June 10, 2010

Mitchell's sights set on next race

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

PORTLAND -- Despite being up until after 1 a.m. and back on television just over five hours later, Libby Mitchell was energized Wednesday.

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Elizabeth Mitchell

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As she sat for an interview at a Democratic Party office in the afternoon, she talked about her win in Tuesday's primary campaign and the fall election to come.

The Vassalboro Democrat, currently the state's Senate president, won the four-way contest with 35 percent of the vote, a stronger-than-expected showing in a race that featured two other well-established public servants and one newcomer.

"I did not know our margin (of victory) would be so successful," she said.

When she launched her campaign last August, Mitchell had to balance her role as candidate with her job as Senate president. As leader of a chamber that's controlled 20 to 15 by Democrats, she was wary of creating an overly partisan atmosphere during a short legislative session when there was a lot of work to be done.

"Until April, I was running the state Senate," she said. "That is an extraordinarily difficult job."

So from January to April, campaigning had to wait until nights and weekends.

"I went up to The County a couple of times, once in a blizzard, as a matter of fact," she said. "Meantime, I had family and a lot of volunteers in the campaign."

Part of the challenge early on was qualifying for the state's public financing system, which meant collecting 3,250 checks in the amount of $5.

By participating in the system, Mitchell was eligible to receive $600,000 in taxpayer money for her campaign. And now that she will be on the November ballot, she'll be eligible to receive a maximum of $1.2 million more.

When introducing her mother on Election Night, Mitchell's oldest daughter, J. Elizabeth, said her mother could not only be the state's first woman governor, but also the first governor elected using Clean Election funds.

A day later, Mitchell, 69, said she thinks it's important for Maine people to see that the system they supported through a citizen initiative in 1996 can work to keep corporate and individual money out of politics.

"As soon as we qualified, the only job I had was to connect with voters," she said. "I would often say, 'No, you don't have to bring a check to this party. It's a house party to get to know you.' This is strange to many people."

On the issue of being the state's first female governor, Mitchell called it a "footnote," saying people don't vote for a candidate based on gender.

And, on another historical note, Maine voters have not elected two Democratic governors back to back in 150 years.

Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, is prevented by state constitution from running for a third term.

"It will be a more important barrier, perhaps, than being the first woman governor," she said.

Mitchell will face Waterville Mayor Paul LePage and independents Eliot Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth; Shawn Moody, of Gorham; and Kevin Scott, of Andover, in November.

She said there will be plenty of time as the election draws near to explain the distinctions between the candidates.

On Wednesday, she described LePage as a central Maine neighbor she respects. She said she knows Cutler from the time they were both affiliated with the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

Cutler has already called LePage and Mitchell the most extreme examples of their parties.

"I don't know why I am perceived as an extremist, when I've been able to pass two budgets and two bond issues with both parties," she said. "If it's an extremist to be in favor of tax reform, then I guess I am. I find myself more pragmatic. I come down on the side of getting things done."

She believes her success in the primary came from her efforts to meet people and businesses outside of the center of power.

"If I'm successful in November, I hope we have a way to get out of the State House, out of Augusta, to make sure the governor's office is not isolated under the dome," she said.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

scover@centralmaine.com

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