Press Herald: Launching re-election bid, Gov. Mills says there’s more to do

Gov. Janet Mills, the first woman to serve as Maine’s chief executive, formally announced Tuesday that she will seek a second term, saying there is “much left to do.”

The governor’s announcement was widely expected and sets up a potential face-off between Mills and her predecessor, Paul LePage, a Republican who is seeking an unprecedented third term as Maine governor. While both may face primary challenges, the fall campaign is expected to be an expensive head-to-head matchup between two well-known candidates with a history of conflict.

The Democrat announced her run for re-election in a video featuring letters from Mainers thanking her for her leadership during the pandemic.

“Through difficult and dangerous times, you have shown that Maine is stronger than we ever could have imagined. Our goals since the beginning of this unprecedented challenge have been to save lives and livelihoods, and – thanks to you – we’ve succeeded better than virtually every state in the nation,” Mills said in the video. “We have accomplished so much, but I’m running for re-election because there’s so much left to do. It’s time to invest in you, the people of Maine. You are what moves us forward, what makes us strong.”

Mills has reversed several major policy positions held by LePage. She expanded Medicaid to cover an additional 90,000 people and issued millions in senior housing bonds, both of which had been blocked by LePage. Mills also fully funded public education for the first time and restored municipal revenue-sharing that LePage cut.

Mills was not available for an interview Tuesday to discuss her priorities for a second term, a spokesperson said. But in an email to supporters, Mills highlighted the need to expand childcare, build more housing, increase access to broadband internet, provide free community college and fight inflation.

Alexandra Raposo, Mills’ campaign manager, said the governor’s campaign announcement was relatively low-key because Mills is focused on passing her supplemental budget and other daily tasks.

“The governor is a workhorse, not a show horse,” Raposo said. “There will likely be a time for campaign rallies, but right now, she’s focused on doing her job as governor because that’s what’s most important for the people of Maine.”

In addition to issues outlined to supporters, Mills also would look to strengthen supply chains for Maine’s heritage industries, such as farming, forestry and fishing, Raposo said.

“Her primary goal is to fix the underlying, systemic issues in Maine’s economy that have long held the state back from prosperity,” Raposo said.

During her State of the State address last month, Mills touted the economic gains and the state’s strong budgetary position, which is in part the result of federal funding and has resulted in a projected surplus of roughly $1.2 billion through mid-2023. The governor has proposed giving half of that projected surplus back to roughly 800,000 taxpayers in the form of $750 checks. And she proposed free community college tuition to high school students impacted by the pandemic.

Mills became the first female governor of Maine after she was elected in 2018 – a point driven home by announcing her candidacy on International Women’s Day. A separate statement released by her office Tuesday noted that Mills co-founded the Maine Women’s Lobby, in addition to being both the first woman to serve as attorney general in Maine and the first district attorney in New England.

Mills, meanwhile, touted the state’s pandemic response in her campaign launch video. Maine has one on the highest vaccination rates in the country and one of the lowest death rates of the pandemic. Her campaign noted that the state’s unemployment rate is returning to pre-pandemic levels and the state economy and budget are in good shape.

“You deserve every ounce of hard-won progress we’ve achieved, and you’ve earned all the progress yet to come,” Mills said. “Together, we will move Maine forward.”

Mills, who has governed as a moderate to the chagrin of progressives, has been raising money for a campaign face-off against LePage, and he has been aggressively criticizing her in his early campaign appearances. The Republican is a longtime rival of Mills, who served as attorney general while LePage was governor. Last month, LePage handed in his nomination papers and weighed in on Mills’ supplemental budget proposals.

LePage, who served two terms from 2011-19, is trying to make the case that Mills has not been a good steward of the state economy, despite the projected surplus fueled by federal funding and increased revenue from sales and income taxes. Mills also has noted the state’s gross domestic product now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

LePage moved to Florida after his second term expired in 2018 but returned last summer, buying a home in Edgecomb to lay the groundwork for a third gubernatorial run. He announced his candidacy last July and held a kickoff rally last fall in Augusta. He turned in his nomination papers last month, becoming the first gubernatorial candidate to formally qualify for the ballot.

During an impromptu news conference before turning in his nomination papers, LePage urged Mills to lower state income taxes rather than send refund checks to taxpayers, a proposal that is part of her budget plan and was initially suggested by Republicans in the Legislature.

LePage has called for eliminating the state income tax. He reduced income taxes during his tenure, but his plan to eliminate them entirely met Republican opposition because it would have required other tax increases to maintain revenue.

LEPAGE CALLS FOR GAS TAX CUT

LePage held a news conference Tuesday to call for a temporary reduction in the gas tax and was asked about Mills’ announcement. He repeated calls for income tax cuts and blamed Mills for inflation. And he said he looks forward to facing her in November.

“I’m ready, bring it on. I can’t wait,” LePage said of running against Mills. “I mean this campaign is going to be about two things: It’s going to be about faith, freedom and trust versus power, control and mandates. The other thing is going to be about the economy, bringing the economy back so we don’t have inflation. And then our schools. Our schools are a mess. We’ve got to take care of our schools.”

Mills, who worked with the Legislature to fully fund the state’s share of public education costs for the first time, is expected to turn in signatures qualifying her for the ballot later this week, according to a source with knowledge of her plans.

Demi Kouzounas, chair of the Maine Republican Party, criticized Mills for using her emergency powers to shut down the state economy and in-person learning at schools early in the pandemic – a strategy widely credited with slowing the spread of disease while scientists developed vaccines. She also sought to blame Mills for inflation.

“The choice between Gov. Mills’ failed policies and Gov. LePage’s successful policies couldn’t be more clear,” Kouzounas said in a written statement.

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