, Mayhew was apparently a Democrat. She grew up in a Democratic family, campaigned in Arkansas for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, earned a degree in political science at the University of Arkansas, and then worked in Washington as an aide to Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Arkansas.

In 1990, Mayhew returned to Maine and served as campaign manager for fellow Pittsfield native and Democrat Patrick McGowan in his unsuccessful bid to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. McGowan’s strong showing gave Mayhew a lot of political street cred, which she took with her into the lobbying business, eventually focusing on health-care issues and going to work for the Maine Hospital Association.

Apparently something happened during those lobbying years, a dramatic reversal of Mayhew’s political poles. By the time Gov. Paul LePage tapped her to become commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services in 2011, the brain from Maine had become Little Mary Mayhem, designated human services hit man.

As DHHS commissioner, Mayhew has thrown 6,500 Mainers off Medicaid, refused federal funds that would have extended health insurance to 60,000 others, fired veteran mental health staff, lost federal funding and accreditation for the state mental hospital, overseen a disastrous RideShare program that left clients stranded and taxpayers paying a small fortune to incompetent ride brokers, and spent close to $1 million on a politically motivated welfare study by a partisan hack who plagiarized much of it.

Mayhew has reserved her special wrath for Portland, Maine’s social services Mecca. To begin with, she moved the Portland office of DHHS from the conveniently located Bayside neighborhood to a Republican-owned office building out by the jetport, where no one can walk to it. That’s one way to reduce the case load. Now she is threatening to defund the city for providing general assistance to immigrant asylum seekers and is waging an all-out war on the poor of Portland.

I’m sure you’ve read that a state audit turned up a handful of people staying at Portland homeless shelters who have money in the bank. You’ve probably also read that some people who receive food stamps have balances in their food stamp accounts of $5,000 or more. Mayhew and LePage, intrepid welfare fraud witch hunters that they are, look at these anomalies as evidence of scams, cheating and moral turpitude. In fact, what they represent are human frailty and bureaucratic mismanagement. It’s not a lot of money and it’s not a major problem.

The fact that a few sick and elderly citizens pile up benefits they aren’t using or have bank accounts they probably don’t even realize they have calls for compassion, not condemnation. But trashing immigrants, poor people and big-city liberals sure plays well to the bitter Republican base.

The rise in general assistance in Portland and elsewhere that LePage and Mayhew complain about is an entirely predictable result of Republican policies that transfer the burden of caring for the dispossessed from state to local governments. Cut MaineCare, cut food stamps, refuse to issue public housing bonds and you are dumping desperate people on the mercy of cities and towns. No wonder sick people with money in the bank are wandering the streets looking for shelter in the dead of winter. Thank God the good people of Portland have a heart.

Both LePage and Mayhew clearly put politics before people. They take a judgmental, moralizing approach to human services, finding, for instance, immigrants to be unworthy of public assistance, the homeless to be scamming the system, nonprofits not to be paying their own way, smokers not to be deserving of smoking cessation programs, and drug addicts to be unfit for Medicaid benefits.

But what bothers me most about Mayhew is the “gotcha” mentality she brings to her job. She has been infected by the petty, mean-spiritedness that permeates the LePage administration and its culture of intimidation and retaliation. She would clearly rather embarrass Portland officials than serve Portland’s poor.

State and local officials should be working cooperatively to address human needs and solve social problems, but these days Mary Mayhew is the human services problem.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.