Now that it’s an election year, and the end of her first term in office is rapidly approaching, Janet Mills seems to have suddenly realized that, well, she hasn’t actually accomplished all that much. The Democratic governor’s biggest achievement during her first term in office has been simply fulfilling her promise to expand Medicaid, which was a fairly easy lift given the state’s healthy finances and her party’s full control of the Legislature. Essentially, getting that done was simply a matter of moving any Democrat into the Blaine House to replace Paul LePage, since it had already been passed by referendum. Moreover, it wasn’t a particularly bold or innovative policy idea: It was simply finally agreeing to accept federal funds to grow government, always a liberal priority.

In fact, when it comes to substantive policy proposals, Mills’ cupboard of solutions has been rather bare throughout her term in office (never a sentence I’d imagine having to write about a Mills in the Blaine House). Many of her proposals have been simple run-of-the-mill Democratic priorities, recycled and adapted to fit in to the Maine context. Until recently, it seemed that she was perfectly content to largely stay out of major policy battles. Her stance on the Central Maine Power corridor was indicative of that approach: Although she supported the project, she did little to get involved in the referendum campaign on it. While that was probably wise, given the wide margin by which CMP lost, it demonstrated a lack of leadership on the issue – and a lack of conviction in her position.

Just when it seemed that Mills was content to run for reelection on her record managing the pandemic and state government, she has suddenly decided to insert herself into the debate over a number of controversial policy areas. It’s as if she were a high school student suddenly realizing that she needed to burnish her extracurriculars if she wanted to get into her college of choice. Now, rather than taking the back-seat approach, she’s getting actively involved in issues as varied as student debt, tribal sovereignty, gambling legalization and energy policy. All of these issues are long-term problems in Maine politics that have defied easy solutions for decades, so in a sense it’s admirable that Mills has decided to take the initiative to get involved in them. The question, though, is whether it’s necessarily a politically astute decision.

The peril and promise of these issues are that they’re not necessarily partisan, even though each of them is controversial. While the potential exists in these areas for wide bipartisan agreement, the potential also exists for these issues to be divisive in new and interesting ways. On the energy issue, Mills seems to have now opened the door for a public takeover of utilities like CMP and Versant Power. While that represents a shift in her position, she hasn’t exactly moved to embrace the idea of a complete takeover of the utilities, as advocates for a public utility takeover would have hoped. Instead, she’s proposed using the threat of a public takeover in order to encourage better behavior on the part of the private companies.

Although that strategy might be a viable one, it might not necessarily be the sweeping compromise that the Mills administration is envisioning. Instead, it could continue to face opposition from both the utilities themselves, who don’t want to ever see a takeover threat on the table, and advocates for a public takeover, who will rightly see it as an attempt to short-circuit their campaign. Instead of leading to a settlement of the utility issue, it could simply highlight the divisions within the Democratic Party, becoming a millstone around Mills’ neck rather than a feather in her cap. It’s a risky play, to be sure, but it could be a worthwhile one if it produces results.

Another problem for Mills with zeroing in on these issues is that it leaves others on the back burner. We saw this during her State of the State address, when she focused on these issues and her response to the pandemic but failed to mention other ongoing problems, like the opioid crisis, which hasn’t abated. By putting most of her eggs in these baskets, Mills risks having to revert to her earlier strategy: just running on what little she’s already accomplished. That might work in some years, but in what’s shaping up to be a good Republican year, it may not end up being enough.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.