Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, photo by Ramona du Houx

Summer 2008

Interview by Ramona du Houx

With six candidates running for the 1st District congressional seat, voters are questioning what differentiates them. Their Democratic principles are sound and united, their experiences are varied.

Recently, Chellie Pingree talked about her diverse experiences that all led logically to her running for Congress.

“I think the only reason to run is to fight for the people of Maine. We have enormous problems in the nation, and the world. We need a fighter that will win on these issues. People are angrier than they have ever been before,” said Pingree. “This is a moment in time when we can really change things that we all care a lot about. If I’m not effective as a fighter in Washington, I’m not going to stay. I’ve worked in Washington for four years, I’ve been in battles that weren’t popular, and was successful. Honestly, I think I’ll be good at this because I’ve done it before.”

Pingree’s first big step into the political arena was running for a Maine Senate seat in Knox County. Her experience of owning and operating North Island Yarns and North Island Designs helped her to win in a Republican district.

“At the beginning I thought I could keep my business and work in politics. Running a business is a great way to support your community and support yourself. For me I saw getting involved in politics as a way to change the things that really needed change. I loved my business and I learned a lot,” said Pingree. “I saw politics as an opportunity to take what I had learned one step further. I learned how to meet the payroll, how to market something to people outside of Maine, and how to be a manager. Those skills and experiences helped me change things I didn’t think were right in Maine. I was seeking a Republican-based state Senate seat going door to door. People would say ‘How can you represent me, I own a business?’ and I could answer, ‘I’ve been running a business for 12 years.’ People had seen me on Made in Maine, which gave me credibility on both sides of the aisle to win.”

230596b284b272b7-pingree3Pingree became chair of the Business Committee to start to make those changes.

“Women who own businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Yet, they were getting money to back their businesses on credit cards or they had to get their husband to co-sign a loan. I wanted people to start to think about the creative economy and rural communities to grow the economy, and what we could do to help small businesses,” said Pingree.

At first, in the committee, Pingree was surprised by the way the state’s economic growth was measured. Practical benchmarks weren’t included in decisions, and the debate was focused on tax issues. Pingree shifted the focus of the Business Committee so they saw the importance of different criteria in defining growth.

“I was so frustrated by people saying that economic growth in Maine is either good or bad, when they didn’t measure growth in a realistic way. They didn’t look at criteria like how many young people that are graduating college in Maine have the skills we need for our economy? Is Maine investing enough in infrastructure in the state so future business will have accessible airports, or broadband? These are reasons why we wanted to start the Growth Council. We wanted to look at measures across the board, like the cost of health care in the state,” said the former Maine senator. “Business people look at everything when they move to Maine, the crime rate, schools, health care. The debate in the Legislature was too limited to the corporate tax issue — they kept asking what our business rating was without looking at these practical issues. So we created the Economic Growth Council that has academics, business people, legislators, and lawyers on it to analyze a broad spectrum of issues.”

Pingree was the council’s first chair. The Growth Council publishes Measures of Growth reports annually, which are used by the Legislature as a backbone research tool, so they can see where the state is heading and what investments they should make for economic growth.

“I’m really big on pushing the envelope, and honestly in my experience that’s what people want you to do. They don’t want to hear, ‘We had to make all these compromises; we had to give up something.’ You don’t have to. The county that I first ran in was Republican, and I would go back to my constituents and tell them that ‘I realize not everyone agrees with increasing the minimum wage, but it’s my job to the best thing for the people and it’s a good idea.’ That’s how I see politics, not by nodding my head and agreeing to anything anybody says just so they will like me,” said Pingree.

As a state senator Pingree took a bold step to help Maine seniors get the medicines they need and as a created Maine Rx. The program has become a model for other states and was a historic breakthrough for health care. This is what she had to say about the program.

“It taught me two very important lessons. A senior citizen advocate named John Marvin, who unfortunately has passed away, came to me and said, ‘We take all these seniors to Canada to buy their prescription drugs, why can’t we just make the law in Maine that we have to sell them at the Canadian price?’ I said, ‘John I have a feeling that is a legal question. But maybe we should put it out there to get the conversation going.’

“At the beginning, when I took the bill around to get cosponsors, a lot of them, even Democrats, said, ‘This is a crazy idea. We’re not going to get our contributions from the pharmaceutical manufactures if you do this.’ I said, ‘Come on, you have to think about senior citizens.’ Pharmaceutical manufacturers have never given me anything. This is when I learned that good political action happens when you have people on the outside and politicians working on the inside working together.

“We held public hearings and members of the Legislature came to their local public meetings on the issue. So many seniors came forward and told so many horrible stories about how much it costs for some of their medications. Some can’t manage to buy oil, food, and their medications.

“With the public forums and good newspaper repots on what we were doing, I came to realize you could run a campaign to move state legislators to do the right thing. In the end we had over 90 cosponsors. The pharmaceutical companies spent hundreds of thousands on T.V. and newspaper ads, and we still got almost a unanimous vote in the Senate.

“For me it was a great lesson. You don’t need to have tiny incremental changes; you can have a big idea, you just have to line up all the forces, have an honest debate, get the news out and people rally behind it. In 2000 we did it despite Governor King’s reluctance to sign the bill. In the end he did.

“In 2003 it went to the Supreme Court, with Republicans and pharmaceutical companies fighting it every step of the way. And Maine won. We had written a really good law. But we never could have done it without the political pressure from the outside working with us.”

After being term limited out of the state Senate and the minority leadership, Pingree wasn’t going to sit still. She took on Susan Collins during a tumultuous year for Democrats. No new Democratic candidate running for the U.S. Senate was elected in 2002. The country was still in shock from 911.

PHOTO: Chellie Pingree composed before a debate at Bowdoin College Photo by Alex Cornell du Houx

“When I ran in 2002 I was an antiwar candidate. I was endorsed by MoveOn.org. It was such a startling freighting time for our country. A lot of people and consultants told me that I shouldn’t be antiwar; they said, ‘It will look antipatriotic’,” said Pingree. “I had to do what I felt was the right thing to do. That’s what I’ll always do. I didn’t think we should go to war and ignore the U.N. Afghanistan made sense, but Iraq was misguided, and there wasn’t the evidence we needed to be there. Six years later we can tell it has been a disaster based on mistruths.”

Pingree went from serving Knox County in the Senate to leading more than 300,000 members and supporters across the nation as the president and CEO of Common Cause.

The Common Cause experience:

“At first it was clear how dysfunctional it was down there, how much damage the Bush administration was doing. I was lobbying Democrats and Republicans, and I saw first hand what concerns people had. Sometimes Democrats just didn’t have the spine and backbone to go up against the status quo. Sometimes they’d gotten too enamored with the ‘on being inside the beltway’ thinking, with the consultants and ‘official’ soundbite.

I was in their offices lobbying on electronic voting machines, getting a paper trail, and campaign finance reform. These were issues a lot of people didn’t want to hear about, including Democrats.

“I know all the organizations to mobilize to win a fight. I also think members of Congress won’t look at me like a new freshman but as somebody who knows them and is not afraid to say something unpopular.

“I sat down with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid at the beginning of the ethics scandal with Jack Abramoff. And honestly, they didn’t want to go as far as I thought they could have gone.

“I’m not afraid of being unpopular. You have to be willing to be one of those people who are willing to speak up and say, ‘I can’t go back to Maine unless we change these things.’ People in Maine don’t want to see Democrats in Washington back down on universal health care or stopping the war or efforts to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. People want really big things done right now, and I think knowing the players really well gives me an edge.

“In the state Legislature I took on tough issues and figured out how to win — I learned how to build a coalition. That’s where change comes about; when you take advocacy groups and you bring together unlikely partners and work with a variety of different people. It is possible, one can do it. We did some of the same things with Common Cause.

“That was when the FCC was going to vote on media consolidation, and I got asked to speak at a forum. We had about 300,000 members of Common Cause at the time. It was a huge issue for our members. It was during the buildup to the war and people felt there was no information out there; they were listening to the BBC. We had this amazing coalition, including MoveOn, the National Rifle Association. People thought that consolidation in ownership of the media was a bad idea, even the Christian Coalition got involved. It was a really great fight. We got three million e-mails into the FCC in June of 2003, they were blown away. The FCC still hasn’t been able to enact the changes that they want. It was another fight that told me it’s possible to take on Washington.

“You can win the battles against members of Congress or the Regulatory Commission if you involve people, and that’s what we are going to have in 2008-2009. We’re going to have this incredibly motivated electorate who’s going to want to be involved when Congress goes into session. The 2008 election is likely to be the most important one in our lifetime. So much is at stake.”

Pingree was asked what she would do if she were in Congress right now.

“I would want to change the debate around security from being around weather or not we win the war in Iraq. How do we really stop terror? How do we start diplomacy again, so countries have faith in us again? How do we invest in our economy? People feel the most insecure about whether they are going to have a job, weather they can pay for health care, whether their kids will have a job, weather they can afford a house. There is a huge amount of insecurity in our country. For most people it’s not about whether we are going to win the war in Iraq.

“We need to focus on the priorities of what the American people need, like health care. I was in the Legislature in the 90s, and the healthcare debate came up a lot, but it wasn’t a successful time to change things. We were always asked, ‘How are you going to pay for it if you change it?’

“Now what’s glaringly clear from a Maine standpoint is we cannot afford the way we are doing it. It’s so wasteful. We spend so much more on health care than other countries and people really don’t get comprehensive health care.

“In 2003 we went to war and no one asked us if that was how we wanted to spend our money. We went to war and no one asked, ‘How are we going to be able to spend a trillion dollars from the budget and cut taxes at the same time?’

“We must bring truth and transparency to Washington. We must reclaim our country now — by ending the war in Iraq, by strengthening the middle class, and by restoring accountability to government. We must fix our unfair healthcare system, protect good jobs and retirement, regain the respect of the international community, and work together with other nations to combat global warming, protect the environment, and achieve energy independence.”