Odds and Ends: Best New Political Dynasty
For the first time, the Maine legislature has a family connection to Congress. Chellie and Hannah Pingree will put their maternal bond to good use.
No doubt Chellie Pingree will have a lot of concerns as she packs her bags for Washington, D.C., where she soon begins her new job representing Maine’s First Congressional District. Not disappointing the Maine State Legislature’s feisty new speaker of the House will be one of them.
“It would be brutal for me to turn her down,” says Pingree, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. “If we don’t get funding for the fisheries or something’s she’s working on, I won’t dare show up at home. No one says no to Hannah.”
That would be Hannah Pingree, Chellie’s thirty-two-year-old daughter, who this past fall not only ran unopposed for her fourth term representing District 36 in the Maine State House, but faced no challengers in her bid for the House of Representative’s most powerful position. “Oh, I’ll be her chief lobbyist,” promises Hannah, rising to her mother’s affectionate teasing. “Whether it’s fisheries policy or funding for roads and bridges, it’s difficult for the state to make a big difference alone. It’s time for the federal government to step up. During the past year I’ve certainly thought, ‘Well, if I get my mother elected, I can get her to help me.’ ”
Mother and daughter are sitting opposite one another in the cozy living room of Nebo Lodge, a ninety-six-year-old inn on North Haven island that Chellie, 53, and some friends purchased and restored two years ago. Wearing jeans and an olive quilted vest over a sweater, Chellie sits with her legs draped over the arm of a wing-backed chair, unwinding after pinch-hitting on the breakfast crew. Hannah, whose pale blonde hair is all the more striking against her navy sweater, settles into the cushy sofa, having just strolled in from the Pingree home, the inn’s backdoor neighbor.
The Pingrees’ relaxed manner belies their shared reputation for passionate and gutsy leadership. Chellie, who served eight years in the Maine Senate and four years as CEO of the Washington-based ethics advocacy group Common Cause, is best known for her pioneering fight to permit the state to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices. Hannah gained national attention for her efforts to phase out toxic flame retardant chemicals found in common household items, like mattresses, furniture, and television sets. The women, both progressive Democrats, faced strenuous opposition from industry lobbyists. Both prevailed.
Maine has been home to one other mother-daughter political duo — State Senator Libby Mitchell and State Representative Elizabeth Mitchell in the 1990s — but this is the first time it will have a mother and daughter linking the legislature in Augusta to Maine’s congressional delegation in Washington. Whether the combination is a novelty or something more significant is a matter of speculation, but watchers predict both women will make a lasting mark on Maine political history.
“Chellie is the best politician I’ve come across in a long, long time,” says Harold Pachios, a Portland lawyer who served in the Johnson Administration and as chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. He believes Pingree will rise to the stature of influential Maine lawmakers like Ed Muskie, Margaret Chase Smith, William Cohen, and George Mitchell. “Chellie is in that league. She will emerge as a real player on the national scene.”
Pachios is equally enthusiastic about Hannah Pingree’s prospects. “I expect Hannah to be governor some day,” he says. “She’s got her mother’s political talent and then some. She’s smart, competent, and she’s starting younger than her mother did. She’s got a real gift for politics.”
It can’t hurt that the Pingrees combine a firm grasp of the issues important to Maine and the nation with a personal background that is easily as romantic as that of Alaska’s moose-hunting Sarah Palin. Twelve miles offshore from the midcoast city of Rockland, North Haven (population: 381) is one of just fifteen year-round island communities remaining in Maine. The ferry Captain Neal Burgess, which makes the eighty-minute trip between Rockland and North Haven three times daily, disembarks passengers in the village, a small cluster of seasonal shops and early twentieth-century houses with tidy yards and picket fences. Here one finds the Nebo Lodge, offering the island’s only year-round lodging and dining. The inn’s revival after fifty years as a private residence has been no small matter here (more than two hundred islanders attended the grand opening in 2006), which is the chief reason Chellie Pingree pursued it.
Pingree often says her approach to public service has been shaped by her experience running small island businesses. The challenges, she says, are the same as those faced by business owners everywhere, but they are magnified by the higher costs of island living. A native Minnesotan and graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, she married boatbuilder Charlie Pingree and settled on North Haven, where Charlie’s family had a summer home (the two have since divorced). Chellie ran a small organic farm, selling produce, meats, and yarn spun from her sheep’s wool at a roadside stand. Soon local knitters were adding their sweaters, hats, and mittens to the mix. “It became a good little business,” Chellie recalls. “I ended up opening a shop in town, and it just kept growing.” At its peak, North Island Designs sold the work of thirty-five independent knitters and employed ten women who made knitting kits that sold nationwide. Chellie saw the benefits ripple through the island’s economy. “We shipped enough product off the island that it boosted the post office business, for example,” she says. “It had all these little impacts on things that people do here.”
It also had an impact on Hannah, the oldest of the Pingrees’ three children. “I grew up watching my mom take things on,” says the Brown University graduate. “In a small town, you don’t wait for someone else to do it. When my mom and some other residents felt the town needed to encourage economic development, they started a small economic development corporation. The town needed a newspaper, so they started a newspaper. The sentiment that we’re all responsible for each other is something I learned from her.”
Chellie is known about town for straightforward, diplomatic leadership. For years, the North Haven Community School had struggled to keep its combined superintendent-principal position filled. Pingree, as school board chairman in the early 1990s, successfully advocated separating the jobs. In response to a budget crisis that cost the school its art and music teachers, she formed an organization that privately raised money for enrichment programs. “Chellie was important in taking our school in a different direction and making it stronger,” Principal Barney Hallowell says. “She had the conviction to move the school to a position of greater community pride and respect. She has a directness and an ability to assess and analyze a situation. She is also engaging and has a way of presenting things in a way that is not threatening to those who might be opposed.”
As a teenager, Hannah demonstrated many of those same qualities. Hallowell remembers convening students to discuss a rash of disruptive discipline problems. “I told them we would stay in the room until we resolved the situation,” Hallowell says. “It was Hannah who negotiated the settlement. This little blonde kid, aged thirteen or fourteen, stood up to these tough guys and brought about a solution.”
These days, Hannah is North Haven’s unofficial fund-raising expert. She cut her teeth raising money for her mother’s unsuccessful challenge to Senator Susan Collins — the 2002 campaign brought her home from New York, where she had been working as a political director for an online magazine — after which she was then tapped to fund-raise for the construction of the handsome and well-used community center that stands on the site of the island’s old village market. More recently, she helped raise $8.13 million for a new school, something she accomplished in part by convincing wealthy summer residents that they, too, benefited from a stable year-round community. “Once Hannah accepted the job, there was no question that we’d be successful,” Hallowell says. “We knew that no stone would be left unturned. Everybody is smitten with Hannah, not just because she’s an attractive and engaging person, but because she gets the job done.”
With both parents serving on local boards at one time or another, the Pingree children grew up hearing plenty about tax assessments, planning matters, and school controversies. State and national issues were not often part of the mix, so when Chellie and fifteen-year-old Hannah traveled to Portland one day in the early 1990s to hear U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, it was merely a lark. After the lecture, however, Chellie ran into an acquaintance, then-State Senator Dale McCormick, who suggested she run for her local Senate seat.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I’ve got three teenaged kids. I’ve got a business. I live on an island,’ ” Chellie recalls. “I turned to Hannah and said, ‘What do you think?’ ”
“And I said,” Hannah recalls, “ ‘You should go for it, Mom.’ ”
Pingree was running against a well-known former state representative in a heavily Republican county. “Most people said they didn’t think she could win,” Hannah recalls. “That’s when I saw her competitive spirit kick in.”
The pair knocked on thousands of doors, mother working one side of the street, daughter working the other. “We way outworked my opponent,” Chellie says. “He didn’t see it coming.” He also handed her a gift when, in a radio debate, he made light of island businesses, dismissing Chellie as “Alice from Wonderland.” Four of the district’s sixteen communities are islands, and residents were insulted. Pingree won by a landslide.
Chellie served four terms in Augusta, the last two as Senate majority leader. She had a special interest in environmental, small business, and rural economy issues, but it was her battle over prescription drug costs that came to define her tenure. After accompanying a senior citizens group on a bus trip to Canada where they purchased prescription medicines for less than half the cost they’d pay at home, Pingree grabbed onto the issue and wouldn’t let go, much to the dismay of the pharmaceutical companies that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting her drug-pricing bill all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resulting legislation, which permits Maine to negotiate lower prices for medicines, has since become a model for other states. “There was huge political motivation behind it,” Pingree remembers. “People were angry. I’ve found there are great opportunities to get things done when people are eager for change. You can try big ideas. That’s why this is such a great time for issues like universal health care.”
Harold Pachios first met Pingree when he lobbied her on behalf of a client. Though he was unsuccessful in persuading her to his point of view, he was impressed by the depth of Pingree’s questions. He got to know her better through her work at Common Cause, which hired her after her defeat in the 2002 election. “She is a gifted executive,” says Pachios, who serves on the organization’s board of directors. “She is hard-nosed — very decisive and very capable of making tough economic decisions.” Pingree’s past work in Washington, Pachios adds, gives her a distinct advantage now as she heads to Capitol Hill. “No member of Congress from Maine has arrived on the scene with the built-in contacts with key decision-makers that Chellie has.”
Not all of them like her, Chellie admits. “They know I’m kind of tough,” she says of her clashes over ethics laws with Republicans and Democrats alike. “It wasn’t uncommon for people to call and chew me out. I won’t be seen as an insider who always goes along.” She has said that Senator John McCain tried to remove her from her job at Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization, because of her appearances at Democratic Party events. McCain denies the charge.
She was equally tough on the campaign trail this year when she was criticized by one of her Democratic primary challengers, Ethan Strimling, and her Republican opponent, Charlie Summers, for accepting $52,000 in campaign donations from hedge-fund employees of her friend, S. Donald Sussman. Pingree insisted the contributions would not dampen her support for tighter regulation of the hedge-fund industry. “I don’t think anyone who votes for me has an illusion about how I will vote,” Pingree told the Portland Press Herald. “I’m about as progressive as you can get, and I’m never going to change where I stand or how I vote.”
After her mother’s defeat by Senator Collins in 2002, Hannah launched her own political career, winning a seat in the state legislature at the age of twenty-five. She was the rare first-term legislator to be named to the prestigious Appropriations Committee. In her third term, she became the second-youngest person to serve as House majority leader and the youngest woman ever to hold the position. Term limits will end this phase of Pingree’s political career in 2010, when she expects to take a break and start a family with husband Jason Mann. She has every intention of staying involved, however, and her peers predict big things.
“Clearly, Hannah has a long future in politics,” former Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings says. “From the moment she set foot in the State House, Hannah was regarded as a leader. She is exceptionally smart and very capable. She has an outstanding work ethic and good judgment. She holds strong to her positions, but at the same time she minimizes the conflict. She has a way of not making things personal and keeping a friendly attitude. Sometimes, because of that friendliness, people underestimate her intensity.”
Like her mother, Hannah has become associated with healthcare issues, notably her successful efforts to ban flame-retardant chemicals, a position that pitted her against the bromine industry. Two years ago, the CBS Evening News sent a crew out to North Haven to interview her about her participation in a Natural Resources Council of Maine study in which she tested positive for thirty-five chemicals not naturally found in the human body. Her legislative record, though, is diverse, and she counts among her proudest accomplishments a law that allows electric cooperatives on North Haven, Vinalhaven, and Swans Island to erect wind turbines to help satisfy their towns’ energy needs.
“That’s a great example of how local communities can take the lead in resolving our energy problems,” Chellie says. “Our tiny island is a microcosm of the world. Every time I get up and tell what Hannah and our towns did, people applaud.”
Chellie once told the Portland Press Herald, “Hannah is my oldest child, so she has kind of mentored and raised me. People bring up Hannah in glowing terms, and I try to ride her coattails.” Indeed, the two have an ongoing joke about their relationship. “I always say I’m the oldest child and she’s the youngest child,” Hannah says, “I’m like her — “
“—worst nightmare,” Chellie interjects with a grin.
“Her worst nightmare!” Hannah agrees. “I’m the oldest child who likes to boss her around.”
Getting more serious, Chellie elaborates on Hannah’s gifts: “She’s very well organized, very decisive, persuasive. She’s not afraid to ask people to step up and help or argue with them about why they should do things. It’s a great characteristic and it works well whether she’s fund-raising in the community or working as a state legislator.”
For that, Hannah credits her mom. “In a way, Mom and I grew up in politics together,” she says. “Even though I was only a teenager when she first ran for office, she would ask me what I thought. Now I ask her what she thinks about the issues I’m working on. She’s been my mentor in politics, and I’ve learned a lot from watching her” — but she can’t resist one last poke — “even though she is the youngest child.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright