Janet Mills will face pressure from Republicans and Democrats to govern like a centrist during her second term.
Gov. Janet Mills arrives to swear in the new Legislature, Wednesday in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Even as disagreements grow across the aisle in Augusta, many in the Legislature seem united on one front: They want Gov. Janet Mills to take a middle road in a politically and geographically diverse state.

After a resounding defeat of former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills has something of an electoral mandate as she enters her second term. Democrats believe she should continue her compromise-minded style while igniting movement on the issues that motivate them. And while some on the right doubt Mills’ moderation, many Republicans are calling on her to take some of their ideas and govern like a centrist.

How Mills chooses to run her second term, as well as handle relationships with members of the Legislature, could decide the political trajectory of Maine over the next half-decade. The debate over a heating aid bill that Senate Republicans halted over process concerns could be a harbinger of things to come.

Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, firmly on the left of the Democratic caucus, is hopeful the governor will give more overtures to the progressive section of her party in her second term. More than anything, he’d like to see her work with the Legislature to create new housing.

“I would like to see the governor take a more active role in creating housing, rather than just relying on the private sector,” Lookner said.

But on the other side of the ideological spectrum, Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, said she had seen little evidence Mills governed like a centrist during her first term. She appears that way only because the rest of her party has moved so far to the left, she said.

Libby hopes Mills is more accepting of “good Republican policies” in her second term, like shrinking government and cutting taxes. She also would like to see Mills change her tune on school choice and the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers, striking it down along with other regulations on the state’s health system.

However, she said she had seen little evidence of change in her first few days of the new Legislature as Mills sought passage of the heating aid bill.

“It feels like Gov. Mills has forgotten we are an equal branch of government,” Libby said.

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However, several other representatives interviewed said they believed one of Mills’ biggest strengths was an ability to work with Republicans on policy. She has long highlighted coming from a politically mixed family, including a Republican brother, Peter Mills, who served for years in the Legislature.

Sen. James Libby, R-Standish, remembers supporting Peter Mills for governor. Only a few days into his time in the Legislature, he said his understanding of Mills’ record is that she had been open-minded.

“I have confidence we’ll be able to work with her,” Libby said.

Rep. Kevin O’Connell, D-Brewer, who comes from a closely divided district — he won election last month by 53 votes — said Mills had consistently shown she can work in a bipartisan way “very easily.”

“That’s the message from Gov. Mills: that we work together across party lines,” said Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville.

How progressive or conservative Mills’ record is is a matter of debate, but her overwhelming victory over former LePage included victories in sizable GOP-leaning communities like Brewer, Ellsworth, Gray, Winslow and Hampden. Each has more registered Republicans than Democrats.

“The fact that she won as convincingly as she did across the state shows the fact that what she’s done for the last four years resonates with Democrats, Republicans, independents,” said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland.

Apart from governing style, many legislators also have specific issues they would like to see the governor take action on in her new term.

Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, who has two Passamaquoddy reservations in her district, said she hoped to see action on tribal sovereignty, highlighting inequities that still exist. She pointed to the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s water district being the only one in Maine not exempt from property taxes until a vote earlier this year.  

The role Mills will play in a tribal sovereignty debate in the upcoming session is still unclear, and the governor’s thoughts on the topic are not the only focus in an ideologically diverse Legislature, Perry said.

Mills has opposed giving the Wabanaki tribes greater power within Maine, separating her from advocates in her own party like House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who twice mentioned the Wabanaki — including a land acknowledgement — in a speech Wednesday after she was elected speaker.

Rep. Joseph Underwood, R-Presque Isle, said he would like to see Mills reverse her support for green and alternative energy, which he said should be “eliminated” and doesn’t belong in the marketplace until it is self-sustaining. He has requested a seat on the Legislature’s energy committee.

Still, Underwood, who voted for LePage, also had positive words for Mills. He doesn’t expect her to govern much differently from her first term, but feels she will at least hear him and other GOP members out on policy.

“She has a good grasp of things,” Underwood said. “She’s finished one term, been reelected to a second term, and most of the citizens understand her and voted for her in pretty good fashion.”