“This girl is on fire, she’s walking on fire…” It was not much more than a year ago that Governor Janet Mills was on stage listening to two girls, ten and eleven years old, singing those lyrics at her inauguration. She is walking on fire now.
Her presence that night was pure Mills. She sang along, she collapsed in delight against the shoulder of Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, she literally jumped for joy, and when the song ended, she enveloped the two young singers in an ecstatic embrace. This was no air-kiss. It was a full-on, maternal hug with thanks and pride and “you done good” all wrapped in one.
If Maine has a political dynasty, it is the Mills family. Grandfather Sumner Peter Mills Sr. was a state senator from Stonington. Her father (S. Peter Mills II) and brother (S. Peter Mills III) both served in the legislature. Sister Dora is a physician and former head of the Maine Bureau of Health (now the Maine CDC).
Janet Mills herself was the first woman Attorney General in Maine. Her life has not been without its personal challenges, helping turn her into a tough and pragmatic politician with a penchant for warm, personal contact. Mills sounds like any other neighbor you would meet at the post office or the corner store.
Little did she know that after a year in office, in the words of that inaugural song, she would be “feeling the catastrophe.” Her early Executive Orders were the routine stuff of political life. The first was to implement MaineCare Expansion. The second addressed the opioid epidemic. And so it went up to Executive Order 14, issued on March 18, “An Order to Protect Public Health.”
In that order, she proclaimed a state of emergency in Maine, authorizing the use of emergency powers to “expand and expedite the State’s response to the threats posed by COVID-19.” That order limited social gatherings and closed all dine-in facilities until March 31.
Since that March 18 order, she has issued 25 more, every one of them having to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. They have addressed pay for hourly employees of schools, license requirements for health care workers, the expiration of drivers’ licenses, child care requirements, clinical trials, hours of operation of solid waste facilities, training for critical jobs and burn permits.
She issued a Stay at Home order on March 31, placed quarantine restrictions on people arriving in Maine on April 3, and moved the June 9 primary elections to July 14. After a wobbly start, when people from both within and outside of the state took to the road looking for safe respite from the pandemic, the populace finally got the message and seems to be staying at home.
The resources of a governor for managing crises are not insignificant. Cabinet members, after a year in office, were well-enough versed in their policy areas to be able to hit the ground running even before cases were identified in Maine. There are experts in universities and colleges, medical centers and health agencies and biomedical research facilities who can be called upon. In Maine, they were quick to answer the call.
There are federal resources available, conference calls with governors from around the country, and previous governors whose counsel may be solicited. In this unprecedented situation, advice may shift from day to day. It is the unenviable job of the governor to sift through the mountain of information and opinion and choose a course for her own state.
On top of all that, she is expected to offer human warmth, solace, encouragement and hope. At her side every step of the way has been the unflappable Dr. Nirav Shah, a physician and head of the Maine CDC, whose daily briefings are delivered with equal measures of calm, empathy and respect for his colleagues, the media and the citizens of Maine.
In the midst of all this comes an early spring snowstorm, knocking out power for over 250,000 people. The governor’s reaction? “I mean, we really needed this, right?” The pandemic goes on, but now she must coordinate with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, set priorities for power restoration, close state offices for a day and remind Mainers to check on neighbors with a phone call while continuing to observe all the COVID-19 restrictions.
It is easy to second guess the decisions being made that have separated us from friends, family and work, and devastated the economy. The lyrics of “This Girl is on Fire” include this: “She got both feet on the ground and she’s burning it down, she got her head in the clouds and she’s not backing down.” Governor Janet Mills is every bit of that. At least we’ve got that going for us.