As the Presidential Inauguration is upon us Monday, it's an appropriate time to recognize that 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 congressmen yelling out "You lie!" during the State of the Union Address; charges that the President is a Muslim, Nazi, Socialist terrorist, who wants to kill old people; and claims that 47% of the country were freeloaders who saw themselves as victims – some in Congress 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 reading about the juice bar owner who charged liberals a dollar extra for their fruity beverage), 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, a position she held until 2007. That's when she resigned in order to run for the House of Representatives. She won her election in 2008, and has representative Maine's 1st District since, just getting re-elected again this past November.
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 higher office. There was the possibility when Olympia Snowe resigned, and her Senate seat opened. There was a strong push for Ms. Pingree to run, but he chose to stay in the House of Representatives. 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.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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