Maine Senate President Libby Mitchell in her State House office. Photo by Ramona du Houx
Working to make Maine a leader in the global economy, through education and innovation
Article by Ramona du Houx
February 13th, 2009
Last November Elizabeth (Libby) Mitchell became the first woman in America to hold both leadership roles of Speaker of the House and Senate President. The mother of four and grandmother of six is known as a leader who never waivers from her core convictions and who has devoted her public life to bettering education for the people of Maine.
Libby is a woman of many talents, having been a teacher, the director of Maine State Housing, holding a law degree and blazing the trail for women in Maine. Her tremendous sense of humor has defused situations, helping bipartisan cooperation, and her steadfast focus on education continues to motivate her.
“I’m a lifelong learner; I got my law degree and my Medicaid card the same year. Going to law school where I grew up was just not considered to be open to a girl to pursue. Nobody stopped me, but the culture didn’t support me,” she said.
Mitchell, 68, has made it easier for women in Maine to run for public office. In 1984, she ran for the U.S. Senate during a time when there had never been a Democratic woman U.S. Senator. Then in 1990 she had an unsuccessful run for Congress. She returned to the state Legislature when a Democratic candidate from her district dropped out of the race after the primary.
Mitchell has a simple motto that drives her: Do the very best at what you are doing. That principle has guided her life.
She moved to Maine in 1971 with her husband and two children, and never looked back except to reflect.
“We fell in love with Maine. I never thought about running for office. I went to school and studied to be a teacher and ultimately taught junior high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, in a brand new high school. I had all the language arts and another teacher had all the math and science, and we switched the kids back and forth. Beginning teachers don’t get the support they need,” said Mitchell. “We have to create a culture where we support our teachers and the building principal, because there is no substitute for a good teacher and that leadership. Parents need to get more involved. If we build our relationships with schools we build community.”
She went on to earn a masters degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Determined to teach abroad, Mitchell wrote letters to schools in Switzerland, offering her teaching services, an unusual goal for a women at that time.
“In those days it wasn’t so easy to go abroad. If you weren’t from a family of great means, you usually didn’t get to go. I ended up being the only American teacher in this school, and I had to prepare 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students to take the SATs,” she said.
All her experiences in education have helped her become successful in politics.
“I honestly think that being in the Legislature is like being a teacher. If you have ideas you want to share with others you have to be a respectful listener; you don’t just talk at people, you talk with people. Everything I needed to learn about being a Legislator I learned teaching school and being a mom. You have a vision, you respect where they are coming from, and you try and take them with you — where you think the state should go.”
Being a mom she saw that education needed help. “Books excited my youngest, but when I went to her school I was distressed when I asked what they do for kids that excel. I was told that she’ll have to wait until every one else catches up. I was so heartbroken. That’s why when we deal with education I always look for ways to make the school more inviting, so kids can learn better. All children are different and learn differently,” said Mitchell. “The goal is to graduate everyone. At Carrabec High School they raised the standards so kids are taking higher-level math, because they believe students can achieve.
People live up to your expectations; I think we can expect more from our kids, but at the same time we need to ensure we are giving them the tools to succeed.” Photo by Ramona du Houx
She first ran for the Legislature in 1974 with the goal to improve education. She served on the Education Committee.
“I never wanted to be in leadership; my goal was to be chair of the Education Committee. Back in the 70s, you had to wait until someone retired. It seemed like such a long wait, and when I got it, I was so excited to be in a position to really help out education for the state,” she said.
Then a friend advised her to run for leadership, pointing out that in leadership people have a great deal more power to help out causes they believe in.
“I took the risk and ran. I was in the right place to become majority leader. Having one leadership experience helps you get to the next, but it was never a career path. My philosophy always has been to do the very best you can in the particular post that you have,” said Mitchell.
As speaker of the house, she tried passionately to extend high school graduation to a 13th year.
“Ten years ago I used all the political power I had to try and extend graduation to a 13th year. The idea was to use scholarships, loans, federal grants, to give our students a year of college. The belief was once you got started then you’d figure out a way to stay there, whether it’s in community college or university. Training beyond high school is necessary; we are no longer in an agrarian society. Nowadays, you need a wide range of technology skills to succeed,” said Mitchell.
Though she didn’t succeed in extending high school, she was able to get more funding for scholarships, and her initiative gave impetus to have college courses taught in high school.
Mitchell said the more parents understand about consolidation efforts and participate in their schools the better off communities will be.
“I loved it when the mayor of Augusta, Rogar Katz , at a meeting about the cuts that we all are facing said, ‘It’s not a school problem, it’s a community problem,’” she said. “Having to deal with consolidation, I watched my own Union school, that didn’t want to embrace the plan. It’s wonderful, for they found out there are savings in transportation, even in special education, and we still have our communities, our buildings, and our kids. They all are Maine’s children; if we fail one, we fail them all.”
Mitchell sees education investment helping economic development investment.
“I was so pleased that education is still at the top of the list of where Congress wishes to go. It’s all about world-class education. We know that during their lifetime people will need to change careers multiple times in this global economy. They will need new skills and training, and we need to make those opportunities top notch. I long for the day when people will come to Maine to see how we do it,” said Mitchell.
The senate president would like more people to realize how important a partner government is.
“Government should be viewed as a partner. Isn’t it ironic that all those people that criticized government for so long have their hands out for all that bail-out money, and we’ve had to nationalize things because of excesses in the private sector, to right that ship?” she asked. “Government works best as a partner. Any one company can’t build a turnpike. We want to encourage entrepreneurs. We want to get seed capital for them to ensure that if you have a good idea, then we will have a trained, educated workforce ready. That’s a role only government can do.”
Helping good jobs being established in the state and health care have been areas where Mitchell sees Maine’s government has been a successful partner.
“I’m proud that Maine has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country, I was proud we kept DirigoChoice funded, and I’m appalled by the amounts of money that poured into the state with advertising against taxes on soda and beer. The message of If you want health care for working people was drowned out by Are you fed up with taxes?” said Mitchell.
The ’09 supplemental budget will fill a $140 million shortfall and has proposed cuts to balance the budget according to state law. This measure has to be passed soon for the projected savings to happen.
“There will be hard choices; it will be painful. But it’s all going to be equitable, with everybody participating. Maine state government is open and accessible. We need help from the people who sent us here how to navigate these cuts. We need to find where it does the least damage, so that when we go forward we are stronger for making us leaner,” said Mitchell.
The projected ’010-’011 biennial budget already has a shortfall of $838 million; help from the federal government may change what cuts are proposed.
“A partner in the federal government with President Obama will help. I have great hope in an Obama administration. We have to make sure that we have adequate funding so that no one goes without food, clothing, and shelter, and not without food and clothing for the mind. We have to keep investing in our children from birth. We have to continue to make sure we create opportunities,” said Mitchell.
“We will keep to our core values: protect our most venerable and also help those who need a helping hand up go forward. At the same time, Maine will be become a leader in green technologies, education and training.”
Mitchell said that she will foster cooperation in the Senate and would like to see the Legislature talking more about what positive measures Maine has taken to move the state forward in the global economy, preserving, protecting and promoting Maine’s quality of place while helping innovative growth.
“There are a lot of first-rate things happening in Maine right now that we need to promote. We will not give up gains that we have made in investing in innovation. We need to build on them. We want to give people hope and continue to move the state forward,” said Mitchell.