ROCKLAND, Maine — Republican 1st Congressional District candidate Charlie Summers was in the city recently working behind the counter of a sandwich shop, chatting up the locals.
“It’s about meeting people in their everyday environment and listening to their concerns,” Summers said. “Not only to learn how they earn a living, but to learn how they feel about the economy.”
Summers’ stint at Amato’s was another stop on his “30 jobs and 30 days” campaign where he visited small businesses around the district and tried his hand at jobs there. He has done everything from delivering fuel oil to washing women’s hair at a beauty salon to cleaning out fermentation tanks at a brew pub.
Summers, 48, lives in Scarborough. He said the affinity he has for the average worker comes naturally, as he has held a number of different jobs, most in small business.
Over the years, Summers has managed inns in Bangor and South Portland, owned his own convenience store, sold real estate, served two terms in the Maine Senate, served as state director for Sen. Olympia Snowe for a decade, was New England regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, and was part of the surge in Iraq, where he pulled duty as a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Navy.
He ran for Congress twice, coming in second to James Longley Jr. in the 1994 Republican primary and losing to Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen 10 years later. Allen was a popular incumbent at the time but has given up his secure seat to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins this fall.
Summers is running against former state Sen. Chellie Pingree of North Haven, a candidate with an equally impressive resume. But with no incumbent in the race, Summers is convinced he can capture the seat for his party in November. The seat has been in Democratic hands since 1996.
“I served with Chellie. Chellie is a nice person,” Summers said. “But … we come at things from a different starting point. She likes large government, I prefer smaller.”
Summers’ background is in small-town Republican politics. He cites as inspirations Snowe and Ronald Reagan. And no wonder: Summers grew up a few miles from Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Ill.
“Where I came from, you always knew about Ronald Reagan,” Summers said.
Born in Danville, Ill., Summers was raised in Kewanee, a small farm town smack-dab in the middle of hog-growing country. His parents ran a four-story hotel and restaurant, and they and their five children lived on the second floor above the restaurant.
“We were the waiters and waitresses, busboys, desk clerks, bartenders and dishwashers,” Summers said of himself and his two brothers and sisters. “My dad did every job in the building, and my mom ran the restaurant.”
Farm country was Republican country, and the hotel ballroom was the site of numerous political receptions. Over the years Summers shook hands and had a few words with the late, legendary Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
“Where I grew up it was much like it is in Maine, especially in the small towns. You dealt with people at face value until they gave you a reason not to,” he said.
After high school, Summers attended Black Hawk College and later transferred to the University of Illinois. He came to Maine in 1982 to visit a college girlfriend, his future wife Debra, who had taken a job at the University of Maine.
He never left, and along the way, he and Debra had two children, Chas and Patricia.
In 1990, Summers joined the Scarborough Republican Committee. Within weeks, party leaders had convinced him to run against popular incumbent Sen. Peter Danton.
“I was naive enough not to know what I was getting into,” Summers said. “I can remember walking through Old Orchard Beach, looking at street addresses with a flashlight looking for people to sign my nomination papers. I found out very quickly why nobody would run against Peter Danton.”
That summer and fall, Summers knocked on doors, his wife and kids knocked on doors, and a team of volunteers knocked on doors.
“I remember knocking on doors on Grant Road in Saco. I was talking to a woman, and my daughter was with me. She was 5 and I remember her picking some weeds from a patch in the ditch and handing them to that lady. It just sealed the deal.”
Summers went on to upset Danton, and he served two terms in the state Senate before entering a four-person race for the Republican primary for the 1st District. He came in second. After that, Summers went on to work for Snowe. By that time he also had joined the Navy Reserve.
Everything was looking up for the young family, but then tragedy struck. On a January night in 1997, Debra Summers lost control of her vehicle on an icy road and was killed. Summers was suddenly a single parent with an 8-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to raise.
“As that situation goes, I was very lucky to have the support of my family and my late wife’s family and Olympia Snowe. Olympia had faced the same situation,” he said, a reference to the death of Snowe’s husband Peter, who was killed in a car crash in 1973.
Over time, Summers buried his grief and went about the business of raising his children. He met his wife Ruth, who was also a naval officer, at an event in Washington. They kept up a long-distance correspondence for a few years before marrying six years ago.
Shortly after announcing his candidacy for the Republican 1st District slot on the ballot, Summers was ordered to Iraq. He had a heart-to-heart with his wife about dropping out, but she offered to serve as surrogate until he returned home from duty.
“I owe the success of my campaign to Ruth,” Summers said. “She was a reluctant campaigner, but she worked incredibly hard.”
Summers said the key issues of the campaign have always been the economy, energy and the war in Iraq. Having served on the ground in Iraq, Summers said the efforts of the armed forces had “really paid off” during the troop surge.
He said he would support keeping the troop levels as they are, a redoubling of diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and a “second surge” with people with expertise in medicine, agriculture and small business.
On energy policy, Summers is a strong advocate of oil exploration, both offshore and onshore. He said access to energy was a matter of national and economic security.
“Like it or not, America depends on oil,” he said, also noting the importance of alternative energy development. “We’ve got to guard and protect our environment, but we also have to realize that our standard of living, our way of life is what is at stake here.”
Summers said the more prevalent issue on the minds of the voters is the economy. He said the financial crisis was spreading fear across the country and it was “time to stabilize our economy. Any plans the government puts forward to assist Wall Street should be done on behalf of Main Street.
“The Congress cannot abdicate oversight and responsibility,” he said. “People are very, very angry. … We can’t afford to get bogged down in partisan rhetoric. That’s what got us where we are today. In Iraq, they didn’t put ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ on our dog tags.”