Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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'Very cerebral' Peter Mills has a 12-point plan by Paul Carrier
Portland Press Herald | Sunday, May 28, 2006

AUGUSTA Republican Peter Mills has given a lot of thought to what he would do as governor. But while some candidates offer a loose amalgam of ideas, the detail-oriented Mills has something a bit more formal: a 12-point plan. "He is wonky," Republican state Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden, who has yet to endorse anyone in the GOP primary, said of Mills. "He's got all of the technical knowledge" to identify government's shortcomings, Plowman said, as well as "a personality that demands solutions."

Mills supports "a more businesslike" government, stronger oversight of streamlined social services and clear measurements of how well government programs are working. Describing Democratic Gov. John Baldacci as a good politician but a poor manager, Mills says Maine is plagued with excessive state debt and a crumbling infrastructure.

Yet obstacles are complicating Mills' race. He is perceived by some as too liberal to win the primary. And although this lover of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats is persuasive, he sometimes has trouble distilling myriad thoughts into crisp messages that resonate with voters.

"Peter is very cerebral," supporter Joseph Bruno, a former state legislator, said of Mills, who lives in Cornville and is wrapping up his 12th year in the Legislature. Mills, whose off-hours reading includes a trade magazine for actuaries, says a decade-plus at the State House has given him "a postgraduate education" on state government.

In a recent interview, Mills, 62, who owns a law firm in Skowhegan, peppered his remarks with references to "rubrics" and "interlocutors." His delivery has improved lately, Plowman said, but she said he "has a little ways to go" to get voters to "click" with him on a personal level.

Far from disputing his critics on matters of style, Mills once joked that he can be so boring he sometimes bores himself. Yet he insists that he is "trainable."

A dog lover who likes "rooting around with a chain saw" in his woodlot, Mills describes himself and his wife, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, as "pretty good dancers." He laments that the sailboat he bought in 1979 has been sitting in the yard for years, unused for lack of time.

Mills hails from a prominent clan. Sister Janet Mills is a Democratic state representative and former district attorney. Sister Dora Anne Mills is the state's health director and a former member of the Democratic National Committee. Brother Paul Mills is a lawyer and political analyst. Their father was a Republican state lawmaker, municipal judge and U.S. attorney.

Mills is "very driven," said his brother. "He's very Republican in that he's a very self-reliant person. He's a real brain."

Criticism of Mills extends beyond how he handles himself on the stump. Also at issue is his track record in the Legislature. Some of Mills' votes "are probably against Republican ideals and principles," Bruno conceded. That's why Senate Minority Leader Paul Davis of Sangerville, who supports Chandler Woodcock in the GOP race, said Mills "will struggle to win" the primary June 13.

Mills supports abortion rights and gay rights, although he opposes same-sex marriage. Last year, he unsuccessfully proposed raising and expanding the sales tax, first to speed up an increase in state aid to local schools and later to raise money that would have been used to lower the top income-tax rate.

Yet Mills is no dyed-in-the-wool liberal. He and David Emery promoted a short-lived referendum drive in 2005 to block a $450 million borrowing plan that Democrats in the Legislature pushed through to balance the budget. The Legislature quickly found alternatives to the borrowing, prompting Mills and his allies to drop their campaign.

"I'm a conservative in the sense that I think I know how to squeeze better value out of the revenues that are entrusted to the state," Mills said. Even as a Republican in a Democrat-led Legislature, Mills said he has played "a significant role" in solving problems, such as an overhaul of the unemployment compensation system.

Mills emphasizes his electability when urging Republicans to give him the nod. A flier he is mailing to GOP households describes him as "the one candidate with the best chance to deliver a Republican win in November."

Bruno said Republicans who disapprove of Mills' voting record are "too stuck in the mud" to appreciate that politicians must represent their constituents to win elections. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Mills' Somerset County Senate district, and Bruno said Mills' electoral successes prove that his appeal crosses party lines.

That will be important for the GOP nominee because Republicans are the smallest of the three major voting blocs in Maine and voters here have not ousted an incumbent governor since 1966.

Mainers are "desperate for some sense of competence in the executive," Mills said of the governor's office, and he believes he can provide it. Ever the careful planner, he says he knows what he will do if voters disagree. It has to do with his high-and-dry, 35-foot sailboat.

"If I lose this primary," Mills said, "that damn thing is going into the water."