One does not typically consider leading the state's largest, complicated and historically troubled bureaucracy as a springboard for the Blaine House. It's more like a trap door. A safer spot is the Department of Economic and Community Development, where the agency head can show up for ribbon cuttings and claim, accurately or not, that he or she brought jobs to Maine.
Nonetheless, there is chatter among some Republicans that Mary Mayhew, the current commissioner of the DHHS, is being groomed for a future gubernatorial run. It would be easy to dismiss such speculation given that Mayhew's DHHS has followed the established historical trend of the agency, that is, controversy upon controversy. During the Baldacci and King administrations, problems with computers and administering public welfare programs led to the rolling of heads.
Under Gov. Paul LePage, the troubles at DHHS have slid off Mayhew, who always looks and acts like she's in complete control and has a deft touch with the media. It has led to high praise among Republicans, including her current boss. During the uproar over document shredding at the Maine Center for Disease Control, which is a part of DHHS, the governor lauded Mayhew as "a superstar."
The governor is not alone in his assessment.
According to sources within the Maine Republican Party, Mayhew is very much considered a potential gubernatorial candidate for 2018. From one person's perspective, Mayhew is poised to have the appeal of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who enjoys support from Democrats, Republicans and unenrolled voters.
Mayhew did not respond to requests for comment.
That she could somehow chart a course like Collins might seem like a stretch given that Mayhew is so closely linked to LePage, who isn't exactly in danger of being dubbed a moderate.
However, Mayhew is a former Democrat. She was a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, a Democrat from Arkansas. In 1990, she became the 25-year-old campaign manager for Patrick McGowan, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress (McGowan lost to Olympia Snowe, the Republican incumbent, by a single percentage point.).
Her career trajectory has been assisted by other encounters, one of which may well help boost a gubernatorial candidacy, should she choose to pursue it.
Mayhew is often referred to as a former lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, a post that some argued helped to land her in the DHHS job. That may be true, but it was her pre-MHA clients, Altria (better known as Philip Morris USA) and Maine Beverage & Wine Wholesalers that helped her get acquainted with Roy Lenardson, a longtime conservative operative who runs the consulting firm Strategic Advocacy.
Lenardson used to be the legislative policy analyst for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, the panel that hears legislation related to liquor contracts and other matters of interest to Mayhew's former clients. Mayhew and Lenardson have maintained a strong working relationship since their career paths left the VLA committee room.
Lenardson told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year that he and Mayhew have remained friends. Today, Sam and Nick Adolphsen, two former political operatives trained by Lenardson, hold two key positions within Mayhew's DHHS, as do other former members of Strategic Advocacy.
Lenardson and his team of operatives have been involved with other aspirants to public office, including Rick Bennett, the current chairman of the Maine Republican Party. Lenardson's firm and affiliate companies did a lot of the consulting during Bennett's unsuccessful bid, as did Brent Littlefield, the political advisor to LePage.
Reached Wednesday via email, Lenardson said that it was only "the rumor phase of the Mayhew for Governor effort." However, he too brought up the Collins comparison (sort of).
"Well, the last person -- in the Republican Party -- I can recall who understood the importance of charting a course well in advance was Susan Collins, so if Mary is taking a page from the Senator’s playbook then I’d be the first to congratulate her," he wrote. "She would definitely be on the short list of folks I would support. And history is on her side - Maine people have been electing Republican women to statewide office since the 1950’s, unlike the Democrats-- who have yet to do so."
Lenardson said that he believed Mayhew was "more interested right now in seeing Governor Lepage get re-elected so she can finish the job and fix the decades-long neglect of the state’s welfare programs."
Supporting LePage can also mean supporting Mayhew, which may be why the two appeared together Wednesday at a public appearance that was decidedly unrelated to the affairs of the DHHS.
— Paul R. LePage (@Governor_LePage) July 2, 2014