PORTLAND — Peter Mills is on a mission: to convince fellow Republicans that, this time, if he wins in June he can win in November.

He has learned from the 2006 Republican primary, when he finished a close second in a three-way race. He won four counties: Cumberland, Hancock, Sagadahoc and Somerset.

This year, he’s better organized and running a more professional campaign.

With seven Republicans in the primary field and no incumbent running in November, Mills believes his experience as a lawmaker and a lawyer give him the right combination to lead the state.

The most moderate Republican, Mills broke ranks with his party to support tax reform and gay marriage. He’s the only one in the GOP field to have served in the Legislature, a distinction he has begun to emphasize in speeches.

“I think it’s the job of the governor to see that accountability is the watchword of the administration,” he said in a recent interview at his Portland campaign office. “Otherwise, what do you do to overcome this widespread hostility toward the state?”

Mills, 66, is a Maine native whose ancestors go back six or eight generations on both sides. His ancestors founded Farmington in 1794, and the Mills name came from Nova Scotia before the Civil War.

Seven of his eight great-grandparents were born in Maine. All eight of them died here.

Peter Mills was born in Farmington and moved to Gorham with his family when his father, Paul, was named U.S. attorney in 1952.

One of his first political memories is staying home from school in 1954 to watch a few days of the McCarthy hearings on television.

“I stayed home for three days to watch that stuff,” he said. “My mother thought it was more worthwhile than whatever was going on in the fourth grade.”

He had typical jobs as a boy — delivering newspapers, stocking shelves and carrying groceries. Then, one memorable summer when he was 15 and a newly licensed driver, he drove his 76-year-old great-uncle — an antiques dealer — around the state.

“I drove this 1953 Chevrolet Woody station wagon hundreds and hundreds of miles,” he said. “We bought out all the settees at a Grange hall and we tied one on top of the other on top of the other. The thing was 15 to 20 feet in the air on top of the station wagon.”

His mother, an English teacher, reviewed her children’s homework every day after school. Mills said he would get home at 3 p.m. with his work already complete — or so he thought.

“The work was just beginning,” he said. “She made us redo it properly, change every other word, re-edit it. She was brutal.”

The oldest of five, Mills said he knew he was expected to find a way to pay for his own schooling, so he looked for opportunities through the military. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in English, he was commissioned into the Navy. It was 1965.

He served on three destroyers during the Vietnam War as part of an intelligence unit. One of the ships fired more than 26,000 rounds.

On his final tour, he monitored Soviet missiles as they came into the Pacific. The ship had one of the first satellite navigation systems in the world.

“I loved driving ships,” he said. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

When the Navy wanted to assign him to shore duty, Mills decided it was time to go to law school on the GI Bill.

He and his first wife moved to Portland, and he graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 1973.

After that, he got a job at a law firm in Portland that was politically active. He ran campaigns, a difficult job for a Republican in Portland.

He got divorced in the early 1980s and moved back to central Maine, where he was offered the chance to take over a law firm in Skowhegan.

In 1985, he and his current wife, Nancy, a Superior Court justice, moved to a home in Cornville. His sister Janet, now Maine’s attorney general, worked with him in the law practice. Another sister, Dora Anne, is a physician and director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

He has two brothers: Paul, a Farmington attorney who is active in the campaign; and David, who is not politically active.

It wasn’t until 1994 that Peter Mills saw a chance to run for the Legislature, when new district lines gave him a chance to win as a Republican.

Among his legislative accomplishments are helping to rewrite the rules for the state’s workers’ compensation system, which meant bringing together labor and business interests. His skill as a mediator, honed while working as a trial lawyer, has helped him shape legislation even as a member of the minority party.

“My specialty in life is figuring out what’s motivating somebody else across the table and appeal to that person’s interest to get something done,” he said.

As a measure of his success, he also points to his effort to stop the state from borrowing nearly $450 million to cover a budget shortfall.

As a member of the Legislature’s Labor Committee, he opposed a bill by Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell — one of four Democrats running for governor — to require businesses to provide paid sick leave.

He takes offense at those who say Republicans who have served in the Legislature are part of the state’s problems.

During his speech at this year’s state GOP convention, Mills said he has taken more than 4,000 roll call votes as a lawmaker, which makes it easy for people to “nitpick my record.”

But he points to his success at the polls — he won 64 percent of the vote in his most recent state Senate race — as an indication that he knows how to win elections.

He said his Senate district is dominated by independents, which make up the largest bloc of voters statewide.

Republicans, who are outnumbered by Democrats, will need independents in November to win, he told the large convention crowd.

He said that, once he gets elected, he’s ready to lead, and that he loves the process of governing.

“Other than driving ships, the most thrilling part of my life is the last three weeks of any legislative session,” he said. “You’ve got all these balls in the air and you know they are going to come down, every one of them.”

As governor, that excitement is multiplied by the responsibility of managing thousands of state workers and hundreds of state contracts, and the need to understand how budgets work.

“The third thing you have to do is get a budget through and obtain two-thirds of the 186 members of the Legislature who are all independently elected,” he said. “That’s where it differs from private enterprise. The challenge of the Governor’s Office is to find what needs to be counted.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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