UNITY, Maine — Even though U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has been spending much of her time during the past two years working to pass legislation in the U.S. Capitol, the one-time farmer and current small-business woman still looked right at home in the hay-strewn pathways of the Common Ground Country Fair.
The North Haven Democrat wore a pin that said, “I’m a Fan of Moo Milk,” but no campaign paraphernalia, as she discussed policy matters with farmers and listened to the constituents who shared their thoughts and gave her a quick word of support in her bid to be re-elected to Maine’s 1st Congressional District.
Pingree was busy in her first term, pushing — though unsuccessfully — to add a public option to the health care reform bill, traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan with the House Armed Services Committee, and coping with the fallout from the country’s most difficult financial crisis since the Great Depression. She said she is far from ready to be done.
“For me, I was very fortunate to be elected in a time when everything we do is so critical,” Pingree, 55, said in a recent interview. “Everything we do is so challenging, but you don’t run for office to sit around and put your feet up. You run to help solve the problems.”
Pingree, approachable and friendly in the bustle and hubbub of the fair, looked up with a smile when she heard someone call out, “Chellie!”
Peter Troast of Freeport, who founded an online business that sells energy-efficient products, stopped Pingree to wish her luck on Election Day.
According to Troast, the stimulus bill that Pingree voted for — otherwise known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 — has helped his company thrive.
“I’m a small-business owner,” he said. “I think she’s done a good job and has had the best interests of small businesses at heart.”
Recent polls suggest Pingree’s southern coastal district is home to a lot of voters who seem to agree with Troast’s analysis.
She has held a significant lead over the Republican challenger, Dean Scontras of Eliot, even though there has been a recent surge of criticism of her trips on a $25 million private jet owned by her fiance, billionaire Wall Street financier and Deer Isle resident S. Donald Sussman.
Although the House Committee on Standards on Sept. 24 gave Pingree permission to accept such flights from her fiance, Republican officials in Maine have blasted her for the decision, and have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
“Chellie Pingree’s hypocrisy is simply stunning,” Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine GOP, said last week. “She has made herself out to be a champion of the underclass, but now we see she’s turned into the same ‘Wall Street Fat Cat’ she railed against.”
Despite the headlines, a poll conducted for MaineToday Media on Sept. 27 by the Portland firm Critical Insights showed Pingree leading Scontras 54 percent to 26 percent.
In fact, Pingree’s lead is so convincing that many political scientists seem to think the election has a nearly foregone conclusion in her favor, despite the anti-incumbent fervor and anti-government anger that appear to be driving the national political narrative.
“I can’t imagine any circumstance where it would be much of a race,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “The 1st Congressional District in Maine just becomes more Democratic, I think, by the month. It’s hard for me to envision a situation — barring some kind of personal scandal — where a Re-publican can win that.”
Jim Bachelder, the former Veterans of Foreign Wars state commander, said he supported Pingree’s Republican opponents two years ago.
“I really didn’t think she would be supporting veterans,” he said. “It is very difficult for people to understand a combat zone.”
But Pingree has, he said, citing her involvement and concern over issues such as helping those with PTSD get help, supporting women veterans and more.
“Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is working with an understanding that the people need to help. She’s doing the job that’s necessary,” Bachelder said. “I’ve even told her I’ve made the mistake twice about not supporting her. I was wrong.”
Pingree, a native of Minneapolis, has lived in Maine since she was a teenager and on North Haven for the past three decades.
The former yarn entrepreneur, farmer and mother of three — including Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree — spent eight years in the Maine Senate, with four years as the majority leader before being termed out in 2000. While in Augusta, Pingree sponsored one of the country’s first prescription drug pricing bills, MaineRX, and was a founding member of the Maine Economic Growth Council.
She ran and lost against incumbent Sen. Susan Collins in 2002 and then worked as national president and CEO of the nonpartisan citizen activist group Common Cause before winning the 2008 congressional election. She now owns and helps to operate Nebo Lodge, a North Haven bed and breakfast.
“I had a pretty thick skin in the state Legislature,” she said. “Also, I’ve lived in a very small town for the past 40 years, and might look pretty idyllic when you’re wandering through, but I was the chair of the local school board and in some ways, local politics is even tougher. These are your friends and neighbors, the people you ride the ferry with every day. It was a really good lesson for me.”
One of the things Pingree said she has learned is how to be tough in Washington, D.C., and speak out for her constituents even if she has to disagree with powerful Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“It doesn’t matter who the speaker is, Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner or Tom DeLay. I’d vote the way I think is right,” Pingree said. “I disagree with the speaker and argue with her if I don’t think a bill is tough enough. I would say, if there’s any speaker I work for, it’s Hannah.”
She said that her North Haven and Vinalhaven island neighbors — fishermen, electricians and builders among them — serve as a focus group in many ways.
“If a fisherman thinks I’m not taking care of his issues the way he thinks they ought to be taken care of, he’s not going to hold back,” she said. “If things aren’t good, they don’t get work.”
Pingree said her No. 1 interest is job creation and economic growth.
“We’re all very aware of the challenges of this country’s debt and deficit, but without economic growth, we’re never going to be able to get the economy moving enough to put the money back,” she said. “In a tough economy, if governments don’t invest a little bit then we sit still, and we watch huge economies like China invest in development in solar and wind power — all the things that we need to be doing and we’re not.”
Other items on the congresswoman’s to-do list include helping to smooth the redevelopment and transition of Brunswick Naval Air Station from a government entity to its new identity as Brunswick Landing: Maine’s Center for Innovation, getting the U.S. military out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and working to make campaign funding reform passed for congressional campaigns.
Her own campaign fundraising brought in a total of $669,563 by the end of June, with more than $250,000 coming from Democratic online clearinghouse ActBlue and $57,000 from Paloma Partners, her fiance’s hedge fund, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Pingree said she never has let campaign contributions influence her vote.
“My record proves it,” she said in a statement. “I voted for the toughest regulation of Wall Street since the Great Depression and support ending the Bush tax cuts for the kind of people who work on Wall Street. If people have given me money because they think they are going to influence my vote I guess they are probably pretty disappointed.”