AUGUSTA, Maine — Standing in front of a stove shop powered by 83 rooftop solar panels, Gov. Janet Mills (D) used three simple words to usher in her state’s new solar energy policy.
“It’s now law,” Mills shouted as she raised her pen after signing legislation that expands the use of renewable energy in Maine.
The bill had been fiercely opposed by Mills’s predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, a staunch conservative known for rancorous comments, penny-pinching budgets and denial of man-made climate change. For Mills, the solar metering bill is part of an effort to rapidly reverse the policies of LePage and the conservative interest groups that backed him for eight years.
“We are doing things differently now in Maine,” Mills said in an interview after the signing early this month. “And we are going to continue doing things differently.”
Mills is one of seven Democrats who flipped GOP-held governorships last year and are moving quickly to shift debate leftward in their states. Their agendas bolster and defend the Affordable Care Act, enjoin their states in the fight over climate change, and revitalize state budgets that often saw stagnant funding under their GOP predecessors.
Just as important, the new Democratic governors say, they view their governorships as gentler, less adversarial models for how government should function in the era of President Trump.
“As much as certain kinds of behavior grab headlines, people out there still, I think, are hungry for a better degree, higher level of civility,” said Mills, who was elected Maine’s first female governor in November. “People want a more thoughtful approach to governing and a more thoughtful approach to public policy.”
On her first day in office, Mills moved to expand Medicaid in the state under the ACA, a direct rebuke to LePage’s staunch opposition to the federal health-care law. She also has reversed his call for Medicaid work requirements, pushed to roll back his support for offshore drilling and sought to expand access to abortions by allowing health-care providers other than doctors to perform them.
New Democratic governors are making similar moves across the country: In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been pushing a gasoline-tax hike to pay for highway repairs that she says were neglected by her predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers is promoting a plan to expand Medicaid to 82,000 low- and moderate-income state residents, a change that was opposed by the previous governor, Scott Walker (R).
In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been pushing to raise the minimum wage while supporting pay increases for child- and health-care workers that his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, rejected. And in his first months in office, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases, even though some local sheriffs are rebelling against the law and vowing that they won’t enforce it.
New Democratic governors in Kansas and New Mexico have made clean energy and climate change a centerpiece of their early efforts. Of the seven governors, six of them — Evers, Mills, Pritzker, Sisolak, Whitmer and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico — have signed onto the U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to meet the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord, even though Trump withdrew the United States from the pact.
There’s debate about whether the new governors are shifting policy too far to the left for some voters’ tastes. Evers, for example, has proposed granting in-state tuition rates to some undocumented immigrants, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and freezing school vouchers, which had been a top priority of Walker.
But Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, notes that about half of Wisconsin voters approve of Evers’s job performance.
“After eight years of Republican rule, with Democrats having zero influence, there is now pent-up demand among Democrats for a Democratic agenda,” said Franklin, adding that Republicans will be incensed that “you are rejecting everything we did for the last eight years.”
What the Democratic governors are able to accomplish hinges heavily on the partisan makeup of their legislatures. GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin and Kansas, for example, have vowed to block Evers’s and Gov. Laura Kelly’s efforts to expand Medicaid. Those in Michigan have signaled that they are unlikely to support Whitmer’s ambitious gas-tax proposal.
But in Maine, the leftward tilt of the legislature — which has been infused in recent years by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — has provided Mills with a pathway to prioritize climate change and roll back some of LePage’s policies.
Mills’s upbringing and early career prepared her to take on a Republican agenda. She grew up in a family of prominent Republicans in Farmington, a town about 40 miles north of the state capital, Augusta, in foothills known for lumberjacks and downhill skiers.
Her father, Sumner Peter Mills Jr., was a state legislator who served as the U.S. attorney for Maine in the 1950s. After being drawn to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” in 1967 and to Paris to study French, she returned to Maine in the early 1970s and registered to vote as a Democrat.
“I had time to think about it, and it just felt like that is where things were going,” Mills said. “Women’s issues were becoming much more broadly discussed. You had civil rights issues. You had antiwar things, and the Democrats were at the forefront of a lot of issues.”
During her stints as Maine’s attorney general — from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2013 until her swearing-in as governor this year — Mills frequently clashed with LePage while he was governor.
When he sought to join other GOP-led states in a lawsuit to overturn the ACA, Mills refused to represent him. LePage sued Mills in 2017 after she added Maine to a multistate lawsuit challenging Trump’s decision to suspend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields some young immigrants from deportation.
Now as governor, Mills’s governing style stands in particular contrast to that of LePage, who has a long history of racially inflammatory statements and once referred to himself as being “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”
While LePage notoriously refused to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, Mills led the holiday march around the state Capitol this year. In a nod to Maine’s growing diversity, she also changed the state highway signs, replacing LePage’s preferred “Open for Business” with “Welcome Home.”
So far, even many Republicans here say they are willing to give Mills a chance, believing she will be a calmer leader than LePage was known to be.
“I believe strongly in the Maine cycle of switching between the parties and giving us the balance that you don’t have in a lot of places,” said Jodi Hollingsworth, 48, a self-described moderate Republican who backs Mills’s support for expanding Medicaid. “Being from around here, she knows we have a lot of uninsured people who live off free spaghetti suppers and bake sales to pay their medical bills.”
But some Maine Republicans warn that the mood of the electorate could shift rapidly if Mills seeks to raise taxes, as some of the other new Democratic governors are trying to do.
In her first two-year budget proposal, Mills avoided a tax hike but proposed an 11 percent increase in spending, including more money for schools and health-care initiatives. In comparison, LePage was known to stockpile budget savings, resulting in a record $250 million reserve fund by the time he left office.
“There is real concern all of the progress created under LePage could be decimated and go away in this next budget,” said Charles Webster, a Franklin County commissioner and a former chairman of the Maine Republican Party.
A cornerstone of Mills’s agenda, to limit reliance on fossil fuels, is already facing stiff resistance from some state residents.
In February, she threw her support behind a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line to transfer hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, arguing that the project would transform New England’s clean-energy portfolio, saving up to 3.6 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually.
Residents along the proposed path of the transmission line, however, have mounted intense opposition. They include liberal environmentalists worried about the loss of trees as well as conservatives who question how the project would benefit Maine.
Last month, despite a personal plea from Mills, residents in her hometown, Farmington, voted 262 to 102 to oppose the project.
“When I found out [Mills] approved the power line I thought, ‘Well it must be okay,’ ” said Stewart Goodwin, a retired English teacher. “But now, the more I find out about it, I’m waiting for her to change her mind, because I’ve learned so much against it.”
Although he’s now living in Florida, LePage also appears to be closely watching how Mills is governing. LePage and his allies maintain a political action committee, Maine People Before Politics, and the former governor has suggested on local radio programs that he could run again in 2022.
Term limits prevented him from running against Mills in 2018, but Maine allows governors to serve an unlimited number of nonconsecutive terms.
“The question is, does she go too far?” asked Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for Maine People Before Politics.
For now, Mills doesn’t seem particularly worried about the possibility of a future matchup against her old nemesis. Instead, she is optimistic that Maine residents — who last ousted an incumbent governor more than 50 years ago — will continue to respect that she’s trying to move the state to a “healthier” future.
“I don’t think there will be any buildings or bridges with my name on it,” Mills said. “But I think somebody will say, ‘She has done good.’ ”