A Pine Tree Watch Special Series
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat running for governor against two other candidates, considers civility a character trait that she has demonstrated well. Photo by Sarah Rice.
The rebel with a cause
Supporters believe Janet Mills’ experience, family legacy and legal mind have prepared her well to be Maine’s first female governor
For one of the few times in her 70 years, Mills was caught off guard – but only for a moment. “What movie? There is no movie,” she responded, a grin playing at the corners of her mouth.
She was the first woman in New England’s six states to rise to the position of state attorney general back in 2008. After the votes are counted on Election Day Nov. 6, Mills also could be the first woman elected governor of Maine. She is the Democratic nominee for the office, breaking with her family’s long involvement with the Republican party.
So who could play her in the movie?
“Let me think,” says Mills.
She is the granddaughter, daughter and sister of lawyers, legislators and town officials. Margaret Chase Smith, the U.S. senator from Skowhegan, was a family friend who frequently traveled to nearby Farmington to visit.
The family business was the practice of law and public service. Which meant it became the family’s passion. The Mills home was an incubator, growing a sense of responsibility to the greater community.
And Janet Mills flourished.
“She has an overly established sense of what is right or fair,” says Susan Farnsworth, a classmate of Mills at the University of Maine School of Law in the mid-1970s. “I became aware then that she was from a family of lawyers. She was always conversant in the law. She was steeped in it.”
At school, Farnsworth came to believe that Mills’ understanding of law was more instinctive while others were still processing what they were learning. But Farnsworth, like many before her and after, also discovered a dose of so-called Maine values, common sense, compassion and a bit of earthy humor. Everything contributed to the makeup of a strong individual, she says.
Yet Mills continues to fight the sexist perception of strong women being too strong. Mills is a woman from a generation of males that wrestled with the very idea of females as prosecuting attorneys.
Mills won’t forget an early case, working out of the state Attorney General’s office. It was 40 years ago. She noticed Bill Caldwell, a columnist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram sitting in the courtroom during the trial.
Caldwell was observing Mills and collecting material for a column. Mills won the conviction, and that Sunday she rushed to get her newspaper.
“I didn’t see anything on the front page,” recalls Mills. “I went to the front page of the local section. Nothing. I went to the police and court news inside the section. Nothing there.”
All these years later, Mills’ voice still sounds incredulous as she finishes telling the story. Finally, she saw a headline in what she called the society section: “The Prosecutor Wore Pale Powder Blue.”
Mills has been called a rebel more than once, particularly after moving away from her Republican family’s philosophies. She’s packed a lot of experiences into her 70 years and independent thinking was a virtue. After high school, and with Woodstock about two years away, Mills left home for San Francisco, an epicenter for Flower Power and the cultural revolution of the late ‘60s. She returned to New England to enroll at the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1969.
Then came a year of studies in Paris through UMass-Boston and more time trekking across Western Europe to experience another reawakening of youth. She learned to speak French like a native and turned that knowledge into her major and a diploma upon returning to Boston.
After experiencing so much of life away from home she returned to the relative isolation of Maine to attend the University of Maine School of Law.
“I had no plan to be a lawyer. I had no plan be involved in public service. Women’s issues piqued my interest.” Mills pulls a John Lennon lyric from “Beautiful Boy” off the top of her head: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
In 1985 she married Stanley Kuklinski, a widower with five daughters who was her tennis instructor. Mills, who hadn’t been married before, suddenly had an instant family. The youngest of her new husband’s daughters was 4, the oldest was 16. They lived in Wilton for 12 years, later moved to a farm in Strong, and then to Farmington, where Mills lives today.
A real estate developer, Kuklinski was appointed to the Maine Athletic Commission by then-Gov. Joseph Brennan, coinciding with the rising career of Lewiston boxer Joey Gamache, who won the first of his two world titles in 1991. Mills attended Gamache’s fights. She learned about the sport, the rules of staging professional fight cards, and matchmaking. Mills came to understand the roles and sometimes the posturing of fighters, trainers, and promoters.
Years later, Gov. John Baldacci named Kuklinski to the Maine Harness Racing Commission, opening yet another door in Mills’ life. She and her husband raised standardbreds later in the 1990s. As in many Maine towns that host agricultural fairs, harness racing had an impact on the community, both economically and as entertainment.
“I mucked stalls. I fed grain (to the horses),” says Mills, who enjoyed the physical work. “When Stan died, and with all the other things I was involved with, I had to sell the horses.”
Kuklinski died in 2014 at age 74, a year after suffering a stroke.
Gary Mosher of Farmington, one of the top horsemen in Maine who won his 6,000th race this past summer, bought a yearling from Mills and Kuklinski around 2007. He named the filly JT Mills.
“Why the name? To honor Janet. She and her family have done a lot of good things,” explains Mosher, after an afternoon of racing at the Fryeburg Fair in October. “She (JT Mills) was a strong runner. Good starter, good finisher, too. She won races.”
But not the one Mills went to watch one fall day almost 10 years ago. JT Mills finished second in a stakes race. Mills grinned again. Second was good. Winning would have been better.
Farnsworth was asked if the Mills she first met and knows now is a competitive person.
“I don’t think of Janet as competing against another person,” says Farnsworth, from her law office in Hallowell. Like Mills, she has served in the Maine Legislature. “Janet competes for a cause or against an injustice.”
At a time in Maine when the state electorate seems weary from the bitter partisanship of government gridlock, there’s a yearning for someone to bridge the divide as governor.
Mills, for the only time during an hour-long conversation at the Democratic party offices in Westbrook, bristled when asked about the lack of civility in state government. She reacted personally, believing she was being identified as part of the problem.
No, Mills was told. It was a general statement.
She pointed to a thumbnail-sized blue button pinned to a lapel on her suit. Initially, it had gone unnoticed. “Civility,” it read.
Q&A with Janet Mills
Pine Tree Watch: Who plays Janet Mills in the movie?
Janet Mills: Oh, gosh. Helen Hunt. She plays strong women. (Scott Ogden, Mills campaign spokesman, typed another name into his laptop computer and pushed it across the conference table for Mills to see: Helen Mirren. Mills nodded more emphatically.)
Oh, I like her.
(A third name was mentioned: Frances McDormand, winner of last year’s Academy Award for her role as a persistent, no-nonsense mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”)
Yes, her. Definitely.
PTW: Has the lack of civility become an issue in Maine government?
Mills: Civility is a character trait, and I think I’ve demonstrated that. Open door, open mind, open heart.
PTW: How would you describe your relationship, as Maine’s attorney general, with Gov. Paul LePage?
Mills: It’s not about me and Gov. LePage. It’s about standing up for the rule of law and the separation of power.
PTW: You’ve talked about visiting your grandfather in Ashland (Aroostook County). What do you remember?
Mills: When my grandfather’s crop went bad, he ran a store and worked as the town clerk. One summer, I helped issue fishing licenses, marriage licenses, dog licenses. I just hope I didn’t get them mixed up.
PTW: Having attended college in Boston and working in Boston, any Red Sox memories?
Mills: I got tickets from a friend at the Boston Herald and took my father to Carl Yastrzemski’s last game (on Oct. 2, 1983). To be there with my dad, it was a very moving experience.
Over a 43-year career, mostly with the Kennebec Journal, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram in his adopted state of Maine, Solloway won numerous national, regional, and state news and column writing awards.
He has asked questions of youngsters playing pee wee football and men playing in the Super Bowl. Lobstermen, actors, and U.S. senators. Boxers and bank presidents. Racecar drivers and climatologists. Everyone has a story and Solloway loves to listen.
Solloway was inducted to the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame in 2016.