The reaction to her voter has been harshly critical. She's always been popular in Maine, and for all I know she'll weather this storm. Or not. Because she sits in a party whose leadership is a man with a 32% approval. And this wasn't just any old vote, it was one that affects every American deeply and has been called one of the most outrageous in U.S. history, with a 24% approval. So, I don't know if her seat in the Senate is safe -- or in trouble.
What I do know, is that I wrote the following article on the Huffington Post 11 years ago, back in 2006. "Paradise Found! An Actual, Good Person in Government" It speaks for itself. Though to give it a deserving bonus, there's an addendum afterwards.
As I write in the article, I have no idea what plans there may be today, what with all the changes in the political landscape. I'm just saying. But in any case, whatever does or doesn't happen next, this is just a story I always like telling.
June 15, 2006
People have been cynical about politicians since the Roman Empire. (“O, that Marcus Aurelius. He too hath a lean and hungry look.”) It’s just that these days – between Bill Frist diagnosing brain-dead strangers via television, the Vice-President shooting someone without investigation, and the White House outing a covert agent for spite – Republicans have turned cynicism into an art form.
However, it’s important to remind oneself that there actually are incredibly good people in government service. I don’t mean “people I agree with.” I mean, simply, good people. Kind, decent, thoughtful. While banging my head against the wall, weary of yet one more outrage (I think it was conservatives comparing Al Gore to Hitler), I was saved a concussion when I thought of Chellie Pingree.
It’s good to always recognize that the Chellie Pingree’s of the world exist. It brings comfort.
I was covering the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. In fairness, “covering” is too grandiose. I was covering it like one snowflake covers the Alps. I was dong a single article for the Writers Guild of America magazine.
A delegate from Maine named Chellie Pingree saw my press badge. Mentioning that I’d worked briefly in Maine and loved it, that’s what we talked about. Politics didn’t enter into the conversation.
This was the National Democratic Convention. If two mimes met, politics would have entered into the conversation. But we talked about Moody’s Diner, Campobello Island and wild blueberries. She just wanted to chat.
But after 15 minutes, I didn’t even know what this Pingree person did. She was about to floor me.
“Oh, I’m a delegate from my local area,” she said, and left it at that. So, I had to drag out more. How’d you get to be a delegate? “Oh, I’m in politics.” Well, okay, what do you do in politics? (By this point, I figured she’s a poll watcher in Waldoboro.) “I’m the State Senate Majority Leader.”
Okay, here’s the thing: that’s not what amazed me. It’s that I still had to do yet more questioning to find that she was running for the United States Senate in 2002.
Again, remember, this was the Democratic Convention. Candidates will trample little children to reach someone with a press badge – but it had to be dragged out of her that she was running for the U.S. Senate There was enough politics there; she just wanted to chat.
But even that isn’t what impressed me most about Chellie Pingree. It was a small matter later – small, as in, “bizarrely insignificant.” But its very insignificance is what speaks volumes.
Over the next year, we exchanged periodic emails. That she took the time during her exhaustive Senate campaign was notable enough. We discussed politics, and chatted frivolities. Once, I even mentioned buying a University of Maine baseball cap while there, but bemoaned losing it. She kindly commiserated.
Many months later, she came to Los Angeles for a fund-raiser. Noticing her get off the hotel elevator, I wandered over to re-introduce myself. But before I could say a word, she greeted me with a big hello, and said, “Wait, I have something for you.” At that, she reached into her bag, and pulled out…a University of Maine baseball cap.
I didn’t live in Maine, I couldn’t vote for her. I wouldn’t be writing about her. We’d met one time. And yet she listened, tracked down a cap, remembered to pack it, remembered to bring it downstairs, and the first thing she did at her fundraising event – for the United States Senate – was deliver it.
This was an insignificant act, make no mistake. But the ability to notice small things and be thoughtful about them – even at the times of greatest stress – is what speaks to a person’s character.
I wish the story had a perfect ending. Unfortunately, she got caught in the Republican mid-term steamroller after 9/11. She came close in her race, but lost to Susan Collins.
But at least the story has a good ending. Because of Chellie Pingree’s reputation for decency and ability, she was approached to be President and CEO of Common Cause, positions which she holds today, working for the public good.
I’ve avoided mentioning the issues Chellie Pingree has worked for, because issues color our perception of a person. But basic decency, that’s core.
I have no idea if Chellie Pingree will run for political office again. Or be appointed to some post. Or continue with Common Cause, or elsewhere. But as I look at the mean-spirited, divisive political landscape today and cringe, I only know that whatever she does, we all are served best when people like Chellie Pingree are part of the process.
And that was the article I wrote in 2006. As it happens, only nine months later, after writing those final words about having no idea if Chellie Pingree would run for political office again...she did. And that brought about a follow-up article, "Return to Paradise," which I wrote a year after that. I won't repeat the whole piece, because the first part recapped much of the article I just posted above.
But after recapping, I then updated the story. We'll pick up the tale from there --
November 13, 2008
Well…nine months after that, Chellie Pingree decided to try getting back into elective politics. When Rep. Tom Allen took on the challenge of running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Susan Collins (a race he ultimately didn’t win), it left his First District seat open. And Ms. Pingree entered the highly-contested primary.
One of the great difficulties of politics, though, is to attempt a second act. Most people – wisely – don’t even try. No matter your credentials, lose once, and it’s “thanks for trying before, but…next!”
But some stories have a happy ending.
On Tuesday, Chellie Pingree was elected to the United States House of Representatives. She won by 15 points. Two years ago, she may not have been “officially” in government – but that story is over. She is, once again.
And we’re all better for it.
We understandably think of the House Representatives as being about local concerns. But the moment they sit in Washington, their voices and actions impact all of America. And having Chellie Pingree sitting in Washington, all of America has a strong and profoundly decent voice representing it, not just the First District of Maine.
Ms. Pingree remains one of the earliest, most ardent voices against the Iraq War and ending America’s involvement there. She not only remains an outspoken proponent of health care reform, but helped pass Maine’s law to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs. She doesn’t just speak for renewable energy as a popular issue of the day – her college degree is in human ecology. She has long-pushed for campaign finance reform, ethics reform and far more – you don’t become the head of Common Cause without having a wide palate to work from. And perhaps just as important, you don’t become the Majority Leader of a state senate without having the ability to accomplish your goals.
To be clear, it’s just one voice in a sea of voices. But it is a voice that speaks with honor, kindness and fairness as its hallmark.
I don’t live in Maine. I’m not represented by Chellie Pingree. I reside 3,000 miles away on the opposite side of the continent. But I’m okay knowing that the country I live in is represented by her. We’re all of us now in two, new, good hands.
There was a monumental headline on Election Day. But it’s wonderful when you turn the page and can also find that the day signaled a vibrant change on so many different and deep levels. And that among those many, an actual, good person in government beat the odds and returned to government.