AUGUSTA – When Libby Mitchell took over as House speaker in 1996, a state government shutdown five years earlier was on her mind.

In her speech to House members as she took office, Mitchell told House members that she wanted to continue to foster the “sense of civility” that her predecessor, Dan Gwadosky, had established.

“Civility does not mean agreeing on everything,” she said at the time. “Disagreement and debate are still the lifeblood of democracy, but civility does mean respecting those with whom we disagree and avoiding brinkmanship and hostage-taking.”

Mitchell is now one of five people running for governor on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Throughout the campaign, she has touted her long legislative experience — she is the first woman in the country to serve as both state House speaker and state Senate president.

Mitchell says she has worked to avoid partisanship and that experience will help her if she is elected governor.

On the campaign trail this year, Mitchell has often talked about the five bipartisan budgets and bond packages passed during her tenure as Senate president. While many voters say they are concerned about partisan bickering, Mitchell said she has worked closely with Republicans to get the state through the recent recession.

Democrat Mike Saxl, who served as majority whip while Mitchell was speaker and later went on to serve as speaker himself, said he considers her a mentor.

“She’s an extraordinarily gifted leader,” he said. “She mixes a grace and ease with people with a toughness that people are not always aware of.”

When Mitchell took office as speaker, her appeal for civility referred in part to the state shutdown in 1991, when state offices were closed for 13 days because of a battle over the workers’ compensation program.

Mitchell, who was first elected to the House in 1974, remembers the shutdown as a failure of leadership that she wasn’t anxious to repeat.

So much so, that when negotiations with Republicans over the budget fell apart in 1997, she and fellow Democrats pushed through a majority budget — enacting the state spending plan without support from the minority party.

Republicans say that maneuver — which has been repeated by Democrats in the years since — was a signal that Democrats weren’t willing to reach across the aisle.

Mitchell said the action was needed. Republicans in the Senate were holding up the bill, and because she feared a second shutdown, she worked with independent Gov. Angus King to get the budget passed, she said.

“Two-thirds of the budget was agreed on,” Mitchell said. “There were very few financial issues that could not be resolved.”

State Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, who served in the House while Mitchell was speaker, said his disagreements with Mitchell come from their different political perspectives. He gives her credit for being “articulate and confident.”

“She had no objectionable qualities as speaker or senate president,” said Nass, who is supporting Republican Paul LePage for governor.

Mitchell, 70, began her legislative career three years after she and her husband, Jim, moved to Maine from South Carolina. In her speech to the House when she first took office, she recalled how her husband and a neighbor were bemoaning the fact that no one from Vassalboro would run for the House.

“I was home on my hands and knees painting the trim on the living room wall,” she said. “They thought of a lot of names and one by one each fell off the table because of lack of interest or whatever. No one would run. I listened to the conversation and finally said, I will do it.”

She went on to serve 10 years in the House until 1984, when she finished fourth out of five in the 1990 primary, behind winner Thomas Andrews, James Tierney, Linda Abromson and ahead of Ralph Conant.

In 1986, Mitchell took a job as director of the Maine State Housing Authority, a position she held until 1990. She tried a second run for Washington office, this time losing in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District.

Later that same year, she returned to the House, became the state’s first female majority leader and finally its first female speaker in 1996.

In 2004, she won a Senate seat representing five central Maine towns. And in 2008, she became Senate president.

In addition to legislative service, Mitchell also has town politics on her resume. She was elected in 2000 to the Board of Selectmen in Vassalboro.

It wasn’t until 2009 that she faced her greatest test in that job.

The Grand View Topless Coffee Shop had opened inside a former motel in town, attracting international attention to the small central Maine town. To the chagrin of many residents, the town had no zoning rules that specifically addressed adult businesses.

Many residents wanted some kind of ban. But Mitchell thought the first draft of the ordinance, which essentially banned nudity at businesses in Vassalboro, went too far. Mitchell asked that the ordinance’s language be tweaked and reviewed by a lawyer familiar with constitutional law.

Three months later, residents overwhelmingly approved an edited version of the adult-only businesses ordinance. Now, the ordinance regulated where, when and how “sexually oriented businesses” could operate in Vassalboro, without outright banning them.

Mitchell acknowledged recently that “people continue to be distressed” about the matter, but she believes she did all she could.

“You have to follow the Constitution no matter how unpopular it is,” Mitchell said. “I learned that you have to be a teacher and talk about what’s responsible and legal. As much as I would have liked to kick it out of town, I couldn’t constitutionally, and I had to explain that to people.”

In interviews, Vassalboro selectmen and town officials said they enjoyed working with Mitchell on municipal issues. She brought unique perspective and knowledge as a longtime and high-ranking state legislator, they said.

Mike Vashon, who served as Vassalboro’s town manager from 2002 until retiring in 2008, recalled Mitchell as someone who actively sought advice of town staff on issues.

“She had her fingers in everything,” Vashon said. “She took the time to listen to me and sometimes offered suggestions I hadn’t thought of. I tended to be somewhat conservative and Libby and the others basically let me run the town, and that’s what I enjoyed doing.”

Vashon noted that the town was able to keep the tax rate stable “and she (Mitchell) was a big part of that.”

Although Mitchell relied on town staff to run their departments, “when I had her sign the (spending) warrant, she wanted to know what was on there,” Vashon said.

 

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Scott Monroe can be contacted at 861-9239 or at: [email protected]

 

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