BANGOR, Maine — When Leila Percy showed up for her first Democratic Party fundraiser eight years ago wearing a leather jacket with fringe, she was advised to find something different to wear the next time.
When Percy showed up for a campaign school for women at Yale University later that year wearing a sundress and flip-flops, she worried whether she could hack it in a room full of women in black business suits.
Yet, as Percy discovered from those experiences, clothes don’t make the politician, she told 255 delegates of Dirigo Girls State in Husson University’s Newman Gymnasium on Sunday night.
“Here, you are submerged in politics, and all that matters is how do you run for office, or how do you help someone run for office,” said Percy, now state representative in her fourth term from District 64, which covers Harpswell, Phippsburg and part of West Bath, and the chairwoman of the House Marine Resources Committee.
“When you run for office, you run as who you are,” she added.
Percy was the opening speaker for the 63rd session of Girls State, a six-day American Legion program that gives girls who have completed their junior year of high school an opportunity to learn about civics.
Percy filled in for scheduled speaker U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who was in Washington, D.C., Sunday night preparing for a Senate vote Monday morning.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills also spoke later Sunday night to swear in the delegates.
Percy, who works as a jazz and commercial singer — she ended her appearance Sunday with a rendition of the jazz standard “Peel Me A Grape” — decided to run for office in the wake of the 2000 presidential election when, she said, voters were wondering whether their votes counted.
Her campaign strategy, Percy said, was to be at the wharves in her fishing communities by 5 a.m. to meet with fishermen before they went out on their boats. She also went door-to-door, she said, asking people what they liked about Maine. Listening to her constituents, Percy added, was key.
“I must tell you, from the depths of my heart, that this job as a state legislator, as a public servant for the people of Maine, is the most satisfying job I have ever done in my life,” she said. “I love being a singer, but I love being able to help people in Maine, because politics are so accessible here.”
Percy answered questions from the delegates, including queries about the wage gap between men and women, what the state is doing for out-of-work paper workers, and whether House sessions ever get contentious. Yes, Percy answered to the latter question, and democracy guarantees everyone the right to be heard.
She also said she would have regretted not running for office.
“Ladies, you must always try, even if you lose,” she said. “The experience that you get from going door-to-door, finding out what people in your community think, is invaluable.”