By Paul Mills
In baseball they’re the most versatile players on the field: a standout who can typically play almost any defensive infield position: second base, shortstop, third base and sometimes even first base.
The landscape of our governments – both state and federal – could not abide without them.
Names like Elliot Richardson and George Shultz, who between the two of them in the 1970s and 1980s occupied eight different presidential cabinet positions, come to mind.
At the state level, Maine has had the likes of David Stevens and Sawin Millett. In Stevens’ case it spanned the gamut from, first as town manager of several communities, then State Tax Assessor, Health and Welfare Commissioner, Highway and finally Turnpike Authority Czar, all in the space of a 55-year career that ended in 1987.
For Millett, the game is by no means over yet. The 82-year old ranking GOP member of the influential legislative Appropriations Committee has a public service resume that stretches back over 50 years and includes cabinet positions for four different Maine governors.
The capstone of the career of yet another utility infielder has also yet to be reached in the case of Charlie Pray, who holds the record as the longest serving Democrat to ever head up the Maine State Senate, its president for eight years in the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, in effect Maine’s lieutenant governor. Pray followed this up with 16 years in both the Clinton and Obama administrations including posts in energy and nuclear security. These positions book-ended his role as Maine’s Nuclear Safety Advisor during five years of the Baldacci administration.
He’s presently doing double duty as executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association and as town councilor in his home town of Millinocket. This Vietnam air force veteran at age 74 just last month demonstrated his own personal sustainability by putting in yet another run in the town’s annual celebrated half marathon race.
Though Pray has certainly scaled the heights of both state and federal positions it’s to his beleaguered Millinocket – a town with now merely one third the property values and half the population it had two decades ago – that the dialogue in almost any conversation with Pray seems to return. When this columnist checked in with Pray just a few days ago, he extolled the recent breakthrough in efforts to re-boot the long dormant 1,400-acre Great Northern Paper mill location, once one of the leading employers in Maine but moribund the past 15 years.
Likewise, ask the man who was for eight years a heartbeat away from being in the Blaine House and he points to what he did for the Millinocket area in that role as well. This was legislation Pray spearheaded that tied the hydropower system of the Penobscot River in this location to the mill site area itself. Otherwise, Pray reasoned, the owner would exploit the location to sell its power to the grid as opposed to keeping it on site for local development.
Other key accomplishments Pray points to in his reign as senate president include establishing a screening system that addressed a medical malpractice insurance premium crisis. It’s been a fixture in the professional medical world in the nearly 30 years ever since its adoption.
Clearly, another landmark was the government shutdown in his last term, one that put the brakes on state government for a record 17 days in July of 1991. The shutdown was orchestrated by GOP legislative leaders in an attempt to win concessions over rising workers compensation premiums. Pray and other Democrats including House Speaker John Martin were tasked with the dilemma of how to deal with what seemed like a hopelessly intractable situation. Though ultimately a compromise was brokered the episode contributed to the rise in bad feelings towards both political parties and among other things contributed not only to Pray’s defeat in 1992 but also to the election of an independent as governor, Angus King, in 1994.
Long distance performer that Pray is, the setbacks of 1991 and 1992 by no means slowed down the forward movement of his marathon run in government. The same 1992 election that brought forth a Republican replacement for his state senate seat nevertheless saw the advent of the Democratic Clinton administration in Washington. Pray thus answered the call to become senior advisor in the US Department of Energy. In this position Pray not only drew upon his policy making role in the Penobscot River hydropower system but also on the contacts he had developed as a leader in the national lieutenant governor’s conference.
On this job in Washington, Pray recalls that “I quickly found out the job of anybody like that is you get to tell everybody no.“ He was thus the man the White House delegated to deliver bad news to state governors, many of whom he had known when they like Pray had themselves been in second tier governmental leadership. When the Clinton administration was unable to address Chicago area power blackouts, for example, it was Pray who was given the task of breaking the bad news to the Illinois governor with whom Pray once served in the lieutenant governors association.
Keynoting his service in the Obama administration was his post in the Nuclear Security Administration as its director of Congressional Affairs. There, Pray helped keep Congress abreast of the delicate work the agency was doing in collecting used nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union countries and picking up nuclear waste from a host of third world countries.
Back in Maine Pray’s expertise was put to use as a member of the state Land Use Planning Commission.
When asked which of the many positions of public trust Pray has found most rewarding, he reports, “I’ve never had a position, job, employment I haven’t enjoyed because there is no ‘least’ in life. There’s only what you’ve done , what you’re doing and what opportunities arise next. Each one was a great experience.”
A salient personal trait is Pray’s modesty. His staying power in a public career that has so far spanned four and a half decades – over five if one counts his years as an air force tactical air traffic controller in Thailand – may well be explained by this advice he gives to others, “Only half the lies about you are true and if somebody is saying something good about you, question them.”
Given Pray’s continuing viability it is too early to write the epitaph of his career but if there ever is one this might well be a fitting reminder of how one survives as long as Pray has in the volatile world of public life today.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org