Gov.-elect Janet T. Mills hugs singers Shy Pace, 11, (left) and Natalia Mbadu, 10, after the duo sang "Girl On Fire" in honor of Mills before she took the oath of office in Augusta on Wednesday night. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

AUGUSTA, Maine — Janet Mills was sworn in as Maine’s 75th governor and the first woman to hold the office on Wednesday, with the Democrat pledging a “new day” in her inaugural address alongside promises to expand health coverage and fight climate change and the opioid crisis.

Mills can reshape state government after eight years of Gov. Paul LePage, the term-limited, pugnacious Republican she often feuded with during her six years as attorney general. She is starkly different from him on policy substance and style.

LePage derided “career politicians,” while Mills, 71, is the middle child of one of Maine’s best-known political families and has held public offices for 30 years. He spent much of his tenure fighting with the Legislature; she will have one solidly controlled by Democrats, while many of the fights between Mills and lawmakers will likely happen behind closed doors.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Mills is a careful and wonkish politician, but her inaugural address on Wednesday before a crowd of more than 3,000 at the Augusta Civic Center was light on details and new policy proposals. It repeatedly hit on a theme of uniting the state’s urban and rural areas and was peppered with references to her hometown of Farmington.

While she did not mention LePage by name, she promised large breaks with his tenure, though she has been more specific in the past on many of the policy items that she mentioned in the address, and she has pledged to not raise taxes on Mainers in her first two-year budget — a subject minority Republicans will remind Mills of often during the first year of her tenure.

“Tomorrow we rise before the dawn like the mist over the Sandy River and seek adventure, with hope in our hearts and love in our souls for the brand new day,” Mills said toward the end of her 20-minute speech.

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Chief among her likely breaks with LePage will be over Medicaid expansion, which was mired in a court battle between the Republican’s administration and advocates that lasted for most of 2018. Mills said in her speech that expansion will be funded “sustainably,” though she didn’t elaborate and a long-term funding plan has not yet emerged from Democrats.

She said her administration would reach a goal of producing 50 percent of electricity from renewables — up from a current standard of 40 percent, which is a smaller step toward a larger goal that she set during the campaign of having Maine reach 100 percent renewables by 2050, according to The Free Press.

Mills also promised “full and fair funding” for schools. Her education agenda during the campaign included meeting a never-met state standard of funding 55 percent of basic education costs, universal pre-K and raising minimum teacher salaries from $30,000 to $40,000.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

LePage has been Maine’s loudest politician during his tenure, and he didn’t leave office quietly, vowing several times to run against Mills in 2022 if she did not govern to his liking and saying he will stay involved in Maine politics despite moving to Florida. Last year’s Democratic wave election came in a record-low stretch of unemployment and the state’s cash position has been at record levels.

After the speech, minority Republicans in the Senate expressed optimism that they could have a constructive relationship with Mills, but they were skeptical about the costs embedded in the governor’s initiatives.

Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said, “we’ve got to take a look back at our history” and see why Maine’s rural population has declined.

“We can’t put all the solutions on the back of business,” he said.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

The new governor reiterated a campaign promise to hire a point person to fight the state’s opioid crisis. She said she would rebrand a state policy office as the Office of Innovation and the Future and reconvene the Children’s Cabinet, a council of state agencies that went inactive under LePage’s tenure but is established in law to coordinate policies aimed at aiding children.

After LePage was elected, supporters raised money to place a sign reading “Open for Business” on Interstate 95 near the Maine-New Hampshire line. Mills said she would add one of her own to say “Welcome Home,” calling retaining young Mainers or convincing them to resettle here “a top priority of my administration.”

Mills’ ceremony was full of references to her status as Maine’s first female governor. Her father, S. Peter Mills Jr., was a Republican state legislator, U.S. attorney and ally of the late Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress.

Just after Mills’ birth, Smith sent the future governor a letter saying her two older brothers would “expect a great deal of you but I know that you can do it.” After her election, 8-year-old Lucy Griset of Brunswick sent Mills a letter that said, “Now I feel like I could be governor someday!”

Kevin McCandless drove from Bath with his daughter, Corina, to see Mills sworn in. It was their first inauguration, McCandless said. Both are Democrats who support her political positions and he said “the fact that she’s a woman is icing on the cake,” he said.

“Thank goodness we have a woman,” Laura Dorrer of Brunswick said. “It’s our turn.”

BDN writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...