Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, speaks with reporters at a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a Sanford shopping plaza on Thursday afternoon, June 23, 2022. The walk-in clinic, run by the York County Emergency Management Agency, is the last of its kind in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

Few in civic life in Maine have risen from unknown status to prominence faster than Nirav Shah.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director’s daily media briefings made him a household name early in the COVID-19 pandemic. While he has recently done Maine Public appearances and commencement speeches, the softening of the pandemic has led him back to a less ubiquitous role.

That made a profile of Shah this week from Down East magazine striking. It is a glowing but interesting read, in part for the accounts of those who have gotten to know him since he was hired by Gov. Janet Mills out of a Chicago law firm in 2019 to be Maine’s top health official.

For example, a neighbor nods to Shah’s Diet Coke habit by saying he also enjoys Miller Lites at cookouts in his Brunswick neighborhood. Shah is also exceedingly casual with his interviewer.

At one point, he admits that one of the reasons why he is not doing daily briefings anymore is because it provides fewer opportunities to mess up. He jokes about the sweeping questions that he could face from the press, saying he is “always this close to the line of completely saying something that gets you fired.”

“One minute you’re talking about COVID, the next minute you’re talking about condoms for kindergartners — like, that’s it,” he said.

Intrigue comes in other areas. He plans to stay in Maine no matter who wins the November election between Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage. In what the interviewer called a passing remark, he raises the possibility of running for office himself, citing the desire to defy those who have attacked him using racist terms on Twitter.

“I’m like, you know what, motherf***ers? I’m staying,” he is quoted as saying.

Shah has not been an explicitly political figure to date. He was Illinois’ top public health official under a former Republican governor ousted in the 2018 election. Before that, the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators called on him to resign over the response to a 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a state veterans home that killed 13 and sickened dozens more.

After his appointment in Maine, legislative Republicans questioned him on the incident. But others praised his early work in managing the pandemic and communicating. The Commonwealth Fund ranked Maine’s COVID-19 response second among states this year behind one of the highest-performing vaccination efforts.

While elements of Mills’ response have been hammered by Republicans, most notably a vaccine requirement for health care workers, Shah has not been a central player in that wrangling. But conservatives have taken note of past remarks, including when he told The Hill in 2021 of the programs in his agency “left for nothing” by the LePage administration, which ended in 2019 with 111 fewer Maine CDC workers than it had in 2011.

Would Shah be a promising candidate for office? The idea is virtually unprecedented in Maine, which prizes deep roots here in officeholders. A quick rise to prominence in one field does not always translate to politics.

We saw that in 2002, when the late David Flanagan tried to parlay a star turn leading Central Maine Power Co. during the 1998 ice storm into an independent gubernatorial run that quickly fizzled. But Shah’s platform and resume make him unique. It is also a different time in a hyper-polarized environment in which conventions about public officials are changing.

“People don’t really trust the buttoned-up, streamlined politician anymore,” Shah’s friend, author Jaed Coffin, told Down East in a comment that could have been made about Donald Trump. “Someone like Nirav, he is who he is. The way he rolls is definitely asking us to imagine what else a politician might be or expand our definitions of what a politician might be.”

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...