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'People did not want to turn the clocks back' — Gov. Janet Mills on the election and what's next

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Mark Vogelzang
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Maine Public file
Gov. Janet Mills on Maine Calling in Feb. 2019.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will be sworn in for her second term early next month following a resounding reelection victory over former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Mills discussed the election and a range of other issues during a 30-minute interview with Maine Public this week. Below is a transcript of a shortened version, which we’re sharing as this week’s Pulse podcast. It has been lightly edited for clarity and it begins with the governor jokingly correcting Maine Public’s Steve Mistler about her margin of victory.

Full interview with Gov. Janet Mills

Mistler: You ended up winning by 13 percentage points.

Mills: Actually 13.3 percentage points.

Which is a landslide, right?

Yeah. … It was very satisfying to have the vote come in from Lewiston (where LePage was raised) and to win by a couple thousand votes. … It was very satisfying to have the vote come in from Waterville (where LePage was once mayor), and to win handily there. … And even Edgecomb (where LePage lived temporarily during his bid for a third, nonconsecutive term), tiny Edgecomb voted for me.

People did not want to turn the clocks back. People wanted to continue doing what we started to do the first four years of my term. In my first term, people wanted to see investments in child care and education and health care. People wanted to see progress. I think that the Dobbs decision had some effect as well. I think women turned out to vote and women were voting for their rights. That was certainly a factor as well.

How much of a factor do you think that the abortion issue was in the race? I mean, it's hard to quantify exactly what voters’ motivations were.

It was an issue. And, of course, it came up in several debates. So it was an issue there. But more importantly, I think people knew that my administration had finally fully funded public education, the way that the people had voted to do 17, 18 years before. People knew that we had made progress on health care, that we had finally expanded MaineCare for the first time in years — even after the people had voted to do that before and seen five vetoes from the previous governor (LePage). They didn't want to go back to those times.

Do you think your opponent's record and conduct was a factor? Do you think that was top of mind for voters? And, you know, I know there was an effort to sort of repair that image by his campaign, but I kind of wonder if people still thought about it, especially in the context of the Trump years.

I don't know what other people thought. Many people offered comments to me about his behavior. Whether that was top of mind on their part or not, I can't say. But people don't want to hear name calling and rudeness. People want some sense of stability and government. We've been through a lot these last few years. We've been through some topsy turvy times through no fault of our own. People want some stability, and consistency. And they want people to be talking to each other in a civil fashion. They want common sense in government and they want compassion. That's what I heard.

And have you heard from Mr. LePage since he conceded? Did he ever call to congratulate you or send a note?

Not a word.

Not a word?

Not a word.

What do you make of that?

That speaks to him. Not to me.

We should talk about what happened last week with the emergency heating and housing assistance bill that you had hoped would pass on the first day of the legislative session, which I know is rare. But you view that there's an emergency and a lot of other people believe that there's an emergency — an emergency that could potentially cost lives. That bill failed after eight Republican senators blocked its passage. They've since offered several reasons for opposing the bill. Some are related to process concerns. But what do you make of the rationale that you've heard from the Senate Republicans in particular?

Well, their explanation doesn't need to be heard by me. It needs to be heard by the Maine people. They need to explain to the Maine people why they essentially have stalled a bill that would be getting help out the door, now, to people while the temperatures are dropping. I'm hoping that they'll keep talking and keep working on this measure. I’m hoping that they'll come around. We only need a few votes in the Senate to enact this as soon as possible.

We heard about this on the campaign trail. Everybody, every member of the Legislature heard about this on the campaign trail for the past months and months. How the need is now. And we were fortunate enough to manage the budget in the last month, a few months, to allow for the (budget) surplus to accrue. And this surplus is appropriate to spend on one-time purposes for emergency needs. And that's what we proposed.

One of the concerns that was expressed by Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) is that the direct payments in particular would gobble up the surplus and leave no money for other budget initiatives. Is that a valid concern here?

I think that concern was addressed by Rep. (Sawin) Millett (R-Waterford) on the floor of the House of Representatives pretty adequately. He’s a man with a great deal of experience in budgeting and he explained that this is one-time money. It does not eat up funds that are already allocated for health care for nursing homes, for brain injured individuals and all the things that we need to take care of. Those issues remain addressed, and will be addressed in the biennial budget, and possibly a supplemental budget. But we're not eating up funds that could go to other purposes.

Is there an argument to be made that the income levels (of the direct payments) should be lower to target the people most in need? And isn’t that what you originally proposed?

That whole thing (income thresholds) was discussed at length in the last few weeks. And this is where we ended up. And that's what the House voted on, and what, 125-16? So that's where it stands. We just need a handful — just a couple of votes in the Senate.

Do you anticipate that the (next) budget will include more funding for Maine's system for providing legal services for indigent defense? As you know, the commission that oversees that program has asked for, I think, $13 million in additional funding in the hopes that it will be able to increase the hourly rate for defense attorneys. The hope is that by increasing the hourly rate, perhaps more attorneys will sign on. Iis that a solution?

I am fully aware of the need for legal counsel for indigent defendants, and people facing child custody and child protection proceedings, who constitutionally need and require adequate legal counsel — competent legal counsel. Look, I represented indigent clients in western Maine for about 14 years. So I'm aware of the need, the constitutional need, the societal need. People should never be left without counsel for days at a time, whether they're in jail, or not in jail, at a critical time in their lives. They need legal help. Clearly they do.

I think there are some systematic changes that can be made. I think some more will be required. Whether I agree with the (Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services) proposal, or not, is another thing.

I want to encourage every law firm in the state of Maine to help us out here, get us over the hump. And I want to encourage law firms to designate lawyers in their firm to do work for indigent defendants. Honestly, it not only provides a social service and a constitutional service — a public service — it also gets people in the courtroom. And it provides an experience that you're not going to get otherwise to become a good lawyer.

The other problem is the backlog of cases in the courts across the state of Maine. And we're seeing this nationwide. There’s pent up demand after the pandemic. We've got to address the backlog in the court system because I understand why somebody (an attorney) might not want to take it — maybe they’ve offered to take five cases. And the court says, ‘well, here's 50.’ That shouldn't happen either.

I wanted to ask about abortion real quick, since it was such a big issue in the election. You've previously mentioned that you're considering a bill that would enshrine this 1994 state law that has protected abortion access.

I'm waiting to hear back from the attorney general's office about what they think the current status of the right to privacy, including the right to right to abortion is under the Maine Constitution.

I mean, if you did pursue a constitutional amendment, you would obviously need two-thirds of the Legislature to get that to voters. Do you expect Republicans to vote for that?

I haven't asked and I won't know until something is put out there and there's something to vote on. All the polls show that the people of Maine are overwhelmingly in support of the right to reproductive health care, including the right to abortion.

I want to ask you quickly about tribal issues. You opposed the sweeping sovereignty bill earlier this year and it's unclear if House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross will reintroduce a similar measure. The tribes have indicated that they're interested in overhauling the 40-year-old agreement. What is your interest and talking to the tribes about opening up that agreement. In their view, it has prevented them from economic self-determination. A Harvard study that they commissioned seems to agree with them.

There's a lot to be done to repair the history between the tribes and the state of Maine going back 300 years. There's a lot to be done to repair the hurt that's involved in our relationships with the tribes going back a long way.

And I think we've done a lot in the last four years to do that. The Settlement Act is not sacrosanct. It has been amended in the past. And … my administration has worked on amendments to the Settlement Act. We've taken some pretty big steps that way. It’s not just symbolic things like changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, banning tribal mascots, things of that sort, which were important to send a message to people that we're not going to diminish people's rights.

The posthumous pardon I did for Don Gellers was just very, very emotional. And that goes back to hopefully repairing some of the damage … from some of the relationships, going back to 1970. It's an incredible story. And then we worked — we worked on it for two years — on changing the law to enact some of the most stringent water quality standards for those rivers and waterways in Maine that are particularly valuable to the tribes for sustenance fishing. That was a heavy lift. And that got done because we got it done with the work of the tribes and the Legislature. And then we worked on the (Violence Against Women Act) for several years to make sure it was done and done right. So now we have tribal jurisdiction over people who commit domestic violence on tribal land against tribal individuals, by nontribal individuals. So that was a heavy lift. It's not as simple as it sounds.

And then this past year, (we passed) LD 585 to codify a means of communication and cooperation that didn't exist in law before — and to provide some significant income tax benefits to tribal entities. We worked to give them exclusive rights to online gaming. That was a big move. Look, I vetoed two online gaming bills in the past, right? I'm not a big fan. But I said, ‘you know, if they really want that.’ And it didn't engender a lot of good feelings from certain members of the Legislature. We’ve got two casinos going on and they want that (online gambling), too. So that was a big move.

So, we made a lot of progress. I didn't see anything like those moves in years past from previous administrations. So I think we have a budding relationship, a good relationship. I'll take it one issue at a time.

Last question because I know you’ve got to go. You know, sometimes a governor in their first term, they're a little bit careful, cautious, low key because they're running for reelection —

We had a pandemic, for God’s sake! That was cautious and low-key?! They called me a dictator! Sorry.

But you know, now you don't have to worry about reelection. Do you anticipate any big changes? Do you feel, I don't know, liberated by that in any way? And what can we expect from Janet Mills 2.0?

Look, I'm the same person I was Nov. 7 (the day before the election). On Nov. 9 I was the same person I was two days before. So, honestly, I think people see that with me what you get is what you see. I don't expect to change. I haven't changed in — I’m not going to repeat my age, but I haven’t changed in all those years. I don’t expect to change now, in how I do things, how I communicate, relationship building, those kinds of things. Those are the kind of things that I think people want to see.

Biden thanks Collins

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine received a shout-out from President Joe Biden this week for her work on a marriage equality bill.

During a large signing ceremony held on the White House grounds on Tuesday, Biden thanked Maine’s Republican senator and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin for leading Senate negotiations on the bill.

"This bipartisan vote simply would not have happened without the leadership and persistence of a real hero, Tammy Baldwin,” Biden said. “And thank you Susan Collins, who did not rest until this bill got done."

The Respect for Marriage Act guarantees federal recognition of same-sex marriages that were legally performed in states while conferring any accompanying federal tax or policy benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. The Baldwin-Collins amendment contained key religious liberty provisions that allowed the bill to pick up enough Republican support to avoid a Senate filibuster.

Supporters said the bill was necessary to head off any attempts by the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court to overturn earlier rulings legalizing same-sex marriage as well as interracial marriages. In a concurring opinion to the ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents” in specific cases that dealt with same-sex marriage, access to contraception and privacy.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Collins, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King and Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — voted for the bill. Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage a decade ago.

Heating bill hearing?

There were a few potential developments this week in the still-stalled effort to help Maine residents pay for heat and electricity this winter.

As we reported last week, Republicans in the Maine Senate blocked passage of a $474 million emergency spending bill that would have resulted in $450 “relief payment” checks being mailed to about 880,000 Maine taxpayers. Senate Republicans insisted that the bill — which also contained $50 million for low-income heating assistance programs and $21 million in emergency housing assistance — needed a public hearing rather than a rubber stamp from lawmakers on the first day of the new legislative session.

It now appears that Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, both Democrats, are considering options for holding a public hearing and maybe even reconvening the full Legislature before lawmakers are slated to return on Jan. 4. Jackson spokeswoman Christine Kirby said Thursday those discussions are ongoing.

Additionally, a pair of senators released an alternative proposal with a smaller financial footprint.

Republican Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford and Democratic Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth proposed restricting relief checks to households earning 300% of the federal poverty level, or about $60,000 for a married couple. That is a major departure from the deal that Mills negotiated with House Republicans, who wanted $450 checks sent to anyone earning less than $100,000 and couples earning less than $200,000.

With its sliding scale of payments based on income levels, the Bennett-Grohoski plan is more complicated than the original bill. So they will have to win support from House Republicans who voted for the original and Senate Republicans who opposed it, not to mention Democrats who hold the majority in both chambers.

Programming note

The Political Pulse team will be taking a break for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. However, the team will join Maine Calling for its year-in-review program on Dec. 22. Tune in at 11 a.m. to listen live.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.