PORTLAND, Maine — The first year in office may have been a madcap whirlwind for Maine 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, but she said recently that her experience in the state Legislature made the transition to the national stage a smooth one.
The North Haven Democrat and former state senator won 56 percent of the vote over her Republican opponent, Charlie Summers, in November 2008 to become the first Maine islander to capture a seat in Congress.
Once there, Pingree was appointed to the influential Armed Services Committee and Rules Committee and began delving into the intricacies of building coalitions and consensus. Her experience in state politics prepared her for the grind of committee work as well as the partisan battles and special interest lobbying she has encountered in the halls of Congress.
“It helped to serve in a state Legislature because you know what needs to be done to enact legislation — what to fight for and how to work toward building a consensus,” Pingree said. “The lobbyists here are far more intense in their impact and influence. It is a lot different than Augusta where you see them in the State House every day. In Washington there are more lobbyists working on health care than there are members of Congress.”
Pingree entered office at a time when the country was faced with “the worst recession since the Great Depression,” wars on two fronts and the challenge of providing health care for each American. She acknowledged that the debate had been contentious at times and that issues have been hard thought out and hard fought.
“It’s been a lot to face in one year. I feel lucky, but it has been a lot to learn in one year,” she said. “To be a part of figuring out what the solution is, it’s been great.”
She was a strong supporter of the stimulus package designed by President Barack Obama’s administration to provide financial aid to states hit hard by the recession and for the landmark health care bill.
When asked what she considered her biggest accomplishment, Pingree joked that it was no longer getting lost in the maze of tunnels that wind beneath the U.S. Capitol. In reality, Pingree said, taking part in the health care debate and voting for passage of the House version of the bill in November was a memorable event.
“To be able to vote on the first health care bill to pass the House in a long time was a real thrill. To be able to vote on something that was so needed was an historic occasion,” she said.
Pingree said she has met frequently with Obama both in formal settings such as bill signings or more informal gatherings with other colleagues to discuss legislation.
“The president is very accessible,” she said. “He’s a very engaged president. I think that given the extreme difficulties he’s encountered he’s done a good job.”
When Pingree ran for Congress she did so as a strong opponent of the Iraq war and supported the withdrawal of troops. She also is opposed to the buildup of forces in Afghanistan.
As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Pingree has heard both open testimony as well as classified information from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. military operations, about the situation in Afghanistan, and believes the country is being asked to pay too extravagant a price in both human and financial terms.
“I understand the difficulty the president has to deal with, but I still question the escalation of troops — the loss of lives and the tremendous cost. I run into people in Maine all the time who ask, ‘Why can’t we spend that money here?’ It’s hard to make that kind of a commitment in a country where we’re not sure it’s being effective,” she said.
Pingree said she has enjoyed most working with her daughter, Hannah, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
Although she joked that the only time she hears from her daughter is when she calls asking, “please send more money to Maine,” she spoke with pride of having Speaker Pingree testify before Congress on the Free Elections Now Act, which is similar to Maine’s Clean Elections act, and a jobs bill aimed at investing in states’ infrastructure.
“It was really a pleasure for me,” said Pingree, who added that her daughter can be a persuasive advocate and she has let her colleagues know that.
“I just tell them you’re lucky my daughter hasn’t called you. She’d get you to say ‘yes’ and to see things her way,” she said.
Pingree returns home to Maine every weekend, usually staying in Portland but also managing to get to North Haven, the Penobscot Bay island where she began her political career, about once a month.
She served as island assessor, planning board member and school board member. She served in the Maine Senate for eight years, ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and served as head of the public interest group Common Cause before embarking on her successful run for Congress.
Pingree’s lighthearted observation about the Capitol tunnels reflected a well-known fact that first-term representatives have a steep learning curve to overcome before grasping the ins and outs of political life in Congress.
For that reason, it would be premature to attempt to rate Pingree’s freshman year in Congress, said veteran Maine political observer Christian P. Potholm, the DeAlva Stanwood Alexander professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
“I think it’s way too early to tell” how her early tenure is shaping up, Potholm said Wednesday in an e-mail.
Pingree takes pride in the fact that the Maine delegation works closely together on issues of concern to the state. She said the staffs of each representative and senator are in constant contact and the state’s elected members of Congress “see a lot of each other commuting back and forth on airplanes and chatting at the airport.”
She said her day in Washington begins early and ends late. Between meetings with constituents, voting and taking part in committee meetings, the hours fly by rapidly.
“You have to pace yourself and you have to have good staff. I just try and do all I can in a day and start over the next day,” she said. “I think I feel very comfortable speaking out on the issues I care about. Having served in the state Legislature, knowing what to expect and having been involved with issues, it’s made my first year somewhat easier.”