Former Department of Health and Human Services chief Mary Mayhew ended speculation about her political future Tuesday, by announcing her candidacy for governor.
Her message — focused on small government and bootstrap solutions to Maine’s economic problems — is similar to that of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, her former boss. And Mayhew’s hopes of winning the Blaine House may very well hinge upon her ability to connect with the governor’s loyal supporters.
In more ways than one, Mayhew’s campaign kickoff could be viewed as a direct message to the governor’s base. She first announced her candidacy on Bangor radio station WVOM, one of LePage’s preferred ways of communicating to his supporters. She then traveled to Dingley Press in Lisbon to deliver an economic-focused message to warehouse workers.
“For the last six and a half years, I’ve been part of an effort to bring Maine back, to have Maine have its own comeback story,” Mayhew said.
When she resigned from her post at DHHS almost two weeks ago, she ended a controversial tenure highlighted by divisive policy changes to public assistance programs and a high-profile campaign to prosecute welfare cheats.
Those pursuits were largely applauded as needed reforms by conservatives and repeatedly praised by LePage. But they were roundly criticized by progressives and advocates for the poor, who say the changes were punitive and and have done little to lift people out of poverty.
Mayhew is touting the policies again, and said popularity isn’t a metric for success.
“I’ve made those difficult decisions. I’m certain there will be criticism. But I’m prepared to fight for what’s right,” she said.
Mayhew was a longtime State House lobbyist and a former Democrat before joining the LePage administration. At age 25, she was the campaign manager for former congressional candidate Patrick McGowan, who came within one percentage point of defeating Republican Olympia Snowe in the race for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990.
Now 52, Mayhew has chosen a hard-line conservative path at odds with her Democratic roots. And her gubernatorial launch bucked the conventional wisdom that Republican contenders would wait and see if U.S. Sen. Susan Collins will enter the race — potentially clearing the GOP field.
When asked about Collins, Mayhew commented that anyone who runs for the Blaine House cares about Maine. But then she criticized Collins’ recent support for expanding Medicaid based on the Indiana model.
“It’s concerning to me that she would come out and endorse a plan without understanding the challenges of our state budget, the impact of the cost of expanding Medicaid and what that will jeopardize in terms of our priorities,” she said.
It was a measured response compared to LePage’s fiery critiques of those with whom he disagrees, including Collins. But Mayhew’s remarks also signal that she sees herself as not only the candidate to replace LePage, but the one best suited to inherit his voters within the Maine Republican Party.