College of the Atlantic - "COA Alumna Heads for the National Stage"
Chellie Pingree '79 is on the move in Maine.
At home in an old white farmhouse a stone's throw from the ferry landing on Maine's North Haven Island, Chellie Pingree '79 serves pancakes to her daughters Hannah and Cecily over a black slate countertop that could be a century old. As she drinks coffee from a Ball jar, Pingree is playfully maternal with her grown daughters (son Asa lives in New York City), chatting about the wheat allergy that she and Hannah share, Cecily's brood of turkeys, the day's headlines--read aloud by Maine District 36 State Representative Hannah. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company.
Mainers will remember Pingree most recently for her determined, if unsuccessful, run against incumbent Senator Susan Collins in 2002--Pingree's drive and her "of the people"message turned what most initially deemed a lost cause into one of the most watched Senate races in the nation. Previously, she was a popular state senator who held the District 21 seat from 1992 to 2000, rose to the rank of Senate Majority Leader, and was prevented from pursuing a fifth term by term limits.
Over the last four years, she directed Common Cause, a non-partisan nonprofit based in Washington, DC, concerned with promoting a properly-run democracy.
Currently, Pingree's name has reemerged in Maine as she sets her sights on the representative seat for the First Congressional District. The current representative, Democrat Tom Allen, is stepping down to run against Senator Susan Collins.
Tools to promote change
As a politician, Pingree draws upon the skills she learned from her thirty-five years of island life. Yet another considerable influence came from enrolling in a brand-new academic institution that championed student participation as a founding principle. COA, she says, gave her the tools necessary to promote change in the world.
"In retrospect, I didn't realize how interested I was in the process of democracy," says Pingree. "COA fed interests that I didn't know I had--that led to everything else."
In 1971, fresh out of high school, sixteen-year-old Rochelle "Chellie" Johnson (she changed her first name to Chellie in 2000) came to North Haven from Minnesota with a group of friends to visit her friend Charlie Pingree.
She never left. Four years later, Charlie and Chellie married, and eventually had three children (they divorced in 1994). Having visited the college before it even started, Pingree applied to COA's inaugural class, thinking she'd become a science teacher on the island. She wrote her application on the back of a sheet cut from a roll of sardine wrapper paper. Although Pingree was identified as a great match for the school, it was suggested that--as result of her early graduation from high school--she acquire some college credit before entering COA. She accepted the offer as a personal challenge.
"That made me really want to go," she laughs. She took English and science courses at the University of Southern Maine and was admitted to the college's second class.
While at COA, Pingree studied biochemistry, environmental law, plant science and business. She became botanist Fred Olday's assistant in the greenhouse and later studied farming under the noted four-season organic farmer and former trustee, Eliot Coleman. As her interest in plants and how things grow flourished, her focus shifted from teacher to farmer.
Meanwhile, she was an eager participant in the All College Meeting that governs the school. "We were always in some kind of debate," recalls Pingree. Whether it was about what was allowable on campus or where students could live, she realized that when students spoke, the administration actually listened.
"If we protested the president, he felt really bad,"she smiles. "I got this great fundamental education,"she adds. "My classes really did integrate into what became my life, which in many ways has been that of a generalist, interested in how decisions get made, in how sys- tems work and in the process of governing."
Farmer, entrepreneur, public servant
Pingree returned to North Haven with the vision of becoming a farmer and was soon running an organic vegetable and dairy farm. After a few years, her enterprising spirit transformed the farm into a knitting company that would eventually blossom into North Island Designs. She employed local women to design and knit sweaters that were sold in an island-based shop. Sales quickly spread across the northeast. With an eye on increasing wages and employing more people, Pingree expanded the business by creating knitting kits and publishing pattern books for a national market. Pingree authored five of the books herself, colorfully lacing them with her essays of island life. She ran the business for twelve years and cites the experience as fostering her interest in economic development.
Inspired by the example of participatory governance at COA, Pingree started getting involved in the governance of her island home. She began speaking up at town meetings--everyone attended--then decided to get her feet wet with a run for tax assessor, a job no one else wanted. Over the years, she became a planning board member, school board chair and ambulance attendant. She founded the Arts and Enrichment Fund for the island school and helped to found the economic development nonprofit North Haven Development Corporation.
Her interest in politics remained strictly local until one day in 1991 when she and teenage Hannah attended a political event in Portland that changed her path. The speaker was former Democratic Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado, who emphatically spoke about the shortage of good people in politics. Pingree thought of her school board work on North Haven, of how people with varying perspectives were able to produce good decisions. Just as she was considering this, a Democratic Party loyalist approached her, drumming up candidates for the upcoming season. How could she possibly run for office? She was going full steam with her business and raising a family.
Yet something resonated. "Hannah,"she turned to her daughter, "what do you think?"
"Mom, you should go for it!"was the reply.
And that she did.
Pingree's first campaign was as grassroots as they come. She knocked on five thousand doors during what she calls "that incredible political year."Her opponent was well liked, but a debate foible on his part became a turning point. He labeled Pingree "Alice in Wonderland," questioning the validity of North Haven's economy, which resounded as laughable when held against Pingree's successful North Island Designs. Word spread fast. When she returned home, supporters held up "Welcome to Wonderland"signs.
Although Pingree hadn't planned for a career in politics, her dogged nature, the genesis of her leadership voice at COA, years of involvement with the North Haven community and her knack for relating small-town Maine to larger issues, form a sequence that feels genuine, as if the sheer will of the universe set her into her role as a public servant. Now, having gained the skills and experience to be successful in a legislature, she feels obligated to continue the work. "I'm not interested in the title,"she says, "only in what I can do with the job."
In the Maine Senate, Pingree was best known for her attention to health care. In 2000, she worked tirelessly to pass Maine Rx, a ground-breaking bill that forced drug companies to negotiate prescription drug prices with the state. The pharmaceutical lobby challenged the law--arguing that a preauthorization clause could limit Medicaid patients' access to drugs--and won an injunction that postponed the bill's implementation. An appeals court then reversed the injunction--a decision that was later upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
Maine Rx also generated grumbling at the federal level. "The Department of Health and Human Services didn't want to see states thinking creatively about how to expand Medicaid access,"recalls Pingree. Finally, in 2004, a revised version of the bill--Maine Rx Plus--was made available to an estimated 275,000 eligible residents.
Pingree also helped organize bus trips to Canada so Mainers could buy prescription drugs for prices far lower than what was available in-state, sometimes at a tenfold savings. She continues to be amazed that the United States is the only Western nation that doesn't negotiate pricing with drug companies.
"It's like sitting on an airplane and you're the only one paying full price,"she notes.
Standing for what she believes in
Pingree has a knack for passing progressive legislation. In 1998, she championed a bill that forced corporations to make public any tax breaks or subsidies they received from the state. She later used the bill as a means to go after corporate tax shelters. This legislation and the Maine Rx law were both used as models by other states.
"The democratic system is hungry for leadership,"says Pingree. If you "stand for what you believe in, people will be grateful that you stood for something"--even when your constituents don't agree with you. Politicians have become known for their lack of backbone, she says, and she will have none of it. "Backbone usually means you have to stand up to somebody, even if it's your own colleagues."
As a state senator, Pingree's small town experience--where everyone plays a role in local government--stuck with her.
"You have to be grounded somewhere when doing public office work," says Pingree, who adds she always kept the thoughts of her neighbors in the back of her mind during her years in the legislature. It was her policy to explain her votes to constituents. They didn't always agree with her, but she was often thanked for clarifying her reasoning, and she continued to hold her seat, though her district was 40 percent Republican, 40 percent Independent and 20 percent Democrat.
For Pingree, dedication to her community is a recurring theme. Steve Katona, COA founding faculty member and former president, says that the same poise, confidence and leadership that has been Pingree's signature as a politician was present when she was a student.
"She is a paragon of how people should be involved in community," he says. Katona recalls Pingree's ability to engage with people who held different perspectives than her own in a non-confrontational way. She genuinely wanted to learn something that she could incorporate into her own view.
"I hope she runs for president,"he adds.
The call of public service
Pingree says that she considered her legislative position as the closest thing to a calling she has ever experienced. She thrived on debate, on public speaking and on the regular contact with her constituents. It was difficult, requiring unconscionably long hours and a thick skin to deal with the requisite political fights and enemies, yet she still woke up excited to go to work every day. When term limits ended her service, she says she felt like she had been laid off.
Pingree chose to work for Common Cause after the 2002 election because, "I wanted to stay in the political fight." While at the helm, she was the public face for upholding a fair democratic system. Although she enjoyed the role and lauds the cause, ultimately she doesn't want to run an organization, she wants to represent herself, and her constituents, as an elected official. Pingree's vision for 2008 starts with the premise that Democrats will take back the White House and expand their majority in Congress. She sees Iraq and the environment as major issues. Opposed to the war from the beginning, she believes the United States' international relations have to be restored and laments that the international community no longer considers the United States a moral authority. Our relationship with China, dependence on oil, food toxicity, climate change, farming, fisheries . . . her list goes on.
"I'm very interested in state and local issues,"Pingree says, but she believes that the current political climate necessitates a national and international focus.
Health care, she says, is like an eight-hundred-pound gorilla. "I'm tired of dancing around it. I don't want it to distract us for another decade. It's a non-debate. Just do it."She's comfortable supporting a single-payer system but noted that a majority of Congress will need to find common ground before headway is made.
Yet Pingree is not afraid to push the issue. She cited the government's current administration of Medicare--at a lower cost than private insurance--as proof that a wider-reaching health care plan could be federally overseen affordably.
When held up against the war in Iraq, she says, the argument that we can't afford national coverage is an obvious hypocrisy.
Creating policy is beyond smart ideas, it's about garnering support from colleagues and the public, building buzz and following momentum. "There's not one perfect formula for policy,"she notes, "it's about persistence, strategy and being that nippy dog that won't let go."The successful passing of Maine Rx, she says, was connected to a story in the New York Times, saving the bill from a possible veto by the governor.
"Knowledge is critical,"Pingree adds, "but understanding the process of change, getting along with others and working as an effective leader is paramount."
In 2008, it's likely that the primary will be a more difficult race than the actual election. As result of the Maine Democrats not having a party boss, Tom Allen's seat may bring as many as seven candidates. Only some 60,000 people will probably go to the polls, so the winner could be decided by a minimum of votes. But Pingree enjoys the constant conversation with voters that is the essence of campaigning.
"I start in a good position. I have experience campaigning and raising money,"she says. "I've spent a lot of time in front of the media and my DC experience is a plus. I'll work harder than anyone else."
Back on North Haven, Pingree stands to let out Willie, Hannah's black lab, and continues talking. "It's as if COA was the perfect college for me. It wasn't just that they taught us this notion of human ecology and how everything is integrated, we were living it and actually had a way to effect change."
What she learned at COA continues to ring true: "I see the world as a system and we all play a role in that system."