U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree fighting for change in Washington, DC

By Ramona du Houx

March 21st, 2010 

Maine’s First District Representative Chellie Pingree is known in Maine to stand up for what she believes; now that reputation has been established in Congress. Elected to make change, she’s unwavering in that commitment.

Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, {photo du Houx}
Congresswomen Chellie Pingree, {photo du Houx}
“To be a part of figuring out solutions to some of our nation’s biggest issues has been great. I’ve been fortunate to represent the people of Maine, who value honesty and straight talk. You don’t have to pretend here. I’ve made it clear to leadership that I will stand my ground on things I care about and will push hard for them. It’s the right thing to do. It wouldn’t be worth doing a job like this if you are always worrying about your image. I’m a member of Congress to make change. I want to make a difference.”

Pingree strongly supported the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which so far has resulted in 1, 225 jobs in Maine; that number will grow as more funds are allocated to projects this year. According to officials, by the end of 2010 an excess of $2 billion of federal stimulus money will have come to the state.
“We are pulling out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Recovery Act has been tremendous in providing funds for weatherization, research, energy projects, needed safety-net programs, and infrastructure for Maine. We have to change from being a service-and-retail economy. In Maine we have great potential in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.
“I’m excited about the renewable-energy opportunities in Maine, from weatherization of public buildings and homes, wind power, tidal power, and solar power. These are things that help Maine in particular, because we are so oil dependent.”

Last summer the congressional delegation, the governor, and Dr. Habib Dagher of the University of Maine met with Energy Secretary Chu about the state’s offshore-wind potential. The meeting helped the university receive a federal grant for offshore-wind research and development.

“Maine has such potential here in offshore wind. The university has done such a lot of great work. We have deepwater access closer than any other New England costal state and higher sustained winds. The development of offshore wind will change Maine’s economic picture. It sets up a whole new dynamic of us being able to produce our own power and sell it to other places. It’s enormous.
“To have renewable, sustainable energy means we don’t have to be dependent on offshore foreign oil. Maine could be the Galveston of wind. The construction jobs, maintenance jobs, less expensive power, all would benefit the state.”

The nonprofit Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, which serves 2,000 residents of the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven, erected three community wind towers last autumn.

“Massachusetts has had people opposed to costal wind for communities in the past. We talked to Energy Secretary Chu about it, letting him know that our island community has year-round residents who voted very strongly to do this. We made the financial investment, because we believe not only will it be sustainable power but also it will save us in the long run. It’s a good investment. Maine is already a leader in wind energy and is moving ahead.”

In November of 2008, the North Haven Democrat and former state senator of eight years became the first Maine islander and Maine woman to capture a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her work in Maine’s Legislature to progress health care, clean elections, the environment, and economic development has been helpful in Congress.

“Being from Maine, we can say with empirical evidence that cap-and-trade is good. I think the transition to clean, renewable energy presents a real opportunity for Maine to strengthen its economy. People and businesses all over Maine are already undertaking groundbreaking research with the University of Maine on energy solutions like wind-blade efficiency and composite materials. When the House passed the energy bill, it was a great moment to be on the floor. I believe we will get a good climate-change bill passed.”

U.S. Rep. Pingree displays an old poster that depicts the potential of extending the Downeaster into Midcoast Maine. Recovery Act funds will bring the train to Brunswick.
U.S. Rep. Pingree displays an old poster that depicts the potential of extending the Downeaster into Midcoast Maine. Recovery Act funds will bring the train to Brunswick.

Pingree was the president and CEO of a public-interest group, Common Cause, before she became a congresswoman. Her work continues on clean-election reform.

“Maine really has been a model for a clean-elections bill that is before Congress. It needs modifications to deal with congressional districts, but Maine’s law is essentially the core of the bill. It looks at the success we have had in Maine and how the bill operates here.
“I helped pass similar legislation in Connecticut. That allowed us to have more states as role models for the nation. Arizona and Connecticut have joined Maine in having full public financing for all state offices. And as we’ve had it up and running in Maine since 2000, you can say to skeptics that it works. It’s a nonpartisan issue, because all political parties use it.”

As a state legislator, Pingree gained nationwide headlines when she authored the nation’s first bill regulating prescription drug prices, Maine Rx.

“Work we’ve already done on reducing the price of prescription drugs shows that a state can take on pharmaceutical manufactures. And I think we have shown some good role models, regulating insurance companies. We have passed an impressive amount of insurance legislation, in Maine, but we still have high rates of insurance.
“Maine’s attempt to expand healthcare coverage has shown in many ways that you can’t go it alone, as a state. It’s hard to get the cost containment you need and the level of coverage, if you don’t have a federal model.”

Pingree has taken on the cause to make sure a public option is part of healthcare reform. Recently, with Rep. Polis of Colorado, they wrote Sen. Harry Reid. Their message: If the Senate passes a public option using reconciliation, then the House will have the votes to pass healthcare reform. Reconciliation is a parliamentary process where revised healthcare legislation would only require 51 votes in the Senate to pass.

“Passing health care is important for the economy and for people who are struggling to pay the cost of heath care. I personally think the public option is essential to bring down costs. It’s very hard to regulate insurance companies enough to get them to do the right thing, as Maine has shown.”

Pingree remembered Senator Ted Kennedy and his fierce determination to fight for the rights of American people, especially with healthcare reform.

“We are all saddened by the death of Senator Kennedy. He could have shepherded a comprehensive bill through the Senate. I had a tremendous respect for his ability as a legislator. He was the most skilled legislator in the Senate; though very liberal in his policies, he understood the need to compromise to get the job done. Not only was he an eloquent speaker, but he also had a desire to bring a bill to conclusion.”

Kennedy helped Pingree in 2002 with her hard-fought race for the U.S. Senate.

“He loved Maine, its people, campaigning here, and especially sailing here. He spent time here, loving a great sail off the coast. It’s a sad loss for the nation.”

In Maine’s Legislature, Pingree shepherded Maine’s largest land bill initiative, Land for Maine’s Future, into law. That bill heralded efforts to protect Maine’s working waterfronts. Now the former state senator, who represented Knox County from 1992 to 2000, has proposed a national bill to help working waterfronts.

“My working waterfront bill is modeled after some to of the work that’s been done in Maine. It’s clear that if we don’t preserve our coastline, once its gone it’s hard to get back. Maine wants to do more for waterfront businesses and to preserve the waterfront, but it’s hard finding funding. Improvements to waterfronts help with economic development, tourism, traditional boatbuilding industries, and fishing. We need to make it easier for coastal states to preserve their working waterfronts; it’s a national issue.”

Every Monday morning Pingree sits down with her staff and goes through the agenda of the upcoming week, which generally includes reviewing bills, visiting with constituents, interviews, votes, meetings, and presentations on the floor of the House. Her day starts very early and only ends far into the night. For many freshmen, Congress can be overwhelming. Pingree, on the other hand, after orientating herself in the new surroundings, feels at home in her role on Capitol Hill.

“The greatest advantage has been being a legislator in Maine. A lot of my freshman colleagues have never served in a state Legislature. It takes time to adjust to just the vocabulary of how legislation works. You also know what needs to be done to enact legislation — what to fight for and how to work toward building a consensus.
“The more you serve in a state Legislature, you develop a thick skin. I’ve voted for things before that were controversial and lived through them. People will continue to support you, as long as you’re honest with them and explain how the legislation works. Sometimes freshman legislators tend to agonize and worry if their vote will hurt their reelection.
“I just do what I consider to be the right thing.”

Most U.S. representatives are limited in their knowledge of the various bills, because all they have time to do is focus on their committee work. This is when they have to put their trust in their colleagues to produce substantial committee reports and recommendations.
Pingree has an advantage. The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, asked Pingree to take on a leadership role and sit on the Rules Committee.

“I have the good fortune of being on the Rules Committee, which sees every bill that’s going to the floor. I’ve learned a lot more about a variety of legislation as a freshman and because so much goes in front of us. It’s a flood of information. And it’s a place where amendments get added.”

When Maine gets left out of the formula, Pingree can step in.

“On the community service bill, we added an amendment for green jobs, specifically to increase the service corps to deal with environmental and rural areas, like most of Maine. I made sure we could apply to positions under that bill. It probably was just an oversight of the committee not to put it in there. Being on the Rules Committee, I saw the deficiency and was able to amend it.
“The bill will be great for Maine, as we are working towards a green-energy economy.”

Pingree also serves on the Armed Services Committee.

U.S.Rep. Pingree in Iraq {courtesy photo}
U.S.Rep. Pingree in Iraq {courtesy photo}

“I chose the Armed Services Committee because defense services play an important role in Maine, with BIW and other high-tech companies.”

Pingree found herself in Iraq and Afghanistan twice in 2009. Once she led the congressional delegation of three Republicans and three Democrats.

“It’s a hostile environment in Afghanistan. It’s hard to do any kind of economic development when you have to have security forces protecting you.
“We all support our troops and want to make sure they have the appropriate equipment. I’m concerned about Afghanistan. I understand the difficulty the president has to deal with, but I still question the escalation of troops. On the committee I hear secret briefings, some of which have reinforced my beliefs. On one hand, I’d like to see a result to our activities; on the other hand, in these trying economic times it’s a tremendous cost. Most of all it’s a huge cost in lives.”

Perhaps one of her biggest challenges was appearing on the Colbert Report.

“It was fun when it was over. People told me not to do it. I like to watch the show and thought why not show people someone in Congress can have a sense of humor.”

It took two hours to film a four-minute interview.

“Debating on the floor is far better. It’s hard, because you have to think on your feet, but its logical and rewarding. Shows like Colbert are harder, because they are silly, and you have no way to prep for what he’s going to do or say. During the interview, we had two thumb-wresting contests, where I won, but he said he did, and a to-chicken-to-drink-Moxie contest.”

Pingree has met frequently with President Obama, with bill signings and gatherings with other colleagues to discuss legislation.

“President Obama is doing a great job, coming in with two wars and the recession. He’s taken on a tremendous amount, with health care and energy. I do not think he could have done it any other way. It’s a hard job and a hard time.
“Behind closed doors he’s very thoughtful, tough, and smart. I think what Democrats should to is to stick together and support him. We still are the party of change; we have to stick together to make change happen.”

Pingree returns home to Maine every weekend.
Rep. Pingree’s Portland office is at:
57 Exchange St.,
Suite 302, Portland 04101
Phone: 207 774-5019

Washington, DC office:
1037 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: 202 225-6116