May 20, 2024

Maine women to lead Legislature Pingree elected House speaker, Mitchell Senate president

AUGUSTA – Maine’s glass ceiling developed a few more cracks Wednesday as women were sworn in as Senate president and House speaker. And in one of its first acts, the newly seated Legislature elected Maine’s first female attorney general.

“It’s so good to see things moving ahead,” said Janet Mills, a Democrat who won bipartisan support to become the state’s 55th attorney general. “Just because there are a lot of firsts doesn’t mean there can’t be a lot of seconds, thirds and fourths along the way. Maine men and women are sharing responsibilities more than in many other states, most other states.”

Also Wednesday after the formal swearing-in of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Sen. Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell of Vassalboro was elected the chamber’s president and Rep. Hannah Pingree of North Haven was elected House speaker.

Both were elected unanimously after minority Republicans, in a gesture of bipartisanship at the start of what’s expected to be a difficult session, threw their support behind the two Democrats. It’s the first time both of Maine’s legislative chambers are being headed by women at the same time.

And Mitchell is the first woman to have served as presiding officer in both the Maine House and Senate.

Maine has a history of electing and appointing women to lofty positions, although never a governor. The chief justice of the state supreme court, Leigh Ingalls Saufley, is a woman. Maine’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, soon will be joined in Washington by Democratic Rep.-elect Chellie Pingree, who was in Augusta Wednesday to see her daughter ascend to the House rostrum.

The 32-year-old Hannah Pingree noted that while she’s the second woman to serve as speaker, she’s not the youngest person to hold the title. In her acceptance speech, Pingree pointed to Hannibal Hamlin, who at age 27 wielded the Maine House gavel. Hamlin went on to serve as governor and in the U.S. House and Senate before serving as Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president.

In her address to the Senate, Mitchell made reference to Maine’s record electing women.

“I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to reflect on how unremarkable an accomplishment it is to elect a woman president of the Senate,” Mitchell said. “I am proud that in Maine, this is not a big news story. In Maine a young woman can not only dream of becoming anything she wants to be, but she can actually achieve it.”

Mills, of Farmington, who was a western Maine district attorney for 15 years, must give up her House seat to which she was just re-elected in order to serve as attorney general. The mother of five stepdaughters, Mills is a former assistant attorney general who has practiced law for three decades.

She comes from a family with a history of political activism, including a brother, Peter Mills, serving as a Republican senator from Cornville and a sister, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who is director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Three other prominent state offices also were filled Wednesday as Democrats were joined by Republicans in re-electing Matthew Dunlap as secretary of state, David Lemoine as treasurer and Neria Douglass as auditor. The secretary and treasurer serve two-year terms, and the auditor serves a four-year term.

Republican Rep. Kenneth Fletcher of Winslow said his party considers each of the Democratic candidates qualified and saw no gain in placing token candidates’ names in nomination.

“Don’t pick a fight that serves no purpose,” said Fletcher. “Why be contrary just to be contrary?”

Lawmakers were sworn in by Gov. John Baldacci, who had a sobering but optimistic message a day after he and the nation’s other governors met with President-elect Barack Obama in Philadelphia. In the State House, Baldacci reiterated Obama’s message that government must adopt the best ideas regardless of which side of the political aisle they come from.

“These are very difficult times facing our state and the nation,” said Baldacci. “In Maine, we put people above politics. We will need all our talents combined to ensure that Maine successfully weathers this economic storm and comes out stronger.”

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