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'In Other Words, Leadership' chronicles a year of letters between Maine's governor and constituent

From Left to Right: Ashirah Knapp, author Shannon A. Mullen and  Gov. Janet Mills. (Courtesy of Thomas Petzwinkler)
From Left to Right: Ashirah Knapp, author Shannon A. Mullen and Gov. Janet Mills. (Courtesy of Thomas Petzwinkler)

Maine Gov. Janet Mills had been in office only a year when the pandemic struck. Recently widowed and isolated alone in her mansion, she was a lightning rod for criticism as she enacted closures and touted vaccines.

Amid the chaos, a mother named Shirah Knapp sent her a letter of support — and continued to do so weekly for more than a year. And the governor wrote back.

The pen pal relationship is detailed in journalist Shannon Mullen‘s book “In Other Words, Leadership: How a Young Mother’s Weekly Letters to Her Governor Helped Both Women Brave the First Pandemic Year.” It’s as much a lesson in civics as it is civility in a time of turmoil.

All three women join host Robin Young.

The cover of “In Other Words, Leadership.” (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘In Other Words, Leadership’

By Shannon A. Mullen

One week later Maine became the first New England state to announce that restaurants would be allowed to resume dine-in service in just over a month, on June 1, as part of the Mills administration’s four-phase plan to reopen its economy. “Of course, no one is happy,” the governor wrote in her journal that night. “Why am I angry. Why so ready to weep. Sad that people are willing to take reckless risks.” Two days later, a restaurateur named Rick Savage, who owned a large brewpub in western Maine, appeared on the national prime-time Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight and accused Governor Mills of acting “rogue on her own” and “not consulting experts.” He added that he planned to defy state law and reopen his establishment the next day. The show’s controversial host had strong personal ties to Maine, having spent summers in the state’s western region since he was a child. He echoed his guest’s frustration, calling Governor Mills “the most incompetent, self-involved, dictatorial governor I have seen in a long time.” He then wished the restaurateur “Godspeed, good luck” in his plans to break the law, and smirked while his guest proceeded to announce the governor’s personal cellphone number. The live segment aired during the show’s highest-rated quarter — at that time it had become the most watched program in the history of cable news.

That night Governor Mills received “thousands of just vulgar, nasty” text and voice messages and had to change her phone number. President Trump seemed to acknowledge the incident in a Twitter post, using it to criticize the governor’s pandemic leadership. “Many complaints coming in about Maine,” he wrote. “Don’t make the cure worse than the problem itself. That can happen, you know!” Governor Mills would not disclose whether her security protocol was heightened after the segment aired. She insisted that she was never afraid for her safety. “I’m kind of thick skinned,” she said, adding that the stunt was a “dirtball thing to do, that’s all.” The governor used her weekly radio address, broadcast the next day, to acknowledge critics’ concerns about her management of the pandemic. She also noted that some Mainers were against relaxing restrictions — she assured both groups that her reopening plan was based on “fact and science.” The plan was also designed to be flexible in case the pandemic eased or worsened. She told listeners that she had “thought long and hard” about the potential effects on Maine people and businesses of every action she took and encouraged them to share constructive feedback. She also reminded her constituents that tens of thousands of people had died from COVID in states around the Northeast, including 252 in one day that week in Massachusetts, just fifteen miles from Maine’s southern border. “We can’t simply flip a switch,” the governor said, and “do business as usual,” risking an outbreak that could “devastate our entire economy for years to come.” In closing, she called on Maine people not to give up on each other but to “keep talking.”

Two days later another protest against pandemic restrictions drew a bigger crowd in front of the Blaine House than the first, and this time the governor was home. She sat in a small room on the opposite side of the building, studying a painting by Jamie Wyeth that the artist had loaned her. Its subject was a lone seagull flying fiercely behind an unseen boat. As demonstrators chanted outside, she wrote “a small poem” in her journal, giving it the same title as the painting: “Wake.”

No one knows these waters better —

the tide, the flow, the spray,

the foam, the whites and purples,

defiant golds and greys,

the gull-spewn air,

the deep green fullness

and the awful emptiness —

No one knows these

weary, fearful waters

Better than the bird, and you,

navigating an angry wind.

In that same entry she also wrote that her day was one of “relief and success” — she had been working to convince the US Food and Drug Administration to allow the Maine-based animal diagnostics company IDEXX Laboratories to produce and sell a COVID-19 test kit. “I get a call this evening from the FDA guy’s assistant, a woman who is from Maine, telling me that the [emergency authorization] has been approved. I tell her she doesn’t know how many lives she has just saved, including thousands right here in Maine.” Later that week Governor Mills announced that the state planned to buy enough of the IDEXX test kits to more than triple its virus testing capacity. This would “soon allow anyone in Maine suspected of having COVID-19 to receive a test.”

By then a total of fifty-seven residents had died and more than 1,100 virus cases had been confirmed in Maine, including hundreds at long-term care facilities around the state and about two dozen at two urban homeless shelters. Maine CDC director Dr. Shah also reported a growing outbreak at a poultry processing plant with a predominantly immigrant workforce of nearly four hundred workers. The plant in Portland, the state’s largest city, was shut down to try to limit the spread of the virus. Dr. Shah, who had been holding media briefings almost daily since the pandemic started, was “becoming a bit of a meme, a hero,” as Governor Mills mentioned in her journal. Mainers were “tuning in to his daily reports, delivered in his calm, compassionate and professional manner.” Meanwhile, opposition to the governor’s reopening plan intensified that month, after her administration opted not to allow bars to reopen or hotels to lodge visitors until July 1. She also imposed a mandatory quarantine period of fourteen days for out-of-state visitors. More than two hundred businesses joined a video conference call with Maine’s economic development commissioner to question the quarantine requirement. A group representing thousands of hospitality workers in the state sent the governor a letter calling her plan “a death march for restaurants.” Her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, said of her reopening plan that Governor Mills “ought to resign” and he vowed to challenge her in 2022. He had served two consecutive terms, from 2011 to 2019, the limit under the state’s constitution, which allowed a third term after a four-year hiatus — since leaving office he had been working as a bartender at a seafood restaurant in Maine and spending winters in Florida with his wife.

By early May the governor’s office was inundated with mail from both supporters and opponents of the state’s pandemic response. Hundreds of letters and cards arrived daily and the job of managing them belonged to the director of constituent casework, Martha Currier, a Republican who had joined the administration after working for then-Attorney-General Mills. Martha would come to the office a few times each week to open and screen the mail. “Initially it was a lot because we were in unknown territory,” she said. “People didn’t know what to expect. The notion of having to stay home and not-do-what-I’m-allowed-to-do-in-America, that just sounds crazy, right?” She recalled that a lot of Mainers were “just shocked by the change in behaviors because none of us have been through that sort of situation before, save for a few people who were much older than all of us.”

Copyright 2023 Shannon A. Mullen, reprinted with permission of Steerforth Press.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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