Janet Mills’ inauguration as Maine governor was striking for its humor without a hint of meanness, feelings of warmth and inclusion, and poetic musings on our shared community.
When two fifth-graders sang, “This Girl is on Fire,” the crowd rose to its feet and Mills laughed, sang along, play-acted to some lyrics and, at the end, engulfed the children in an embrace.
For singers Shy Paca and Natalia Mbadu and their families, Mills’ promise to put up a sign on Interstate 95 saying “Welcome Home” could have easily felt more than metaphorical. Natalia, 10 years old, came to this country from Angola, and 11-year-old Shy arrived from Namibia.
The other music was beautiful as well — the National Anthem sung by 15-year-old high schooler Alain Igirneza, the rousing tunes by the Franklin County Fiddlers from Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, and a rendition of “Simple Gifts” by the Portland String Quartet.
With references to Maine’s history, past leaders and land, Mills tied our present to Maine’s traditions and sense of place.
Mills spoke of her home and its environs in ways that evoked our collective situation, saying, “Streams, like the people of Maine, change direction on occasion to find the best way forward.
Many days I awake to see the mist rising from the Sandy River as it steers its course to the Kennebec, the winter’s breath unveiling a new day in my hometown, a new day in this state.”
At a time when politics is so polarized and divided, the event was humane and joyful, elevating it beyond formal oath-taking and democratic ritual.
The inaugural speech also charted a new governing direction, with details adding a splash of wonkery.
Even when discussing policy, Mills emphasized human impacts. Regarding Medicaid expansion — a step supported by multiple votes by the Maine Legislature and by a landslide vote by the Maine people — Mills referenced her friend Patty, “a vibrant, intelligent and charitable woman, an athlete, a mother of three wise children, loved by all… and uninsured.” Patty died of breast cancer, which, said Mills, “could have been diagnosed early, treated, and cured.”
Now Mills faces the difficulties inherent in governing. Citizens and elected officials sincerely disagree about what policies are best. Democrats were given strong support by voters and should deliver, as Republicans represent a substantial portion of the state. Many members of Maine tribes remain quite critical of Mills. Moreover, while there are pent-up needs and the tax system can be modified, finances will constrain what can be funded, particularly since, as Mills pointed out in her inaugural address, another recession may be on the horizon.
This administration’s interest in evidence and expertise will help it make effective policy.
Mills recognizes that climate change is a real threat to Maine’s fisheries and forests.
To head the Department of Health and Human Services, Mills nominated an experienced, knowledgeable individual. Medicaid will be expanded. Mills plans on creating a Director of Opiate Response to coordinate responses across agencies.
Attracting people to live in Maine is important. Beyond the tax credit plan outlined in Mills’ campaign, we can learn from other states. One study on making immigration work for everyone found that it’s critical to help immigrants learn English, gain education, stay healthy, get involved in their children’s schools, and become citizens.
Like Maine, as its population ages, Minnesota faces workforce needs, with immigrants critical to economic health and growth. In 2013 Minnesota, passed the Minnesota Dream Act, also known as the Minnesota Prosperity Act, to better educate and incorporate immigrants into the state.
For everyone born in Maine and from away, improving access to higher education, training and licensure, will help provide higher incomes and serve labor needs. Infrastructure, including broadband, clean and efficient energy, and road projects can promote opportunity.
Times ahead will bring challenges, but, as Mills told us in her inaugural address, we can face them with confidence and comity, respecting all and welcoming everyone to our civic dialogue.