Magazine article The American Prospect

Northern Light: Navigating the Maine Senate Race with Chellie Pingree

Magazine article The American Prospect

Northern Light: Navigating the Maine Senate Race with Chellie Pingree

Article excerpt

"WE'RE SLIGHTLY OFF COURSE. BUT WE WANTED to let the trainee run the boat," jokes Chellie Pingree over the din of an outboard motor. It's a chilly, starlit September night off the coast of Rockland, Maine, and Pingree--a onetime farmer, divorced mother of three, former owner of a wool-knitting business and progressive Democratic Senate candidate--is providing navigation advice laced with good-natured jabs. Soon she pauses to explain some nautical terminology: A "gong" is a buoy equipped with a bell that rings when waves slap against it; a "spindle" is a tall metal pole with a reflector light that warns boaters about ledges of rock jutting out of the water. Along with the boat's compass, Trip ("the trainee") is using these landmarks to steer, doing it "the old-fashioned way" because the boat's Global Positioning System isn't working. Our destination: North Haven, population 350, an island 12 miles off the Maine coast that's home to scores of rugged lobstermen. Pingree has lived here for three decades; the island served, improbably if also picturesquely, as the launching point of her political career.

Out on the open water, Pingree is clearly in her element. Indeed, despite a grueling day spent talking to newspaper editorial boards, a Rotary club in Rockland and at a fundraiser in Harpswell, the woman once called the "Great Blond Hope" of Democratic progressives shifts easily from politics to a completely different form of knowledge: a mastery of boating and island history. ("Today there are 14 island communities [in Maine]; at the turn of the century there were 300," she explains at one point.) It's a mood that not even accusations of negative campaigning from Pingree's opponent, Republican junior Sen. Susan Collins, can deflate. "I don't think anyone should be a victim in politics," Pingree told the Rotarians earlier in the day. Tomorrow she will take her own advice, celebrating a day off by going kayaking.

While in the Maine Senate, where she rose to the rank of majority leader before being term-limited out in 2001, Pingree found time to contribute to a book titled Sustaining Island Communities: The Story of the Economy and Life of Maine's Year-Round Islands. The collection is actually thematically very close to her current Senate campaign. In her political ads and rapid-fire stump speeches, Pingree hones in on pocketbook issues, especially prescription drugs and corporate accountability. But she often approaches them not so much as an outraged corporate watchdog but from the folksy perspective of a small businessperson trying to keep the island's only general store running. Pingree observes that the difference between Democrats and Naderites resembles the difference between journalism and poetry: The poems may be good, but chances are few people will read them.

So call Pingree's gritty approach island populism, if you like. It's as good a name as any. Whatever you call it, it has Collins looking over her shoulder. Pingree's name recognition has shot up over the course of the summer; she has signed up a legion of inspired volunteers for a "frenetic ground campaign," as a Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman puts it; and a new Democratic poll says she trails Collins (who's at 47 percent) by just nine points. National Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and, most recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have stopped by to campaign for Pingree and have brought word about her crowds back to Washington. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee now rates Maine in its "top tier of races," according to spokeswoman Tovah Ravitz.

Collins has sought to blunt Pingree's health-care onslaught by running her own ads calling for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. And the specter of war with Iraq--which Mainers keep asking about and which seems to get Pingree out of her comfort zone--looms in the background of everything. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.