A Pine Tree Watch Special Series
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) vows to “open up investigations … on all kinds of things” if voters re-elect her and if Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November. Photo by Sarah Rice.
Five terms of persistence and endurance
Chellie Pingree readies herself for two possibilities: Finally governing as part of the majority or continuing to fight the Republican agenda
PORTLAND — Campaign stories. Most politicians love telling them. And their supporters love hearing them, love getting the real story, love being on the inside. The twists and turns, and lessons learned. The key players, warts and all.
But does anyone really get excited about the intricacies of day-to-day governing? Particularly when it comes to the 435 voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives? Especially those members in the minority party from small states like Maine?
Count Chellie Pingree among the few.
After 10 years in Congress, Pingree is at home with the intricacies of legislating on the federal level. Not only can she talk about her priorities for Maine, she can point to specific people that her office has helped get the government services they need.
In November, voters will decide whether to grant Pingree a sixth term, or to replace her with Republican Mark Holbrook or independent Marty Grohman, a former Democratic state representative from Biddeford. The election will be decided by ranked-choice voting, a factor that Pingree acknowledged will change the dynamics of the three-way race.
“We’ll stick to our goal of running a campaign, letting the voters know what we've been doing for them, asking them for their vote,” she said during a recent stop at Arabica Coffee Company on Commercial Street. “(The outcome) will be the will of the voters.”
Pingree, a member of the Maine Senate from 1992 to 2000 and majority leader from 1996 to 2000, has been limited by the makeup of the U.S. House.
“She does however as much legislative work she can do in a chamber that's controlled by the other party,” said Ron Schmidt, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. “She tries to deliver for the district. It’s not particularly dramatic, especially in terms of the Donald Trump era.”
Her major accomplishments?
“At this point,” Schmidt said, “I think the answer to that would just have to be her endurance.”
A decade of experience in Washington
In 2008, Pingree became the first woman elected to Congress from Maine’s 1st Congressional District. She had lost a run for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Susan Collins six years earlier, and had been leading Common Cause, a progressive advocacy group, from 2003 to 2006.
In Washington, she has served on the House Rules Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Agriculture Committee, and now sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In this role, she serves on the Agriculture subcommittee and the Interior and Environment subcommittee. She’s known as an advocate for reforming federal policy to better support American agriculture, including sustainable, organic, and locally focused farms.
Pingree, 63, introduced legislative reforms that were included in the 2014 Farm Bill and two pieces of legislation – the Food Recovery Act and the Food Date Labeling Act – to help reduce food waste in the United States.
She’s particularly proud of the work her office does for constituents who request help. She cites examples: a person whose Social Security benefits had been interrupted; an Iraqi former U.S. military translator, who needed help getting his daughter into the United States at the outset of the president’s travel ban; veterans who need help qualifying for medical care.
“Every day, we handle an enormous number of cases. We have probably 150 cases that (staffers) are working on, making calls and working to fix problems,” Pingree said. “The team that works for us is really exceptional. They've been doing it for a long time. I'm really proud of that and that's a really important part of what we do.”
Watchdog role to fill
With control of the House in play this year, Pingree said, she’s prepared for either outcome. If the GOP retains its majority, she’ll continue to serve as a watchdog where necessary. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she spent time questioning the activity of former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, who left office in July amid ethics scandals. “We were trying to uncover things. That became crazier by the day, but we were also really fighting against his anti-environmental agenda. So in the minority, we will keep doing that.”
And if the Democrats return to power?
“I think we’re going to open up investigations, I would imagine, on all kinds of things,” she said. “For instance, I went to the Texas border with a bunch of my colleagues to see firsthand the unmitigated disaster (of federal agents separating parents and children being held as illegal immigrants.)”
Pingree has her eye on one clear goal.
“I don't back down from a fight, but I'm also very effective at getting things done,” she said. “I'm lucky enough to sit on the Appropriations Committee, so I've learned a lot about how to protect funding for things that are important to Maine. I'm going to continue to work really hard to represent people in the way that I think that they believe is important.”
Q&A with Chellie Pingree
Pine Tree Watch: Why should people of Maine's 1st Congressional District send you back to Washington?
Chellie Pingree: I feel like we say this frequently, but there couldn't be a more important election going on than this one right now. There’s so much damage that has been done by this president, this administration, and it's everything from our environmental protection laws, to education, to the economy, to just the fundamentals of democracy.
We really have our work cut out for us. If we're in the majority, we have a lot to fix. If we're in the minority, it's just really important to fight back at every turn. I want to have that opportunity to fight for the things that I think the people of Maine would want.
PTW: What do you consider your top accomplishments in Congress?
Pingree: Fighting for writing things into the (federal) budget is really important. All year long we hear from communities, individual colleges and businesses about programs that are important to them. The work we do on the budget, I think, is often unseen but really important. We really have a laundry list when we go through the budget every year and say, ‘OK, you know, this job training program matters to this business, or this line item here would make a difference to small farmers.’ It's harder to see in a way because we're just trying to keep something from being cut.
We had a big fight on the floor just a couple of months ago where there was an item in the budget where they were going to defund the next round of ships at Bath Iron Works. It was one of those inside fights where somebody else was going to move it to their shipbuilding program, you know, and again, that's kind of like the stuff you don't see every day. It’s something that (2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin) and I worked together on very closely.
We'll try to find the Republicans that we can work with, of which there are many. And I found there are a lot of bills with Republicans where we share the same agenda on small farming. Actually, I have a bipartisan bill on prescription drugs, so there are some things where you can keep working on it. It's just whether the leadership will move the bill. If we're in the majority, then I think we'll go right to work on healthcare.
PTW: Healthcare costs and energy costs continue to hamstring families and small business owners. What can you do, if re-elected, to address these concerns?
Pingree: So they're two different issues. And I do think this administration has been taking us in the wrong direction with the Affordable Care Act. And there's a lot of reforms that should be made. I'd love to see an expansion of Medicare. At least expand the age (for eligibility). I think there's a lot we could do and, you know, I'm very sympathetic to small business owners and individuals (who) are seeing this rising cost all the time and don't feel like they can continue to afford their healthcare. It’s getting to be an emergency for a lot of people.
Regarding energy, this administration has been a disaster in taking us back to the Dark Ages of fossil fuels, especially when Maine’s the most oil-dependent state in the nation. The last thing we should be doing is reducing our investment in solar, wind and tidal power. These are green-energy jobs that can stay in our state. And in the long run, they make Mainers energy self-sufficient. I mean, it’s just crazy that we're not moving in that direction.
PTW: Immigration is a huge hot-button topic. However, there are many here in Maine who believe that legal immigration can serve as a positive step toward possibly growing our economy. What's your view on diversifying Maine's population base through expanded legal immigration opportunities?
Pingree: A lack of workers is without a doubt the biggest issue I hear about from business owners. They just can't find people. Workers with H2B visas are the ones who come in seasonally to help these amazing restaurants. The administration has really crippled that industry, especially in coastal communities. They stopped allowing returning workers. Most Maine businesses can't get anywhere near what they need in that way. A lot of rural hospitals depend on people with foreign visas to come in and fill a niche. I don't know what else we're going to do on a personnel level.
There are other ways the federal government can support legal immigration. I mean, you go into the Portland Adult Education centers any day of the week and what's amazing is you see doctors, engineers, teachers, who have come from another country who can't practice their craft because they can't get licensed or they don't know the language. But they're sitting there like any other student, learning diligently, trying to make sure that they can get a job in our economy. (Senator) Angus King and I have both sponsored bills where we would allow asylum seekers to work from the first day they’re here. Why stop people if they want to work and if there's a job for them?
PTW: Several recent studies link children born into poverty in Maine to our state's sluggish job growth. By one account, the number of Maine children who are food insecure is now close to 25 percent. What can you do to provide a better foundation for Maine's next generation?
Pingree: I consider this a really important issue. We need to do everything we can to nurture children to make sure that they have all the opportunities to grow into productive, wonderful citizens in the state of Maine. Those early years are critically important. I mean, we know more about that now than we ever did before about brain development, about when you learn the best and nutrition is a really important part of it.
About 85 percent of the farm bill goes to nutrition programs. The fight that is stopping it from passing by the end of September, when it's supposed to, is that Republicans want to drastically cut nutrition benefits which disproportionately affects children and seniors. So the idea that we would live in the wealthiest country in the world and do anything that denied people and, particularly children, (access to nutritional foods) is unconscionable. We've supported those programs and we're very strong advocates for fighting for them in the farm bill.
Note: The House broke for its recess Sept. 28 before the House and Senate agreed on renewing the farm bill, leaving the bill to expire, according to Feedstuffs.com, an animal agriculture industry news site. House agricultural leaders directed blame at members of the Senate. It now appears that a bill may have to wait until after the Nov. 6 elections to get finalized.
Greg Reid is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience in journalism, content marketing and copywriting. His work has appeared in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, USA Today, the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, and several university and trade publications and websites.
He and his family live in Portland with their energetic boxer, Dempsey.
Contact him at Greg@ScribblingMadly.com.
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