When Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the State Address on Thursday, it will serve as a de facto campaign kick-off speech at a time when the state enjoys a large budget surplus but continues to suffer from the effects of COVID-19.
Although Mills hasn’t formally announced her run for reelection in November, “we all know she’s running,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.
“This is in some ways as much a campaign kick-off as it is a State of the State Address,” he said, adding that in addition to listing off big issues and goals for the remainder of the legislative session, she’ll need to make the case for why she should be reelected.
She’s likely to face former Gov. Paul LePage, a two-term Republican who announced his run in September to a large crowd at the Augusta Civic Center. Mills is unlikely to explicitly mention the election, but could draw contrasts between where she has taken the state versus “my predecessor,” said University of Maine at Farmington political science professor Jim Melcher.
One major curveball for this election cycle is COVID-19, with governors across the country poised to face voters for the first time since shutting down businesses and schools, and imposing sometimes unpopular mandates like mask-wearing and vaccinations for health care workers. Brewer said early on, Mills earned high marks for the way she handled the pandemic.
“Her approval on that metric has gone down as it has for most governors,” Brewer said.
A report published in October from The COVID States Project shows 64% of respondents approved of their state governor’s handling of the pandemic in April 2020, a number that dropped to 45% by September 2021. Mills’ numbers dropped from a high of 67% in April 2020 to 51% in September 2021.
When it comes to this year’s speech, Brewer said she won’t want to remind Mainers of the restrictions but she shouldn’t dismiss the pandemic yet either. She should avoid the President Biden mistake of declaring a “summer of freedom” when the virus is still circulating in Maine, he said.
For Melcher, it will be important for Mills to “discuss and defend” her approach to handling the pandemic.
“I think she is very likely to justify her policies, couch them in ‘following the science’ and talk about where the state goes from here,” he said in a written response to questions.
Republican Katrina Smith of Palermo, who is running for the Maine House, said she hopes to hear Mills talk about how children have fared during the pandemic, particularly with regard to remote learning and mask mandates.
“I think the governor needs to talk about our children and acknowledge how they are suffering with mental health pressures and the stress they are under,” said Smith, a mother of three. “I think kids have been put to the bottom of the list.”
Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield) said she too hopes Mills gives an honest assessment of the effects of the pandemic.
“The true cost of Maine’s pandemic response should not be sugar-coated,” she said in an email. “It is, in fact, a bitter pill that continues to wreak havoc in the lives and livelihoods of Maine people as we continue with school closures and vaccine mandates that are destroying young people’s career pursuits, tossing aside yesterday’s health care heroes and creating a second class of citizens.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) said another difficult subject that needs to be addressed is the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths. Maine set another record last year with more than 630 people dying of overdoses largely driven by an uptick in fentanyl.
“We’re looking to hear about issues important in our communities and the opioid epidemic is at the top,” she said.
Maxmin said she’s working at the legislative level to improve Maine’s law so those who witness an overdose don’t hesitate to call 911. Her bill, LD 1862, would prevent everyone at the scene of an overdose from being arrested, except for those suspected of a violent crime.
Maxmin said even though State of the State addresses tend to be upbeat, Mainers want to hear an honest assessment of reality.
“I think we’re Mainers and we can see through things that are inauthentic,” she said.
After delivering an inaugural address in January 2019, Mills had her first State of the State address in January 2020. Last year, she addressed lawmakers in a virtual State of the Budget Address.
Melcher said he anticipates Mills will highlight a bill she unveiled last week that attempts to hold Central Maine Power more accountable without a state takeover of the utility. This could be one of the olive branches she extends to critics in her own party who are more progressive, Melcher said.
Brewer said she can tout economic success – particularly the state’s budget surplus – and earn points with Republicans with a plan to return some of it to Mainers. But she’ll need to be mindful that many people are concerned about inflation. All the while, LePage will be waiting for any slip-up or misstep in the speech.
“It’s going to be fascinating,” Brewer said. “I can’t wait to see how she navigates this. She knows Paul LePage will be there to pound on her."