March 2, 2011

Health and Human Services gets 'a real fighter'

Mary Mayhew is smart and assertive, ex-colleagues and lawmakers all agree, but critics question her lack of experience.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Mary Mayhew's former colleagues confess some surprise about her new job as commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services.

click image to enlarge

Mary Mayhew has been confirmed as commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan


THIS STORY is part of a MaineToday Media series profiling Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet appointments. 

LePage's Proposed Cabinet

William Beardsley
Age: 67
Experience: President of Husson University in Bangor for 22 years. Candidate for Maine governor in 2010; Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development; professor; assistant to the president, Bangor Hydro

David Bernhardt
Age: 50
Experience: Director of engineering and operations, Maine Department of Transportation for which he has worked for 26 years.
Profile: DOT nominee never one to lean on his shovel

Stephen Bowen
Age: 41
Experience: Maine Heritage Policy Center; two-term member, Maine House of Representatives; high school teacher

Darryl Brown
Environmental Protection
Age: 66
Experience: Founder, Main-Land Development Consultants Inc.
Profile: Darryl Brown: Self-described conservationist draws bead on DEP 'attitude'

Philip Congdon
Economic and Community Development
Age: 69
Experience: Engineer, worked for Texas Instruments.

Maj. Gen. John Libby
Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management
Age: 66
Professional experience: Commissioner of Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management; Maine Emergency Management Agency, Maine National Guard

Mary Mayhew
Health and Human Services
Age: 46
Professional experience: Vice president and lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association

John Morris
Public Safety
Age: 71
Professional experience: Director of Public Safety, Waterville; chief of police, Waterville, Raymond; U.S. naval captain
Profile: Safety chief seen as thoughtful, fair, forthright

Norman Olsen
Marine Resources
Age: 59
Experience: Diplomat, U.S. State Department; reporter; commercial fisherman

Joseph Ponte
Age: 64
Professional experience: Warden, privately owned prison in Nevada; corrections departments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Idaho

Walter Whitcomb
Age: 58
Experience: Dairy farmer; six-term member of the Maine House of Representatives

Chandler Woodcock
Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Age: 61
Experience: Executive director, Maine Harness Horsemen's Association; 2006 GOP nominee, Maine governor; former state senator


It's not that the longtime lobbyist lacks intelligence, toughness or political skills, they say. And it's not that she is a Democrat in a conservative Republican administration.

What surprised them is that Mayhew wanted the post, arguably one of the most grueling and thankless in state government.

"That is a killer job, and you're always on the hot seat," said Gordon Smith, vice president of the Maine Medical Association. "You've got not only MaineCare, you've got social services, licensing, substance abuse ... you've got thousands of employees and one giant headache."

"She stepped out of the frying pan into the fire, and then dumped gas on it," said Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

Mayhew agrees it won't be an easy job. But she said she also sees it as a big opportunity, the next step in a career that she chose as a young girl in Pittsfield talking politics with her father.

"I've been very goal-oriented," she said. "Just focusing on the next goal and the next challenge."

Mayhew, 46, is now in charge of the state's largest and most complex state agency. And her department faces big changes, driven both by budgetary limits and by Gov. Paul LePage, who has promised to reform social welfare programs that many Mainers believe are too generous and expensive.

Mayhew said her goal is to protect the safety net for the most needy and vulnerable by streamlining programs, being creative and making hard choices.

"We have to be very clear that that's our mission," she said. "We can't be all things to all people."

Mayhew lives in China, a rural town outside of Augusta. Her husband, Ron Reed, runs an antique and used furniture shop there, which allows him to spend time with their two boys, 11 and 16, while Mayhew works long days, seven days a week, learning the new job.

Mayhew grew up in a hard-working and well-known family in Pittsfield. Her mother worked as a nurse's aide, and her father was a foreman at a local manufacturing company.

Dick Mayhew, her father, also was chairman of the school board and a community leader, and he shared his passion for politics with his daughter. Mayhew remembers her father, a Democrat, taking her to hear Edmund Muskie speak when she was about 4 years old.

"I loved the discussions and the debates from the time I was very young," she said.

At 14, her family moved to Arkansas to be near her mother's aging parents. It was a tough move for Mayhew, who became known as "the brain from Maine" and struggled to fit in.

"So, I got involved in local politics," she said.

She volunteered on Democratic campaigns, putting signs up for Bill Clinton during one of his campaigns for governor and volunteering to help Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign.

At 17, she became a congressional page and moved, alone, to Washington, D.C. She finished high school there, attending classes in the mornings before going to work in the Capitol, delivering correspondence to lawmakers. High school graduation included a Rose Garden reception with President Reagan, her parents snapping pictures.

She went home to enroll in the University of Arkansas, working summers in the manufacturing plant that her father ran until his death, from lung cancer, when she was 19.

The day after Mayhew received her bachelor's degree in political science, she drove back to Washington. She had no job, just some names to contact.

(Continued on page 2)

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