ORONO, Maine — It’s been more than three months since Election Day, when Republicans in Maine made big gains by winning the Blaine House, the Maine Senate and, for the first time in 20 years, the 2nd Congressional District.
That day also was the first stumbling moment in what had until that point been a steady political climb for Emily Cain, a Democrat from Orono, who lost the 2nd District race to Republican Bruce Poliquin.
During her 10 years in Legislature, Cain built a reputation as a reliable deal broker and ascended the ranks, becoming House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in 2008, then Democratic leader in the House in 2010. Had that year’s election not seen Republican majorities elected to the Legislature for the first time in decades, she may well have been House speaker.
In the Senate, she again served on Appropriations and led the Government Oversight Committee in 2013-14. Her rise culminated in 2014, when she won her party’s nomination to Congress.
In her first substantive interview since the election, Cain told the Bangor Daily News that being out of politics has given her more time to spend with her husband, Danny Williams, and their friends, and for hobbies such as cooking, running and her longtime passion, singing.
She’s left her job with the University of Maine — where she is working on a doctoral degree in public policy — to work with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a private nonprofit that helps children at risk of dropping out before they graduate from high school. And she said she’ll be looking for ways to continue work in policy areas such as education and domestic violence prevention, and to continue encouraging young women to seek public office.
In short, she sounded very much like someone who isn’t finished with politics yet.
The following interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.
BDN: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has shown interest in you challenging U.S. Rep Bruce Poliquin in 2016 — a rematch of last year’s election. Will you run for Congress or any other elected office again?
Emily Cain: The support has been so touching. Even this morning, I stopped in Bangor to get a coffee, and the woman behind the counter, who I had never met before, told me she hopes I run again. The support is really flattering. I take it as a sign that we were talking about things that were important to Maine people.
So you haven’t ruled it out?
Nothing is ruled out, and I’ve always said that. But it’s not my focus on a day-to-day basis. I’m focused on making sure that I’m making the most of my love for the state of Maine. Right now, I’m doing some work with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates.
What are you doing with Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, or JMG?
I am working as a consultant to develop and design the next step [for JMG graduates], where JMG will partner with Maine colleges and universities to support their graduates and others achieve their educational goals, whether that’s a certificate, two-year or four-year degree.
It comes back to the same reasons I got involved in elected office and the reasons I loved working at the university. It’s because I had such a great experience. It was so important to both my parents that we kids were able to get the best education possible. I want to be a part of making that possible for other kids in Maine. That’s why I got into this in the first place.
Your employment at the university was used as a political attack during the campaign (Republicans criticized Cain for lacking private-sector experience). Was your decision to leave UMaine driven in any way by that criticism?
Not at all. I loved the University of Maine, and I wouldn’t be who I am if not for the experiences I had there. Orono is my home, and the university is a huge part of that. I met my husband through the university. It’s where I was able to make friends and really find that passion for Maine. Many of the people I met there, those are the people whose stories got me started and interested in contributing more to the state.
Did it hurt you to see that connection to UMaine turned into a criticism?
I think that that certainly was an unfair criticism that really is just harmful overall to how we think about public education. It’s something I’ve never backed away from and I won’t. When we think about where we’re going as a state, we can’t get there if the universities and colleges aren’t right there with us.
The race was seen as a close one. Was there a moment when you realized the election wasn’t going to go your way?
I loved every minute of the campaign, even the hard parts. I loved the tension as much as the excitement. There isn’t a moment that I regret. There’s no question it was disappointing to lose, but I never took a single minute for granted. We never rested in the entire time we were running, and I would say the amount of support we had throughout, and that continues now, is something that was because of the hard work we were doing. It was never automatic. It was because we worked every day to connect with and listen to people.
After the election, there was a lot of hand-wringing in the media about the future of the Democratic Party. Do you think change is needed?
I think that every election you lose is as much of an opportunity as one that you win. In 2010, I was running for my fourth term in the House, and I was running to be speaker of the House. Then the election happened, and I became the first Democrat to be minority leader since the mid-70s. There was no playbook for me. But when I look at what we were able to accomplish between 2010 and winning back the majorities in 2012, it gives me confidence that when wave years like this happen, it’s an opportunity to ask, “How do we do better next time?”
I woke up on Election Day caring a lot about the future of Maine, about seniors, and students, veterans and growing the economy. I woke up the day after the election, still caring about the same things. That’s what we need to do as the Democratic Party. You’ve just got to keep moving forward.
How do you rate Poliquin’s performance so far?
It hasn’t been that long, and I’ll leave it to him to explain. I will add that the votes taken against women and against the environment are exactly what I think the people of Maine expected.
One of the things you did recently was perform in the “We are Bangor” song and music video. Which do you think was seen by more people, that video or your campaign ads?
I’ll tell you, I have been recognized just as much for the Bangor video in the past month as I was during the campaign. The biggest reaction I’ve gotten has been from people who didn’t know I could sing. It was nice to be a part of that, and the fact that it took off is a testament to the creativity of the video and that Bangor and Maine have a positive story to tell.