AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills is assembling a Cabinet likely to include more women than any of her predecessors and has won bipartisan praise, so far, for the qualifications of nominees to lead state agencies.

Within days of her victory in November, Mills began putting together a team – and eventually a search committee – to recruit individuals for the dozen-plus positions in the governor’s Cabinet. Mills, a Democrat, has nominated 13 individuals to serve as commissioners of the 14 state agencies, with the final announcement – for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry – potentially coming this week.

Seven of the 13 nominations are women. If all of those nominees are confirmed by the state Senate, Maine’s first female governor would also lead the most gender-diverse administration in state history.

“In looking for high-quality nominees and prospects, there are a lot of women in Maine who fit that bill,” said Ben Grant, a Portland attorney and former Maine Democratic Party chairman who co-led Mills’ transition team. “There wasn’t an intent to say, ‘We need a certain number of women in the Cabinet.’ But through this process, we have found there are a lot of women leaders in Maine who can step up and … in every case, I don’t think you can argue that any woman we selected was less qualified than anyone else.”

‘LITTLE CONTROVERSY’

Commissioners are political appointees, meaning they serve at the pleasure of the governor as long as lawmakers consent to the nomination. But rather than stack her Cabinet with personal allies or acquaintances, Mills has primarily selected individuals with significant experience and/or expertise within their respective departments.

University of Maine at Farmington professor Jim Melcher, who is a veteran political observer, said Mills’ nominees “seem to be very well received so far.”

“There’s been remarkably little controversy over her selections,” Melcher said. “Those inclined to be critical of her are aiming at different things, such as their fear she may seek to increase taxes.”

Three of the 13 individuals would be holdovers from the LePage administration: Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources; Anne Head, commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation; and Maj. Gen. Douglas Farnham, adjutant general and commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.

Mills’ pick for the Department of Labor, Laura Fortman, led the agency for eight years under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and was a deputy administrator in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Three more nominees – Bruce Van Note for the Department of Transportation, biologist Judy Camuso for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Maine State Prison Warden Randy Liberty for the Department of Corrections – already work within state government.

Mills, who spent the past six years as attorney general, has also tapped individuals from within that office to lead agencies.

Jerry Reid, an assistant attorney general who is chief of the office’s natural resources division, is nominated for the high-profile and sometimes contentious job leading the Department of Environmental Protection. Kirsten Figueroa, who oversaw accounting, budget and human resources under Mills in the AG’s office, has been nominated for commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs.

Rounding out the other nominees to date are:

Former Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

Jeanne Lambrew, who served as President Obama’s deputy assistant for health policy, as commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Pender Makin, assistant superintendent of Brunswick schools and a former Maine Principal of the Year, as commissioner of the Department of Education.

Heather Johnson, director of the ConnectME Authority working to expand broadband internet access, as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

All of the nominations will be the subject of legislative hearings. Republican lawmakers are likely to raise concerns about some of the nominees. For example, the Maine Republican Party has pointed to Lambrew’s involvement in the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act during her time in the Obama administration.

‘REPAIRS TO BE MADE’

The number of women holding Cabinet-level positions in Maine state government has fluctuated over the past 35 years.

In 1983, during the administration of Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan, none of the 16 department commissioner posts were held by women. Independent Gov. Angus King had as many as six female commissioners in the late 1990s. Counting one acting commissioner, there were seven women serving in Baldacci’s Cabinet at one point in 2009-10. But in both the King and Baldacci administrations, Maine had slightly more Cabinet-level state agencies than exist today.

The number of women serving in Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet ranged from one to four throughout his eight-year tenure. Mills, by comparison, has nominated seven women so far with one commissioner spot still outstanding. There is also speculation about whether Mills will break up the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, returning to the pre-LePage structure where farming and forestry were handled by separate agencies.

Melcher said the higher percentage of women is “notable but not surprising given her record.”

“There does not appear to be criticism of her on the lines that these are just picks to increase diversity; I’ve seen no such criticism or complaints the appointees are unqualified,” Melcher said.

Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, likewise said that “nobody can question whether any of these people are qualified for the positions” for which they were nominated. Townsend, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation in the Baldacci administration, said she and others were particularly excited about Fortman’s potentially returning to the Department of Labor – an agency she said is important to women as they struggle for equal pay and to support their families.

“We should all recognize right now this is going to be a challenging time for people stepping into these roles because there is going to be some degree of cleanup,” Townsend said, noting the troubled rollout of a new unemployment system in the Department of Labor. “There are repairs that are going to have to be made.”

Lambrew likely faces some of the largest challenges of any Cabinet member as she looks to lead a department with a budget of $3.4 billion.

As head of DHHS, Lambrew would be responsible for expanding Medicaid to cover an additional 70,000 adults after LePage and his commissioner, Mary Mayhew, refused to implement expansion.

Also, the Legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, is investigating DHHS’ child welfare programs after two high-profile child deaths. The agency has also been wracked by high staff turnover as well as Riverview Psychiatric Center’s loss of federal certification, although the facility appears to be back on track to once again receive federal Medicare funds.

David Farmer, a former deputy chief of staff and spokesman during the Baldacci administration, called Lambrew “a national policy superstar” given her role in helping to implement the ACA and other health care initiatives during the Obama years.

“I think you see very highly qualified nominees with incredible expertise, … and I think it speaks to the nature of the job and the transformative time we are in,” Farmer said.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2019, to correct that, in 1983, there were no women serving as commissioners during the administration of Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan, not the administration of independent Gov. James Longley.