May 12, 2010

Mitchell looking to set another precedent

The first woman to lead both legislative chambers aims to be the first female governor.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - It may seem hard to believe, but at one time Libby Mitchell was an outsider trying to break into Maine politics.

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Libby Mitchell visits with artist Susan Mesick on Tuesday at a gallery in downtown Sanford while campaigning for governor.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer


Governor's Race special section



This is the second in a series profiling candidates for governor. Libby Mitchell will chat with readers live at noon today on this site.



June 22, 1940
FAMILY: Husband, Jim; four grown children

OCCUPATION: Senate president, lawyer, former teacher, former director of Maine State Housing Authority

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in education, Furman University, Greenville, S.C.; master’s degree in education, University of North Carolina; law degree, University of Maine School of Law

PUBLIC OFFICE EXPERIENCE: Maine House of Representatives, 18 years; Maine Senate, six years

Just three years after moving to Maine to raise a family, Mitchell decided to run for the House of Representatives. It was 1974.

She was so new to the area that Democratic Party elders found another Democrat to challenge her in the primary. The South Carolina native won anyway, then won the seat to represent what had been a traditionally Republican district, in Vassalboro.

Since then, it's been a series of firsts for Mitchell: first female speaker of the House, in 1997; first woman appointed chairman of the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston; and, after being chosen Senate president, the first woman in the country to have led both state legislative chambers.

So to Mitchell, a bid to be Maine's first female governor is simply the next step in a groundbreaking political career that has spanned 18 years in the House and six in the Senate.

"You can look at the entire picture as governor," Mitchell said. "The governor gets to lead that effort in a much more profound way. I wanted to step into that arena and offer the skills I have honed over the years."

Mitchell, 69, entered the race for governor in August, putting her political future on an uncertain path in a year when many are vying for the chance to succeed Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.

In the June 8 primary, Mitchell faces three opponents: former Attorney General Steve Rowe, who succeeded Mitchell as speaker; former legislator and Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan; and Rosa Scarcelli, who runs a housing company.

That same day, Republicans will go to the polls to choose from seven candidates. The winners of the primaries will face at least two independent candidates in November.

Mitchell said her experience as a teacher, legislator, Senate president and head of the Maine State Housing Authority make her the best choice to lead her party, and the state.

In the housing authority, she worked with many companies to help people get the housing they needed. That job led to an appointment as co-chair of a national task force that created a low-income housing tax credit.

President Bill Clinton -- who sent out a fundraising appeal on Mitchell's behalf in March -- then appointed her chair of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston. "It was a very conservatively managed bank," she said. "It was the wholesale provider for capital for Maine community banks and credit unions."

Mitchell grew up in Gaffney, S.C., and worked in a peach-packing business when she was a teenager. Her father was a salesman and owned a neighborhood grocery store. Her mother taught in a one-room school and later worked at the store with her father. Mitchell, who has one sister, also helped out at the store, stocking shelves and working the cash register.

Her political heritage is well known in Gaffney. Her grandfather was a state lawmaker and sheriff, and her father served on the county election commission, according to the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal.

After high school -- she was Gaffney High School senior class president in 1958 -- Mitchell earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education, and went on to teach at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and in Switzerland, where she worked in an international girls' school.

She and husband, Jim, moved to Maine in 1971 for his work. Once settled, she taught English as a second language and adult education.

Her background as a teacher and her interest in education carried over to her legislative career, as she worked to expand the federal Head Start program with the use of state funds. She also pushed to get the state to pay for a 13th year of education -- an effort that failed but led to more scholarship money for students, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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