June 22, 2018
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Margaret Chase Smith paved the way, but will the governor's mansion remain elusive?

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — History books will always record the political barriers and gender walls that the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith broke down during the three-and-a-half decades she represented Maine in the nation’s capital:

The first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress. The first female senator elected on her own right in a general election. The first woman to run for president in a major party.

But in some ways, Smith’s legacy is more visible in the halls of power of Augusta than in Washington.

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In 1975, two years after Smith left public service, just 13 percent of the Maine Legislature was female. Today, the figure is closer at 29 percent.

And while fewer than a half-dozen women were represented in the upper echelons of state government in 1975, today women hold many of the most prominent — and powerful — jobs in the state.

Both of Maine’s U.S. senators are women, as is one of its two U.S. House members. Both the state Senate President and House Speaker are women as are the Attorney General, Maine’s chief justice, the governor’s chief of staff and seven of the governor’s 15 cabinet members.

Yet despite the remarkable and undeniable political strides Maine women have made in the 70 years since Smith’s first election to Congress, there is one position that eludes them: governor.

In fact, Maine is one of 27 states that have never had a female chief executive — a distinction that’s arguably out of character given the Pine Tree State’s history and reputation.

“Given Maine’s position as, in some ways, a pioneer state in election of women going back to Margaret Chase Smith, it does seem likely that we would have had a woman governor by now,” said Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist who teaches a course on women in politics and has published scholarly articles on the topic.

While Senate President Libby Mitchell’s decisive victory last month in the Democratic gubernatorial primary is a first for that political party, the 2010 primary field was hardly diverse from a gender standpoint.

Only two women — Mitchell and Rosa Scarcelli, also a Democrat — were among the 11 names appearing on the June 8 primary ballot. Factor in the three independent candidates who have qualified for the general election and that figure drops to two out of 14.

So why the disparity?

Observers agree that it does not appear to be the result of an inherent gender bias among Maine voters or a lack of qualified individuals. Instead, it’s likely due to a lack of willing female candidates.

“While clearly Maine has been a leader in the nation for women’s political involvement … we’re not unlike the rest of the country in that women continue to lag behind in representation as candidates,” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center. “The bottom line is the higher the office, the less likely they are to run.”

Added Mitchell: “You have to run to win, and we haven’t seen too many women who have run.”

National statistics and the number of women in power in Maine suggest no lack of political interest or aspirations. But the relatively few women who have run for Maine’s top office suggest an apparent cap on those aspirations.

Maine currently ranks 13th nationally in the number of women serving in the Legislature, occupying 29 percent of the total State House seats, according to statistics compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

While that is down slightly from past years (Maine ranked among the Top 5 or Top 10 from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s), the state has remained in the upper tier in terms of women legislators for more than a generation.

Both U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins trace their political inspiration to Smith, who is perhaps best remembered for her 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” speech against fellow Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade.

“You cannot serve in the capacity of senator of the State of Maine — and particularly as a woman senator — and not reflect on the contribution of Margaret Chase Smith,” Snowe said recently.

In 1994, Collins became the first woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in Maine. That seed was arguably sown years earlier when, as an 18-year-old high school student from Caribou, Collins spent two hours talking with Smith in her DC office.

“Mainers for decades saw the example of the extraordinary effect and courage of a woman who, for many years, was the only woman in the U.S. Senate,” said Collins. “There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Chase Smith paved the way for Olympia Snowe and certainly for me. She broke the glass barrier.”

Neither Collins nor Snowe said they have ever felt they were at a disadvantage running for political office in Maine as women because of the trail that Smith blazed.

“People in Maine expect you as an elected official to do what is right,” Snowe said. “They want you to be your own person, and Margaret Chase Smith was her own person.”

UMaine’s Fried said research outside of Maine has shown that women often have a more difficult time winning election to the highest offices due to doubts about their “executive abilities.” Given identical but fictional resumes for a man and a woman, many study participants rated the man as more qualified to hold an executive position, Fried said.

But Maine’s history and the fact that women accounted for only two out of 11 Democratic and Republican candidates in Maine’s gubernatorial primaries suggests other factors are at work, Fried said.

“Clearly something is going on in terms of women not putting themselves forward,” she said.

While Mitchell and Collins are the only women to win gubernatorial nominations from Maine’s Democratic and Republican parties, several others have run for governor as independents or within other parties.

In 2006, independent candidate Barbara Merrill of Appleton captured 21.6 percent of the vote in the general election while Green Independent nominee Pat Lamarche of Yarmouth received 9.6 percent of the vote. LaMarche also ran on the Green ticket in 1998.

On Nov. 2, Maine’s only woman gubernatorial candidate is, of course, hoping voters will end the drought.

If so, it would be another historic achievement for Mitchell, who served as Maine's first woman House Speaker from 1997-98 and then made national history in 2008 by becoming the first female lawmaker to preside over both chambers of a state legislature.

That said, Mitchell adamantly insists that she is running because she is ready to lead Maine into the next decade not because she believes the state needs a female chief executive.

“I think it is indeed an exciting opportunity [for women] but I am certain that if I am successful in being elected governor it will not be simply because I am a woman,” Mitchell said. “I have always tried to run on policies.”

Even so, Mitchell and her campaign organizers are obviously cognizant of both the possibilities and pitfalls of running to become Maine’s first woman governor.

Throughout her campaign, Mitchell has emphasized her decades of legislative experience and, most recently, her leadership garnering the two-thirds, bipartisan votes needed to pass two recession-wracked budgets and two bond packages.

But Mitchell’s campaign ads and materials also highlight her historic feats as a woman lawmaker.

“I only now feel I am ready to run,” Mitchell said. “I feel I now have enough background and understanding of the issues.” Rather than worry about gender, Mitchell added, Mainers “just want you to be able to do the job.”

For the past two years, Mitchell served as Senate President, one of the two most powerful positions in the 186-seat Legislature. The other power seat, that of Speaker of the House, was held by 33-year-old Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

Now 70, Mitchell was first elected to the Legislature in 1974, just a year after Smith left office and two years before Pingree was born. Mitchell’s experience includes losing a statewide race for U.S. Senate in 1984 to Republican William Cohen. She finished third in the Democratic primary for U.S. Congress in 1990.

Pingree, meanwhile, got her first exposure to state politics as a teenager helping her mother, Chellie Pingree, run for the state Senate. Chellie Pingree would later serve as Senate majority leader and now represents Maine’s 1st District in Congress. Hannah Pingree is completing her eighth year in the Maine House.

So while Mitchell entered politics at a time when women were just beginning to increase their representation in Augusta, Hannah Pingree has risen to prominence at a time when gender was far less of an issue in Maine politics.

“I have never found it to be a major obstacle to being elected or to being in leadership,” said Pingree. “For me, there was never a question of whether women could be [successful] in politics.”

Widely respected in her own right for her political acumen and intelligence, Pingree is often mentioned as a likely future governor’s candidate on the Democratic ticket.

She plans to take a break from politics beginning next year after being term-limited out in the Maine House. But Pingree said she likely will return to politics in some capacity, whether as a legislative candidate or potentially a gubernatorial hopeful.

While Pingree acknowledged that relatively few women have run for governor in the past, she believes the preponderance of female power brokers throughout Maine government bodes well.

“I think there is a much wider pipeline for women candidates for governor in the future,” Pingree said.

During their annual “Girl’s Day” at the State House, Standiford and other leaders of the Maine Women’s Policy Center took 100 eighth-grade girls to talk with Mitchell and Pingree in hopes of showing them the high levels to which women have climbed in Maine politics.

But Standiford said her organization, and others, obviously need to communicate that same message to older women as well.

“I think the door is wide open for anyone to walk through,” Standiford said. “We just have to make sure women are asking themselves to walk through it.”

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