Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, left, laughs with then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden during the opening ceremonies at Maine’s Democratic presidential straw poll in Augusta on Sept. 30, 1983. Brennan, a longtime Democratic politician from Maine who served as the state’s 70th governor, has died. He was 89. Pat Wellenbach/Associated Press

Former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, a Portland native who served as the state’s 70th governor from 1979 to 1987 as part of a lengthy career in politics, died at his home Saturday. He was 89.

In a statement confirming Brennan’s death, fellow Maine Democrat and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said that Maine has lost a great leader.

Former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan is seen at the State House on Jan. 28, 2014, in Augusta. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

“All of us who were fortunate to work with him learned from him how to deal with people and with important and sometimes difficult issues,” Mitchell said. “He was a superb leader and lawyer who understood the importance of a firm and fair system of justice in our democracy. I worked with him and learned from him over many years.

“His family and the people of Maine have lost a great man, and I have lost a dear friend.”

Mitchell was one of many prominent Maine political figures whose careers intersected with Brennan during the Portland native’s five decades in public service.

A graduate of Cheverus High School, Brennan held nearly every major position in Maine politics before serving under three presidents on the Federal Maritime Commission. In addition to governor, he spent time as Cumberland County district attorney and Maine attorney general, and he was elected to both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.


After news of Brennan’s death broke, Maine leaders rushed to honor their friend, mentor and political rival.

Former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who served in the state Senate when Brennan was governor, issued a statement calling Brennan “a man of the highest integrity, who led Maine through difficult times.”

“He cared deeply for the people of his native state and served them well,” wrote Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who edged Brennan in a race in 1996 to win her first term in the U.S. Senate.

“Joe was deeply committed to social justice, economic equality, and protecting our environment, and I always greatly appreciated his guidance and friendship,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said in a statement. “I do not think it would be wrong to suggest that he was one of Maine’s greatest Governors.”

Art Smith, Jane Smith and Gov. Joe Brennan laugh at a joke Samantha Smith made while visiting the Governor’s State House office in Augusta on May 11, 1983. Jay Reiter/Kennebec Journal


The fifth of eight children born to Irish immigrants John Joseph Brennan and Catherine Josephine Mulkern, Brennan was born inside his family’s home on Kellogg Street in 1934 and grew up listening to his parents speak Irish Gaelic. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the money John brought in as a union longshoreman was barely enough for the family to scrape by, friends say. But Brennan loved his childhood in the lively Munjoy Hill neighborhood, a melting pot of Irish, Italian and Jewish residents where a ballgame was always at risk of breaking out.


Though Brennan did not come from privilege like his future friend Ted Kennedy, speechwriter Frank O’Hara said the working class upbringing instilled in Brennan the traits that would carry him to political success: the ability to talk to connect with people from a variety of backgrounds and a deep-seated urge to stand up for the little guy.

“Taking on powerful interests, speaking for reform, speaking for the working people – there was an Irish component to it,” said O’Hara, who maintained a friendship with Brennan after first working for him in the 1980s. “It was part standing up for the ethic group that he came from.”

After a stint in the Army, Brennan developed a love for public service. He attended Boston College on the G.I. bill, graduated first in his class from the University of Maine Law School, and soon won a seat in the Maine Legislature in 1964 – just the first stop on what would become an illustrious career.

Following three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, he was elected Cumberland County District Attorney in 1970, according to the National Governors Association. In 1972, he won a seat in the Maine Senate; three years later, he was elected state attorney general before winning the governorship in 1978.

After his two terms as governor, Brennan served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until 1991, made several more bids for office, and in 1999 accepted a nomination to the Federal Maritime Commission. He served on the commission under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama until the age of 78.

“He spent his entire life in service to the people of Maine,” said Jerry Conley Jr., whose father, former state legislator and Portland Mayor Gerard P. Conley, was close friends with Brennan. “He was the ultimate public servant.”



Nancy Brenerman spent six years working in Brennan’s administration and regularly heard the governor’s go-to response to constituents who tried to praise the job he was doing: “I’m just smart enough to know to surround myself with people smarter than I am,” Brennan would say. “They’re not very hard to find.”

That wasn’t true, according to Brenerman, who said the governor was constantly reading and deeply considered the policies he pursued. But such a remark was typical of his humility and the Irish charm he used to win supporters and earn friends across the aisle in an era when partisan politics weren’t as divisive as they are today.

“He got along with everybody,” said Sen. Angus King, who defeated Brennan in a race for governor in 1994. “Nobody knew Maine or Maine politics any better.”

King, like several other friends and colleagues, said Brennan did not have the same hunger for the spotlight as other politicians and was often a little shy – an unusual trait in such a public figure. But he knew how to make his interactions with people count.

“When he was talking to you, he wasn’t shaking your hand and looking at the next person,” Brenerman said. “He was talking to you. Anyone could talk to him, from ordinary workers to the president of the United States.”


Those familiar with his work say Brennan’s impact on Maine is still being felt in more ways than the public probably understands.

King cited his role in laying the groundwork for the Land for Maine’s Future Program, which has conserved more than 600,000 of conservation and recreation lands since 1987.

O’Hara said the system Brennan’s administration instituted to fund the Maine Housing Authority has allowed the agency to become what it is today.

Brenerman, who helped compile the Brennan Archives at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, shared a list of some 40 accomplishments ranging from seatbelt requirements to education funding to the establishment of home-based care for older Mainers.

And his fair treatment of women, at a time when sexism was still a major obstacle to progress, continues to have a daily impact on Maine politics. In a statement released Saturday, Gov. Janet Mills credited Brennan with launching her political career when he made her the state’s first district attorney in 1980.

“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 in a statement. “Governor Brennan’s philosophy was perhaps best summed up by the slogan featured on one of his campaign buttons: ‘every one counts’.”

More than one friend of Brennan’s described the arc of his life as the American dream. That life came full circle Saturday when he died peacefully at his home on Munjoy Hill, just a few blocks from the house where he was born. He is survived by his wife, Connie, and two children, J.B. and Tara.

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