NORTH HAVEN, Maine — Chellie Pingree’s political life has taken her from Augusta to the nation’s capital, but it is this island in Penobscot Bay that is the source of her convictions and inspiration.
“People in a small town have a very good sense of how to work together, how to push to get things done,” she said. “You can learn a lot living in a small town. We all know each other’s business, but we keep an eye on each other, too. I could never live anywhere else.”
Pingree, who is the Democratic candidate in the race to replace Tom Allen as representative from Maine’s 1st Congressional District, has been involved in politics for decades.
She served on the island as assessor and on its planning and school boards. She served in the Maine Senate for eight years, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002, and headed the public interest group Common Cause until last year when she announced her candidacy for Congress.
Pingree also had a career as a successful businesswoman. She now is the owner of Nebo Lodge, a restored inn and restaurant near the island ferry landing.
Pingree, 53, grew up in Minnesota and moved to North Haven right after high school, where she met her future husband, Charlie Pingree, at an Outward Bound program.
It was a time when people were in the streets protesting the war in Vietnam, the counterculture was taking hold and young people were heading back to the land.
“It was 1971 and we all had a copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s ‘Living the Good Life,’” she said. “We wanted to get involved in all those things that people were talking about then, living off the land, heating with wood.”
The couple set up in a small cabin on the island, and though they tried to make a go of it, they quickly realized they needed to acquire the necessary skills if they wanted to realize their dreams.
Pingree enrolled at College of the Atlantic and her husband learned boat building. Upon completion of their education, they returned to North Haven and Chellie began farming while Charlie started building boats.
Along with building a way of life, the couple also started a family. Daughter Hannah now represents North Haven and the surrounding islands in the Legislature. Cecily is a filmmaker who lives in Portland, and son Asa is an actor and carpenter living in New York City. The Pingrees divorced, but both still live on North Haven.
The farm eventually added cows and a flock of sheep, and she and some of her neighbors began gathering the wool for yarn. Pingree and her friends began knitting sweaters and selling them to tourists. It wasn’t long before North Island Designs evolved into a full-time business providing income for a number of island women.
The cottage industry grew to the point where its products were sold in 1,200 stores nationwide with catalogs distributed to more than 100,000 homes. The business was sold after Pingree entered politics.
“It was a great business for women. It employed the most women on this island,” she said. “It really upped the business at the post office.”
Pingree’s political life off the island began one night in Portland when she and daughter Hannah attended an appearance by then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, one of the country’s foremost women politicians at the time. Schroeder spoke of the need for more women in public life, and a friend suggested that Pingree consider running for the Knox County Senate seat.
“Hannah said, ‘Go for it, Mom,’ and I did. It was one of those crazy ideas that you should know better not to do, but you can’t get away from.”
Pingree had never taken an active part in Democratic Party politics, but she was embraced by party leaders. Historically, the seat was held by someone from one of the county’s more populous communities such as Rockland or Camden. Coming from an island with just 350 year-round residents, Pingree knew she had to work. And work she did.
In what was traditionally a Republican-held seat, Pingree won in a landslide. She served four terms in Augusta, the last two as Senate majority leader. Term limits brought an end to that phase of her life.
Pingree served one term in the state Senate with Charlie Summers, her Republican opponent in the November election.
While in the Senate, Pingree led the fight to permit the state to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices. It was the first legislation of its kind in the country and was bitterly opposed by the pharmaceutical companies.
“We took on the drug fight and Maine definitely set a precedent,” she said. “They took us all the way to the Supreme Court and we won. There was a lot of lobbying against us, but we did it.”
After her loss to Susan Collins in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, Pingree was approached with the offer to serve as president of Common Cause. Although she initially balked at the thought of leaving Maine, she realized that had she won the election she would have ended up in Washington anyway.
“One door closes and another door opens,” she said. “I knew I still wanted to be in there fixing things and being in the fight. We did a lot of things in Maine that Common Cause was interested in. I know what it is to take on the tough issues and fight lobbyists. I never planned to move, but it was a great experience.”
Living on an island and running a small business, Pingree said she encounters many of the same problems as people on the mainland, only they are amplified. Energy and food costs are higher, and the ability to provide health care continues to be difficult.
“Everything comes on a truck, on a boat or you go to the mainland to get it,” she said. “I know the difficulty of meeting a payroll. It’s been brutal, but it’s a great business.”
As she campaigns across the district, Pingree said people are worried about their livelihood, energy costs and the continuing war in Iraq. She said the current economic situation, while dire, can be corrected with proper leadership.
“When people are angry, you have a much better chance to change things. Today, people are angry about everything,” she said. “We need to regulate Wall Street, and we cannot let this unfettered greed continue.”
As for the war in Iraq, Pingree said she opposed it from the start and had not changed her mind. She said Congress should pull the plug on war funding and take steps to withdraw the troops. She said the country should work toward a diplomatic solution of the conflict.
“We’re not going to win the war. We’re seen as an invading force and an occupying army,” she said. “We need to embrace a new foreign policy to restore our reputation and work cooperatively with other nations.”
Although a strong supporter for alternative forms of energy, Pingree said she opposed exploration for offshore oil. She said the oil companies have millions of untapped oil leases out west and they should drill there instead of the ocean. She said North Haven and Vinalhaven recently voted to spend $12 million to build a wind power facility.
If two small towns can invest in alternative energy, the rest of the nation can, too, she said.
“Drilling for oil in the Gulf of Maine when we already have problems with our fisheries? I can’t imagine the fishermen going along with drilling offshore,” she said. “The people would much rather look at a wind tower than an oil rig.”