Exclusive interview with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree about the transition in Washington D.C. with a Republican led congress.


April 22, 2011
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree in Portland, Maine, photo by Ramona du Houx

You bucked the national trend last election with a substantial win over your opponent. To what do you attribute your success?

I remind people that Gov. LePage won only by 38 percent; if you combine the people who went for Elliot Cutler and the voters who went for Libby Mitchell, it’s similar to the people who voted for Mike [Michaud] and I.

Even though we lost control of the Legislature, and we have a governor who won in a three-way race, it wasn’t as if the state said, “We don’t have any progressive values.” We are Maine. Voters were all over the map. No one can credibly say that we turned into a Red state. At the same time, we are all very worried about what’s happening with the situation with the governor and the Statehouse.

We worked very hard. People underestimate how much people put into a campaign. I had a great team. The newspapers kept reporting on polls that said our opponent’s attacks were working and that the races were close. I think that motivated people to get out and vote. We had a huge volunteer turnout with people making calls and knocking on doors. Some of my opponent’s tactics went too far and made people mad. People don’t like the personal side of politics; they like you to stick to the issues. Maine voters actually are fairly progressive and common-sense oriented.

I lost a lot of good colleagues. It’s been frustrating to watch the Republicans trying to push their right-wing agenda.

Many progressive organizations, Civil Rights groups, and everyday citizens are worried about the Tea Party agenda that seems to be dominating House issues. Do they have reason to be?

They are too busy doing things that aren’t creating jobs and aren’t’ helping the country during this tough economic time. They spend their time on the floor trying to defund Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, and dismantle environmental protections. These are people who want to undo protections of workers and defund education, while they undo Social Security and take apart Medicare. They have no desire to work together or to compromise. Anytime we get close to a workable budget agreement, the Tea Party just says, “We are not voting for anything unless you follow our right-wing agenda.”

That’s scary. They are intent on putting on a show for their base at the expense of the American people.

Is it harder being in the minority in the House or being in the majority?

There is plenty to do in minority. Our office is focused on doing as much as we can to progress the things that we know are helpful to the people of Maine, working directly with constituents and businesses. We’re putting together people who can work together on farming, fishing, and transportation issues — and have had successful results. We were able to get a $20 million TIGER II grant to reconstruct the Memorial Bridge connecting Maine and New Hampshire. [Pingree recently fought hard — against Republican pushback — to ensure the funds were allocated; she also talked to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.]

You owned and operated a successful business in Maine — Northern Island Yarn, which became North Island Designs. You understand the needs of businesses. Last year you held town halls on health care and business needs. In April you’ll be holding a government procurement workshop. What’s it about?

We are hosting General Services Administration procurement workshops in Maine. There are a lot of businesses that are interested in understanding how they can sell their products to the Department of Defense — they just don’t know how, or that there is that opportunity there. We’re hosting the workshops to make sure our constituents have that information.

We look for opportunities in the district that don’t require bringing a bill to the floor. And we are looking at ways to modify legislation that we can find agreement on. Whether you are in the majority or the minority there are always ways you can find to help your constituents, grow the economy and create jobs.

The Tea Party have made it plain that they are extremists but, as in Maine, aren’t there reasonable Republicans that you can find common ground with?

I work with Walter Jones, who is a Republican from North Carolina. He cosponsored the public financing bill with me. He and I are both part of the activists against the war. So, yes you can find reasonable Republicans to work with.

I’m on the Agriculture Committee. It doesn’t tend to be partisan; it’s more about what area of the country you are from and if you are old-guard, big-chemical-commodities agriculture or if you represent small, local farms, like me. [Pingree was an organic farmer in Maine, so she understands the needs of Maine’s farming community.]

We’re looking for ways to work with the Republicans on the committee.

With the working waterfront bill, we have a Republican from Virginia. He has a lot of small fisherman who fish crabs and oysters. So he is very familiar with the kind of coastline we have and the waterfront development pressures fishermen face while they are trying to make a decent living.

We look for opportunities to progress where we can, but on the big legislative agenda it is basically gridlocked.

People want us to work on jobs and the economy. They want us to get something done, and they are very worried. So many jobs have been outsourced, big corporations get all the tax breaks and the little guy is getting hurt. If there aren’t changes around that, then they are just going to say at election time, “We will throw the bums out.”

Why did they change the environmentally friendly practices in the Congress cafeteria to Styrofoam?

Nobody thinks we should move backwards on the environment. Kids in the fourth grade come home and tell their parents routinely nowadays, “We should recycle and take care of our environment.”

The idea that the Republicans’ practically first act was to get rid of all the recycling products we used in the cafeteria, down to the compositing of the garbage, is so ridiculous.

At first we were stunned, asking, “Are you kidding?” They weren’t. Now we all cringe when we see the Styrofoam containers. Some of our staff bring in reusable containers of their own. When I tell people they did this they look at me in disbelief and shock asking, “Really? They went back to Styrofoam?”

It’s so ridiculous — especially at a time when we are at war, and coming out of the recession.

Do you think that Republicans are consciously making the income gap bigger, squeezing the middle class?

There’s no question that the Republican agenda is creating a wider gap in incomes.

Gov. LePage’s ideas of getting rid of a huge part of the Medicaid safety net, hurting people with disabilities and the elderly, rolling back child-labor laws and people’s wages, are all ideas the Tea Party has here. They’ve got the same playbook. These are all national trends that we are fighting back.

As a state senator you helped seniors get the medicines they needed and created Maine Rx. Now Gov LePage wants to eliminate the program. What do you think about that?

Gov. LePage is really going after the wrong people. He’s more willing to help out the insurance and drug companies than the citizens of Maine.

Maine continues to work towards building offshore floating wind farms. You were there when the Department of Energy Sec. Steven Chu came to UMO to see the research that could make this a reality. Getting the electricity to market once the platforms are up and running requires transmission lines being built. But the Midwest is trying to usurp New England by lobbying to have those transmission lines for the national grid. That would cut Maine out. What’s the status on those lines?

The congressional delegation continues to lobby for the transmission lines being built in New England. It’s imperative that any agreement that comes out of talks with the states that are a part of the Eastern Interconnect has transmission lines in New England. And Maine is the best location in New England.

The Midwest states should have their own lines to serve the people that live close to them. Maine is ideally suited for lines to transmit our wind energy for the population centers on the East Coast. We are applying all the pressure we possibly can.

Secretary Chu continues to be very supportive about the possibilities of offshore wind in Maine. It’s a very important opportunity to grow Maine’s clean-energy economy. It will be a great project with 15,000 jobs, and means Maine businesses will be able to manufacture and erect the turbines.

How will the president’s energy initiatives help Maine?

We passed a comprehensive energy bill in the House last session, but unfortunately it didn’t make it through the Senate. There was plenty in it that would have been beneficial to Maine.

Any funding that helps with weatherization and supports clean energy is great for Maine because we are so oil dependent. When oil and gas prices go up, that goes right to people’s bottom line. A lobster fisherman told me the other day that he was happy that they were finally getting a good price for lobster, but he said it would all disappear in diesel fuel.

The Republicans are trying to repeal weatherization funds. This is not a partisan issue. It represents good jobs. There are a lot of people who have been trained in Maine, retooling their businesses to do weatherization. We are doing everything we can to make sure these people aren’t cut off. With all this volatility happening in the Middle East what are we thinking being so dependent on oil?

The president has remained committed to creating new sources of clean energy that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We have abundant clean-energy resources — like wind and tidal power. And we also have a tradition of innovative, small business that can provide the components to build clean-energy projects.

You sit on the House Armed Services Committee, where you can and have asked General Petraeus difficult questions. Why are you are opposed to the war in Afghanistan?

There is no good argument for it anymore. We really can’t afford it with the lives we continue to lose, and financially. Sec. Gates just told us that the cost would go down to $40 million — a month — for the wars we are in.

When we visit Afghanistan, it’s like they set up a movie set. Then they take it down when you leave. It’s not the real story; that story is our young men and women are putting their lives on the line, and some pay the ultimate price.

Intelligence reports say that there are a hundred members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. How much money are we willing to spend on a hundred men?

What do you think about President Obama’s actions in Libya?

I understand why the president was moved on the humanitarian side, particularly given that the Qaddafi regime is such a ruthless dictator. We can’t sit by when the people ask for our help, knowing the likelihood of them being massacred would happen if we did nothing. I just don’t think we can afford to have a projected involvement there. I worry about getting into a third war, and the cost.

Do you believe that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act saved us from a depression? Why?

Some economists think if not a depression then the recession would have been much, much worse. I absolutely think we had to do it. I can’t imagine what would have gone on in the country if we hadn’t taken action.

I know it was extremely helpful to Maine, supporting firefighters, police, and teachers, and creating infrastructure and weatherization jobs. Whether it was the expansion of our rail, bringing the Downeaster to Brunswick, or funds for Medicaid, or broadband infrastructure — it’s done a great job.

The biggest argument in Congress was whether we were doing enough. It was a big fight to get enough votes in the Senate just to pass what we did.

States still need our help, but until the Republicans can see that they have to compromise to move forward, we are in gridlock. That’s very unfair to the American public at a time when people are really struggling.

What’s the issue facing Maine right now that concerns you the most?

The economy. People are worried, with the cost of oil rising. There are so many corporations sitting on cash, not making investments. There are still too many people out of work or in a job that doesn’t meet their skills. Many businesses are still on the edge. We need to be able to compete in the global economy.

The president said he wants to double exports over the next five years. We need to. If you look at countries like China, when they decided alternative energies are where they need to go — they invested. They are manufacturing solar panels faster than one can imagine. America used to lead in solar panel manufacturing, not anymore. But we could.

We need to bite the bullet and invest in education, green technology, and end the war.

Congratulations on the new arrival to your family. Have you had time to celebrate with Hannah [former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives]?

Congress was on break so, yes, I got to visit two weekends. I got to cook for her — it’s been great. My granddaughter is just so beautiful.