In high school, Janet T. Mills memorized a speech by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine denouncing McCarthyism.
Half a century later, the words have not left that state’s first woman attorney general.
“Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought, that smears are not only to be expected but fought, that honor is to be earned but not bought,” she recited off the cuff in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “Those words stick with you,” she added.
Mills has fought during her time in office — both in support of other women and opposing Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who often comes under fire for lewd remarks and policies that members of his own party have rebuked.
Mills, who comes from a politically active family, began advocating for women in the 1970s as part of a group pushing state lawmakers to provide funding to shelter battered women. The measure died in the appropriations process, but the experience led Mills to co-found the Maine Women’s Lobby.
“We realized back in the late 70’s that we needed a full-time presence in the legislature to get it through,” she said.
Mills was elected as a district attorney in 1980, the first female to hold such a post in New England. She elected to the Maine House in 2002. Colleagues remember her as confident and intelligent lawmaker, and as an efficient multi-tasker who would sit in one committee hearing and follow another on her headphones simultaneously.
“She would run up the stairs or down the stairs to weigh in when she thought something would be going south,” said Dawn Hill, assistant Senate minority leader who served in the House with Mills.
When the attorney general spot opened up, Mills was elected in 2008 by the Maine legislature. Although the ballot is private, Hill said she “won by a handy number” with support from Republicans and Independents. While she lost the position two years later when Republicans took over the majority, she was re-elected in 2012.
Mills has made headlines during her time as attorney general in battles with LePage.
In one instance, she refused to represent the governor’s office in challenging an Affordable Care Act provision to extend Medicaid to low-income 19- and 20-year-olds. She said were no legal grounds to make the case.
In retaliation, LePage hired outside counsel and refused to approve funding to hire prosecutors and equipment needed for the state police crime lab.
Mills said her door is always open to LePage and her office has represented the executive branch in a vast majority of cases. But she draws the line when the law runs contrary to his agenda.
“When his policy initiatives become legal issues that can’t be supported, that’s when I put my foot down,” she said.
Friction between a governor and attorney general from different parties isn’t uncommon, but LePage’s approach to politics has heightened tensions, said Hannah Pingree, a former speaker of the House.
“Maine has never seen, at least in recent political history, a governor who has been so rogue,” she said, categorizing LePage’s attitude as “my way or the highway.”
“In some ways, she’s had a much tougher job,” Pingree said.
LePage’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
While she struggles with the governor now, Mills has been mentioned as a potential candidate to fill the role in 2018.
“After six years of our governor, people are already tired,” Pingree said. “People are looking for a more experienced governor.”
Whether or not that happens, Mills already has influenced numerous women. When her 6-year-old stepdaughter played with Barbies, her dolls didn’t go to the mall but to argue before a grand jury and then attend a Democratic fundraiser. When Democratic women run for office in Maine, they can take a class taught by Mills on the basics of knocking on doors and talking to voters.
Pingree remembers seeing Mills working a booth at a country fair when she was a prosecutor. Pingree, who was about 10 at the time, had little idea what a district attorney was, but Mills left an impression.
“I thought she was cool then,” she said, “and I still do.”
Emily Wilkins is an education and labor reporter at CQ Roll Call. Contact her at EmilyWilkins @cqrollcall.com. Follow her on Twitter @emrwilkins.