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CHRIS BUSBY

Cynthia Dill: A 99-percenter from Cape Elizabeth with aspirations

Democratic U.S. Senate primary candidate Cynthia Dill greets voters at the polls outside the Msgr. P.J. Hanagan Parish Center on Ocean Avenue in Portland on Tuesday, June 12, 2012.
Democratic U.S. Senate primary candidate Cynthia Dill greets voters at the polls outside the Msgr. P.J. Hanagan Parish Center on Ocean Avenue in Portland on Tuesday, June 12, 2012.
Posted June 21, 2012, at 1:10 p.m.
Last modified July 04, 2012, at 2:51 a.m.

Democrat Cynthia Dill is just like most politicians: she wants more money and power. The difference is that she’s willing to admit it.

Unlike her main rivals for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe, Dill not only wants the job, she needs it. Multimillionaire Angus King could easily kick back on the porch of one of his four homes and live off investment income and the $27,000 annual pension former Maine governors receive for life. Republican Charlie Summers gets a salary and benefits worth over $92,000 for his day job as Maine’s secretary of state — more than enough to support what appears to be an exceptionally bland lifestyle in the Portland suburb of Scarborough.

As a part-time state senator, Dill makes less than King’s annual pension for every two years of service she provides — state lawmakers earn about $13,500 for the first session, and less than $10,000 for the shorter session the following year. U.S. senators collect — I hesitate to say “earn” — an annual salary of $174,000.

As is often mentioned in the press, Dill is a lawyer who lives in Cape Elizabeth. But that doesn’t mean she’s loaded. “The stereotype of me living in Cape Elizabeth is just that — a stereotype that is not based in fact,” she said during a recent interview. Of course, it is a fact that she resides in one of Maine’s wealthiest zip codes, but the Dills aren’t keeping up with the Cutlers.

“We are a middle-class family that is right along with all the other 99 percent,” Dill said. “We’re fortunate to have a nice house, we have health insurance, but excessive wealth — we just don’t have it.”

Dill said it’s “incredibly challenging” to maintain a professional career while serving in the Legislature. “The hours are incredibly long and the pay incredibly low.” She stopped short of committing political harakiri and calling for an increase in state lawmakers’ pay, but she did suggest better-paid legislators could make better laws — “you get what you pay for,” she said.

Dill made her mark, and some decent dough, as a lawyer representing plaintiffs in civil rights cases. A suit she filed against the South Berwick Police Department on behalf of man who alleged harassment was settled for “a large sum of money,” she noted.

Dill’s quest for justice — economic and otherwise — began in the late 1980s, when she was in her early 20s. She had what she described as a “great job” working at a restaurant in Vermont, but in a move that would become a pattern later in life, she left that job to pursue a better opportunity as a bartender at a different establishment. When the owner told her only men could tend his bar and she would have to settle for being a cocktail waitress, she appealed to the Vermont Human Rights Commission and won.

“I think I got a check for $3,000,” she recalled. “At the time it was so much money, I was just thrilled.” The experience “impressed upon me that there is injustice,” she said. “It’s really a part of me to fight the fight for people denied an equal opportunity.”

Dill and her husband — a math teacher at Thornton Academy, the private school in Saco — initially settled in South Portland. After moving into a bigger house in SoPo, they jumped across the line to Cape E about 10 years ago. That’s when the power part kicked in.

In 2004, Dill lost her first town council race by fewer than 10 votes, then ran again the next year and won. In 2006 she was back on the ballot, this time for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives. She won that election too, and held both state and town office until 2008, when she won reelection to the Legislature and left the council.

Shortly after winning her third House term, Dill climbed to the next rung, winning a state Senate seat vacated by a fellow Democrat. A few months after that victory, she announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Some observers have criticized Dill for her blatant political ambition, but she rejects that criticism and suggests it’s rooted in sexism. “It’s a good thing for people to aspire to take on additional challenges and continually expand their responsibilities and opportunities to serve,” she said. “When you compare me to some other candidates, [their political history] is very similar. For women, there’s a double standard.”

It’s doubtful that Dill will win this race. Some pundits think she’s only in it to raise her profile for a 2014 run for governor, which she said is “possible” but “definitely not on my radar” at present. Running for Congress is a full-time job. Like her gig in Augusta, the pay stinks and the hours are long. It’s dirty work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.

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