To Maine’s long-serving U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, thank you. After more than three decades in Congress, the Republican voice of moderation officially stepped down Thursday with the swearing in of independent and former Maine Gov. Angus King. He has quite an example to follow.
Snowe, 65, should serve as a model of strength for others seeking to lead. Her fighting spirit developed early, as her parents died when she was a child. She was taken in by her aunt and uncle in Auburn, along with their five children. Several years later, her uncle died.
Still, she continued with school and attended the University of Maine, graduating with a political science degree in 1969. She later married state legislator Peter Snowe. But in the middle of a winter storm in 1973, her young husband died in a car crash. Instead of standing still, she ran for his legislative seat and won.
She was re-elected to the Maine House in 1974 and then was elected to the Maine Senate in 1976, serving Androscoggin County. She aimed high. In 1978, at the age of 31, she became the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress. She represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District for 16 years.
She fought for her vast, rural district. In 1991, she “used every weapon in her political arsenal” to save the Loring Air Force Base from closure, BDN editorial staff wrote at the time. Though it couldn’t change the ultimate House vote, her dedication was admirable.
When she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, she carried every Maine county and became the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state Legislature and both houses of Congress. She won her third six-year term in 2006 easily — with 74 percent of the vote.
We may not agree with every decision Snowe made, but we admire her perseverance and willingness to work with others, regardless of political affiliation. “People are no longer willing to talk with people with whom they disagree, so it’s harder to work through the disagreements and the impediments,” she said in a BDN editorial board meeting in August 2011. But she tried to overcome the flaws of the system by being the example she wished to see.
When most in her party supported impeaching President Bill Clinton, she voted to acquit, saying his alleged perjury didn’t warrant removal from office. She and Maine Sen. Susan Collins were two of three Senate Republicans to vote for President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan.
Snowe hasn’t avoided standing up for her beliefs, regardless of whether she would be successful at passing particular legislation. In 2001, she co-sponsored a bill to require insurance plans, that already covered prescription drugs, to include equal coverage for prescription contraceptives. Though the bill didn’t pass, she brought prominence to a problem significantly affecting women’s lives.
She stuck up for Maine military bases again in 2005 when the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission considered recommendations for closures in Maine. She sharply criticized the Pentagon’s initial proposals to close Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and a site in Limestone. The commission did shut down Brunswick Naval Air Station but spared the other locations.
She has accomplished more than can be listed here. She worked to require Internet service providers to connect schools and libraries to the Internet at affordable rates. She collaborated with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on a law that prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people based on their genetic disposition to diseases. She fought to establish an Office of Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. In 2005 she was one of 14 moderate senators to craft a compromise on Democrats’ use of the filibuster on President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
At home, she and Collins requested and won federal emergency funding after Aroostook County potato farmers lost their crops to tornados in June 2011. A couple months later, she urged the president to address the problem of Canadian sawmills competing unfairly against Maine sawmills because of their government subsidies. When she is in Maine, she talks to store owners and constituents on the street to learn of their concerns.
Others have noted her great work as a centrist and collaborator. In 2006, Time magazine picked Snowe as one of the 10 best senators. A year earlier, Forbes magazine ranked her 54th on its list of the world’s 100 most powerful women.
Even in retirement, Snowe will continue to push for bipartisanship and understanding. She is writing a book, starting a leadership institute for young women and forming a political action committee, Olympia’s List, to support centrist candidates from both parties. Snowe is a “real warrior,” political analyst Chris Potholm said in July 2011, describing her chances for re-election, before she announced her decision not to run again.
Real warriors know when to lead and when to let others continue the work. They fight for reasons of principle, not party, and stand up for others, regardless of whether those people are powerful or powerless. They are kind, fair and work hard for what they believe in. They inspire others when they overcome hardship. It’s been our honor to be represented by a warrior for Maine, Olympia Snowe.