Women: Key to the Senate? IF THEY CONNECT WELL WITH VOTERS IN 2002, THEY'LL HAVE AN EDGE IN A WEAK ECONOMY
Nichols, John, The Nation
North Haven, Maine
In the fall of 1991 Chellie Pingree was selling yarn and knitting kits on an island off the Maine coast, raising three school-age children and serving on the board of a school district where a "big" high school graduating class numbered five. When she heard that Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and pioneering woman in politics, would be speaking at a local college, Pingree and her 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, took an hour boat ride to the mainland and headed down the coast to hear the woman who had almost run for President in 1988.
It was a journey that would change Pingree's life. "When I went to see Pat Schroeder, the last thing I was thinking about was going into politics," Pingree recalls. "But she said something in her speech that really struck me: 'Good people don't want to run for office anymore.' She was explaining how young people, especially young women, were turned off by the roughness of politics. I remember thinking: 'That is so weird.' I loved going to town meetings, putting together budgets, debating issues. Then, after the speech, a woman I knew came up and said, 'Chellie, you should think about running for your State Senate seat.' I laughed, but on the way home I asked Hannah and she just said, 'Go for it, Mom!'"
Pingree did just that. Her grassroots Democratic campaign--financed by contributions tossed into please help elect chellie coffee cans on store counters--won her a traditionally Republican seat. Faced with a Republican majority in the legislature, she recruited other women candidates and developed a strategy that put Democrats in charge. Then, as State Senate majority leader, she beat legions of pharmaceutical corporation lobbyists to pass prescription drug reforms designed to force drug makers to bring their prices closer in line with fees charged under Canada's national healthcare program.
Now, ten years into the political career she never imagined, Pingree is really going for it. Angered over what she calls a "stolen" presidential election, troubled by the failure of Democrats to mount a coherent opposition to the new Republican Administration and still listening to Schroeder's call for good people to go into politics, she has converted her woodshed into her campaign headquarters and launched a run for the US Senate that could be critical in determining the success or failure of George W. Bush's presidency.
Pingree's challenge to first-term Republican Susan Collins is just one of thirty-four Senate races next year. But with the most precariously balanced Senate in US history, the fights for those seats--twenty currently Republican, fourteen Democratic--are shaping up as the highest-stakes contests of the year 2002. "These are the races that are going to decide George W. Bush's fate," says Pingree. "If Republicans take back the Senate, the Democrats are not going to recover for a long time. But if we build this Democratic majority, if we make George W. Bush feel the pain next year, he's not going to recover. He'll be finished."
Pingree's island bluntness is echoed in Washington, even in the west wing of the White House. "All they can think about is the Senate," a senior Republican says of the President and his political team. "It's their No. 1 political priority from now until November 2002." Bush came to office as the first Republican President since Dwight Eisenhower whose party controlled the House and Senate, and he used that advantage to force through a massive tax cut, get the ball rolling on his domestic agenda and claim symbolic success at the close of his first 100 days in office. Then came the Jeffords jump, the decision of Vermont Senator James Jeffords, a neglected Republican moderate, to leave the GOP, caucus with the Democrats and end Bush's free ride. With the Senate suddenly configured as a 50-49-1 Democratic majority, Bush lost not just the pliable leadership of Mississippi conservative Trent Lott but also the control of committees that weigh his nominations for sub-Cabinet and judicial openings, consider proposals to privatize Social Security and build the "Star Wars" national missile defense program, establish spending priorities in the face of a disappeared budget surplus and investigate corporations that in recent years have had a free ride. …