History was made Wednesday night when Democrat Janet Mills was officially sworn into office as Maine’s 75th governor, the first woman to ever hold the office and the first person from Franklin County.
Mills comes from a family with a long record of public service. Her grandfather served in the Maine Senate; her father was a legislator and a U.S. attorney for Maine; her sister, Dora, was the former head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and her older brother, Peter, is a former Republican legislator who now runs the Maine Turnpike Authority. But despite her political pedigree, Mills’ journey to the Blaine House this week has been a complicated one.
Mills says she never envisioned the day that she’d be governor. As a child whose parents were close friends with U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, and who once memorized Smith’s Declaration of Conscience speech for a high school contest that she won, Mills didn’t intend to pursue a political career. Nor did she think she’d follow in the footsteps of her father and become a lawyer.
Instead, Mills dropped out of Colby College during her sophomore year and headed out to San Francisco.
“I was a bit of a rebel. I didn’t want to go straight through school or have any big career goal to begin with. You know, it was in the mid-’60s, the late ’60s and so much was happening in the world and I just wanted to see a lot of things and a lot of places, like a lot of young people,” she says.
Mills worked as a waitress, in an insurance firm and as a psychiatric aid in a mental health hospital. She resisted her father’s initial suggestion that she become a nurse. Along the way, she took classes in a wide range of subjects and eventually went back to school full time at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Mills also spent a year in Paris where she learned to speak French.
“I had to. They speak it there,” she says with a laugh. “It was less expensive to go to Paris for a year, including travel, than to live in Boston for another year, so I said, ‘This is for me.’“
Mills returned to the states, worked a couple more jobs, including at a Washington, D.C., law firm where she translated patents from French to English. She also escaped an abusive relationship and eventually returned to Maine to go to law school.
Mills says it was her father who gave her a necessary nudge at a time when she wasn’t feeling good about herself and when many women were working as secretaries and office assistants.
“He just gave me the confidence to think I actually could do that. And when he said I could do it, I kinda knew, maybe I could,” she says.
It was the first class that had a significant number of women, and Mills says she knew early on that it was the right field for her. She went on to work in the criminal division of the attorney general’s office, where she was the only woman. She was the fist woman elected district attorney in Maine and New England, prosecuting crimes in Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties. After serving in the Maine Legislature, Mills became the first woman in Maine to become attorney general, in 2009. And this week, just days after celebrating her 71st birthday, she becomes the first woman to serve as governor.
“She had a very hilly, windy journey just as the roads of rural Maine are,” says Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the younger sister of the governor-elect, who says she’s as proud of her sister for being the first Maine governor from Franklin County — where their ancestors go back several generations — as she is the first woman governor. But even more important, she says, is the fact that Janet’s path was bumpy.
Janet Mills overcame struggles. As a teenager she spent a year in a body cast, confined mostly to a hospital bed in the family’s living room, to correct a potentially disabling curvature of the spine. And in her 30’s, she married a widower who had five daughters ranging in age from four to 16.
It was a decision Mills has said was probably the “craziest and best thing” she ever did.
“She gives us a role model of somebody who has learned from each stage of her journey and moved forward and I think that’s also very exciting to me, that you can also become governor of Maine,” Dora Mills says.
When Janet Mills boogied onto the stage on election night, the one person missing from her celebration was her husband, who passed away four years ago from the effects of a stroke. She says the experience of caring for him toward the end of his life helped shape her views on the health care system and of the importance of Medicaid expansion, one of her priorities along the campaign trail.
Mills pledged to chart a new course for Maine. And she told the crowd that night she would “think anew, act anew and begin anew.”
Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women’s Lobby, which Mills co-founded, says the new governor will change the way women are perceived in leadership.
“For me, it’s perhaps a combination of treating people with respect and being thoughtful about approaching issues and seeing that embodied - it was really fun yesterday to see the pictures of her moving into the Blaine House. They were so human. Again, it just made it very real that we’ve got a woman in charge,” she says.
“Her gender doesn’t really make a difference in her ability to do the job,” says state Rep. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford, House Republican Leader. “It’s the same in any position in government. It’s wonderful, it’s empowering, but we all have the same abilities to carry out the same task.”
Dillingham says she and her colleagues are looking forward to working with Gov. Mills, interested in what policy changes she’ll propose and will keep an open mind as long as they’re fiscally responsible. Mills, meanwhile, continues to downplay her record as a trailblazer and the effort it took to get this far.
“Some of it’s accidental, honestly,” she says. “In my book I ran because I felt I was the most qualified person for the job, and I hope that history supports me in that. When I step into that governor’s office there will be an open door, an open mind and an open heart. That’s the way I feel about it. That’s the way it should be.”
Originally published 5:55 p.m. Jan 2, 2019