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Updated: April 8, 2024

Former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan remembered for public service, integrity

Joseph Brennan, a two-term Democratic governor of Maine from 1979 to 1987 who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1991, has died. He was 89.

“Maine and the nation have lost a great public servant, and I have lost a friend,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement on Saturday. “Through five decades of public service — as a state legislator, county attorney, attorney general, member of Congress, federal maritime commissioner, and as Maine’s 70th governor — Joe Brennan never stopped working to improve the lives of Maine people.” 

Mills said she observed Brennan's character and decency up close when she worked for him in his role as the state's attorney general.

“In 1980, Gov. Brennan took a chance on a young woman lawyer, appointing me as Maine’s first woman district attorney, over the objections of a number of men at the time,” she said, noting that the appointment put her on the path to become Maine’s first female governor years later.

“More importantly, Gov. Brennan demonstrated for me and others that politics is about building relationships, that public service is not about enriching yourself but about enriching the lives of others, and that the most important relationship is the one we have with the people we serve,” Mills said.

Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants and one of eight siblings, grew up in humble surroundings in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood. When first elected to the Maine House, he reportedly did now own a car and regularly hitchhiked from Portland to Augusta.

Two people
Courtesy / Office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree
At left, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine 1st District, with the late Joseph Brennan in 2015.

The Army veteran graduated from Cheverus High School and attended Boston College under the GI Bill before going on to study and graduate from the University of Maine School of Law. 

As Maine’s attorney general from 1975 to 1979, Brennan took part in negotiations with both Wabanaki tribes and the federal government on what became the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980. It became federal law during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

During his time as Maine's 70th governor, Brennan launched education reforms, pressed for tough highway safety measures and helped establish the Finance Authority of Maine in 1983. 

Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a fellow Democrat, served in the state Senate during Brennan’s time in the Blaine House.

“Gov. Brennan was a friend, a mentor and a dedicated servant to the people of Maine,” Baldaccci said. “It’s difficult to put into words what he has meant to me and my family and to the entire state. He was a man of the highest integrity, who led Maine through difficult times.” 

Baldacci also recalled campaigning together and traveling with Brennan to events in Bangor. 

“He was always a gentleman, he was always prepared, and he recognized that while Maine might be organized around towns and cities, our state’s real foundation is built upon the families who live and work here,” Baldacci noted.

“Like my father, he conducted politics the right way — with honesty and integrity. He treated people the way he wanted to be treated.”

Other tributes

In 2015, Brennan joined U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine 1st District, in Washington, D.C., for Pope Francis's historic congressional address.

“I do not think it would be wrong to suggest that he was one of Maine's greatest governors.," Pingree said.

"Joe was deeply committed to social justice, economic equality and protecting our environment, and I always greatly appreciated his guidance and friendship. Maine will forever be grateful for his service, and he will be missed.”

Paying tribute to Brennan’s many years of public service, U.S. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that he “cared deeply for the people of his native state and served them well.”

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