September 12, 2010

Mitchell: From small town to governor's race

Libby Mitchell's life story has always involved hard work, politics and caring about the less fortunate.

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

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Libby Mitchell
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Libby Mitchell


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Libby Harrill Mitchell’s parents, Lula Mae and Charlie, pose in front of Harrill’s Grocery, the family store, in this undated photo provided by Libby’s sister, Joyce Childers of Gaffney.

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This is the first in a series of profiles of Maine’s gubernatorial candidates. The series continues with Paul LePage on Sept. 19; Eliot Cutler on Sept. 26; Shawn Moody on Oct. 3; and Kevin Scott on Oct. 10.


BORN June 22, 1940

GRADUATED from Gaffney High School, 1958; Furman University, 1962

MOVED to Maine in 1971

FIRST ELECTED to the Maine House, 1974; Speaker of House, 1997-1998

FIRST ELECTED to Maine Senate, 2004; Senate president: 2009-present

ANNOUNCED RUN for governor August 2009

CHECK OUT OUR Governor's Race special section

It was also a time when womens' roles on campus were defined in much different terms than today. For example, here's an excerpt from the college paper about Mitchell's crowning as Homecoming Queen:

"Brunette beauty Libby Harrill will be crowned Homecoming Queen, 1961, at halftime ceremonies today ...," the Paladin reported. "The vivacious Gaffney native holds the office of vice-president of the student body this year; she is an active member of Pep Club, serves on President's Cabinet, and was elected last year to the honorary Senior Order."

An English major with a political science minor, Mitchell told the college newspaper she wanted to be a teacher or guidance counselor after graduation.

She got her first teaching job in North Carolina, where she taught for two years. She wanted to travel to Europe, so she pursued and landed a job at an international school for girls in Switzerland.

She taught English, U.S. history and civics for a year as the only American teacher at the school.

While she was there, her soon-to-be husband Jim Mitchell was teaching in Beirut, Lebanon. The couple had met months earlier in Washington, D.C., at a "belly dance restaurant" called Port Said, Mitchell said.

The couple married in 1965 and honeymooned in Bar Harbor. After he served in Vietnam, they headed to New Haven, Conn., where Jim was enrolled in Yale Law School.

They came to Maine because a law school professor's wife was a native of China, Maine. The professor suggested that the couple consider Maine and Mitchell landed a job with Gov. Ken Curtis.


Mitchell's high school friends Daniel, Roark, Gregory and Lana Mahaffey of Spartanburg say they weren't surprised when they heard their classmate was running for governor of Maine.

"It's been really interesting to hear about her life," Mahaffey said. "A small town girl does well."

In 1996, Mitchell became the first woman in state history to be chosen by her peers as House speaker. Twelve years later, she was the first woman in the country to have been chosen both House speaker and Senate president, the second highest political position in the state.

She also went back to law school while in her 60s, and has since passed the Maine bar exam.

Daniel, who served as lieutenant governor of South Carolina from 1983-1987 and ran for governor as a Democrat in 1986, is a lawyer who now works as a lobbyist. He shook his head in disbelief when he thought of Mitchell getting her law degree when she was in her 60s.

"That's the only thing I would question her on, her sanity," he said.

"That's Libby. If there's something she hasn't done and she wants to do it, she's going to try to do it."


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


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Libby Mitchell, 1958

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Downtown Gaffney, S.C., where Libby Mitchell grew up, is now a series of payday loan shops, vacant stores and a few businesses, but it was bustling in the 1950s. “It was a time of innocence,” says childhood friend Vicki Roark of Gaffney.

Susan Cover/MaineToday Media State House Writer


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