GOVERNOR'S RACE

August 9, 2010

Ready for next quest

Mitchell touts her experience, understanding of the issues

AUGUSTA (AP) -- With her two young children and belongings packed in a car, Libby Mitchell and her husband Jim headed to Maine, where his new state government job awaited. Mitchell never dreamed that four decades later, she would be an election away from becoming the state's first female governor after carving out her own public service career.

A lot's happened since her arrival in 1971.

Besides raising a family, Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell became the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, then its first female speaker. Later, she gained the distinction of being the first woman in America to serve as a legislative House speaker and Senate president.

Self-effacing and bubbling with enthusiasm and charm, Mitchell, 70, downplays all that and looks ahead to her next quest: governor. The Vassalboro Democrat faces Republican Paul LePage and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott in the race to be decided Nov. 2.

With more than two decades in the Legislature -- currently as the No. 2 elected state official as Senate president -- plus experience on public finance and housing boards and agencies, Mitchell says she's the best fit for chief executive. She's undaunted by a looming budget deficit that could amount to $1 billion, saying she's been through that before. "It's not going to be easy. But I'm someone who understands government, who makes sure the cuts are strategic and the investments are strategic, rather than just saying we're going to cut state government. I don't even know what that means," Mitchell said in an interview at her law office in Augusta.

With more than two decades in the Legislature -- currently as the No. 2 elected state official as Senate president -- plus experience on public finance and housing boards and agencies, Mitchell says she's the best fit for chief executive. She's undaunted by a looming budget deficit that could amount to $1 billion, saying she's been through that before. "It's not going to be easy. But I'm someone who understands government, who makes sure the cuts are strategic and the investments are strategic, rather than just saying we're going to cut state government. I don't even know what that means," Mitchell said in an interview at her law office in Augusta.

Mitchell said a variety of factors and influences brought her from her youth in Gaffney, a small city in South Carolina, to a step from becoming Maine's first woman governor.

The daughter of a father who was a salesman and a mother who taught in a one-room schoolhouse, Mitchell said politics was part of the family tradition. Her grandfather was sheriff and later became a legislator.

Her eyes widened when, as a college student, she spent a summer as a counselor at a Fresh Air camp in upstate New York, where inner-city youths got a taste of rural life.

"That was a game-changer for me in understanding how other people live," said Mitchell. She was further influenced by the social changes taking place around her as the civil rights movement unfolded. Mitchell said she's admired her sister, who as a teacher helped to integrate local schools.

Mitchell graduated from Furman University in South Carolina in 1962, and taught high school English for a couple of years in North Carolina. Feeling a yen for travel and having some knowledge of French, Mitchell went to Switzerland in 1965 to teach at a high school for students living overseas. Mitchell finished master's degree work the same year from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

She became engaged and married James Mitchell, a Princeton graduate who later served as a Marine in Vietnam. While her husband was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1966-67, she taught at a middle school there.

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