Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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A Refreshing Change

by Jill Goldthwait - Ellsworth American - 10-13-2005

The Cianchette campaign for Governor has petered out. In announcing his gubernatorial intentions recently (and for the second time), Mr. Cianchette spoke of the state as "adrift in a sea of uncertainty." It turned out it was not the state but the candidate who was uncertain. Though he was not unfamiliar with the demands of a campaign, the fire in the belly turned out to be the heat of the home fires burning and he traded in his candidacy for life with his wife and kids.

Needless to say, the withdrawal of one Peter leaves a very different field for the other, Senator Peter Mills, now by default the Republican front-runner. As long as the kingmakers were declaring Mr. Cianchette the candidate most likely to succeed, most eyes turned in that direction. The attention has now shifted to Senator Mills.

Other gubernatorial sort-of-hopefuls, too timorous to get into a race involving Mr. Cianchette, are now recalculating their chances. The Reupblican bureaucracy, never keen on Senator Mills' propensity to march to his own drummer, is trying to regroup and anoint a new prospect. State Senator Chandler Woodcock has taken out papers. David Emery, already in and out of the race once, is rumored to be considering getting back in. (What is it with these guys and commitment?) In the meantime, Senator Mills will be undergoing a whole new level of examination, and Mainers will find that this candidate is a horse of a very different color.

A fixture of the Maine political landscape, the Mills tribe is a vanishing breed in Maine. Its roots are in the rural parts of the state, from Deer Isle in the east to Skowhegan in the west. Its members are a Who's Who in Maine unto themselves. Among Senator Mills's relations are sister Dora (M.D. and state director of public health), sister Janet (state representative and former district attorney), wife Nancy (Superior Court justice), and father Peter, now deceased, a former state senator himself, and U.S. attorney for Maine in the 1970s.

The current Senator Mills served his maximum four terms in the Maine Senate from 1994 to 2002, switched to the Houuse for a term, and then re-claimed his Senate seat in 2004. In both chambers, he was a free agent, establishing relationships independent of party lines. He has created a network of information resources with whom he maintains regular contact, and is as well informed about a broad range of issues as anyone under the dome.

His distinguishing characteristics are an encyclopedic knowledge of state government, a restless and driving curiosity and a devotion to getting at the background of the big issues. He is a perpetual whirlwind of activity, covering vast physical and intellectual ground in a day. He arrives at events out of breath, tie flying, laptop in hand, with enough paperwork to furnish an office stuffed into a huge black satchel.

He is a refreshing change from what we have come to expect on the campaign trail, for this is one candidate who is not controlled, managed, handled, scripted, sculted, groomed or canned. Peter Mills is fearless about speaking his mind, whether or not that conforms to the prevailing sentiment of his party. Yet just when his Republican colleagues are thinking he is way more trouble than he is worth, he stands up on the Senate floor, legs apart, arms folded across his chest, shoulders hunched, glasses on the end of his nose, and proceeds to deliver an elegant, fact-based defense of one of their key positions.

He infuriates the Republicans, not by fighting their positions but by ignoring them and creating his own, and he is simply impervious to the usual threats against those who do not toe the party line. He is an obsessive researcher, digging deeply into the background of issues, and is usually the one his caucus turns to when they want details.

As a campaigner, he is ignoring the well-trodden paths to election and blazing his own trail. At this point that means charging from one end of the state to the other conducting his own version of "gubernatorial door-to-door," showing up wherever a group of 20 to 50 people are assembled and willing to hear him out. He has a smallish crew of volunteers and a few key aides. "I'm still my own general contractor," he says.

Because he thinks and speaks for himself, and has a way with words, he is a favored subject for interviews in Augusta. Yet he has some work to do delivering a sense of who he is to the general public. In order to do that, he is prepared to make himself personally available to voters all over the state.

Senator Mills is most often criticized by his party for tending toward the moderate, for "compromising" with the Democrats, for being willing to challenge Republican ideology. The fact is, with just 28 percent of Maine voters registered as Republicans, that kind of candidate is the only one with a snowball's chance of getting the GOP into the Governor's office.

A Mills-Baldacci contest next fall would give Maine voters a real choice between two seasoned politicians with deep Maine roots and very different approaches to governance. Let's hope we get that opportunity.