AUGUSTA, Maine — Mary Mayhew, who has served as Maine commissioner of Health and Human Services since the early days of Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure, will be leaving that post Friday.

LePage announced her departure Wednesday in a prepared statement, in which he said she did an “exceptional job” at the helm of state government’s largest department.

“She spearheaded the many important welfare reforms developed under my administration and she was the lightning rod for constant criticism from the media, liberal legislators and the special interests who wanted to protect and grow Maine’s entitlement programs,” LePage said in a written statement. “But she handled it all with grit and grace.”

LePage’s release did not specify what Mayhew plans to do next. She has been mentioned as a 2018 Republican candidate for governor but has not made any official declaration.

Mayhew, who previously served as a lobbyist for Maine hospitals, was a registered Democrat when LePage nominated her to run the department through which he engineered many of his plans to overhaul Maine’s public assistance system.

Mayhew has been a friction point in state government from her first days at the DHHS helm. One of the biggest controversies under her watch was the loss of federal certification for the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Mayhew and her department applied for recertification in 2014, but it has yet to be granted.

Mayhew also has come under fire for DHHS’s handling of federal funding in a number of programs, including what turned out to be more than $13 million in unlawful diversions of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program funding and the stockpiling of TANF cash in general, which has accumulated some $150 million in unspent funds.

Mayhew spearheaded LePage’s efforts to revamp public assistance programs at the state and federal levels, including reducing the number of Mainers who qualify for Medicaid by the thousands, putting a 60-month lifetime cap on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, implementing new restrictions and requirements for TANF and food supplement benefits, and challenging the federal government over the administration’s push to place photographs on electronic benefits cards.

LePage has often credited Mayhew with bringing financial stability to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is evident from the lack of supplemental budget requests in recent years after several years of regular shortfalls in the department. Critics have countered that the budget stability was accomplished by simply cutting people from social service programs.

“We’ve seen the positive outcomes of these reforms and how it helps strengthen Maine’s economy by reducing the tax burden through more accountable social services spending and by incentivizing employment to support Maine’s workforce,” Mayhew said in a written statement. “It is imperative that Maine stay on this course of financial accountability.”

Mayhew reiterated that statement during a news conference Wednesday afternoon at DHHS offices but did not say why she resigned or anything about her upcoming plans. She refused to take questions from reporters.

Lawmakers split predictably in their reactions to the news that Mayhew is leaving.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, lauded Mayhew for weathering “tough decisions.”

“After years of leadership at a department that once consistently ran deficits, Mayhew leaves behind a department that keeps to a budget and lives within its means,” said Brakey in a written statement.

Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, said in a written statement that Mayhew and LePage believe people can be “punished out of poverty.”

“It is my hope that the next commissioner seeks to empower Mainers and provide them with opportunities to be healthy, strong and productive,” Hymanson said.

An acting commissioner of the DHHS will be named later this week.

Mayhew is the second member of LePage’s Cabinet to resign since last month. In late April, Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette left her post after five years to take a job with the University of Southern Maine. LePage has nominated his chief economic adviser, John Butera, but Butera has not yet been confirmed.

Speculation shifts to Mayhew’s future plans. For years, she has been mentioned as a potential 2018 gubernatorial candidate and has had a quiet, yet steady presence at small party events.

As the LePage administration’s point person on welfare, she’s well-positioned to take up his mantle on that issue, which is vital to a Republican primary base and an issue Republicans have won on in Maine during the governor’s era. But if she runs, Mayhew will have to broaden a political profile focused mostly on that issue so far.

Mary Adams, a Republican grassroots activist from Garland, called Mayhew “a smart lady” whose candidacy would be “welcomed by the party as a representative of their thinking.” Adams noted she doesn’t know much about Mayhew’s other stances but that Mayhew’s experience managing Maine’s biggest department would serve her well.

“So, if she’s mastered that, they would be hard-pressed to find anybody that you’d consider more knowledgeable about the budget if that’s the biggest part of it,” Adams said.

Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.