October 28, 2012

Bad experiences can't keep Charlie Summers down

Personal and political setbacks haven't stopped Republican US Senate candidate

SCARBOROUGH -- Five years ago, Charlie Summers was lying on the floor of an unfortified sleeping trailer in Baghdad's Green Zone as mortars fell nearby. He turned to his roommate, a fellow naval reservist who was married to his wife's best friend.

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers answers a question during a debate at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Sept. 13.

Maine Sunday Telegram file photo by Gregory Rec

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Charlie Summers gets a kiss from his wife, Ruth, on June 12, at the Maine Military Museum, the primary campaign night headquarters for the Republican US Senate candidate.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by Derek Davis

Additional Photos Below

"I said to Mike, 'Who talked you into joining?'" Summers recalls with a laugh. "He said, 'Your wife.' And I said, 'Me, too.' Look at where we are and look where she is."

While her husband was taking fire in Iraq, Ruth Summers was on the political front lines in Scarborough, running his tenacious campaign for U.S. Congress. Though prohibited from campaigning until he returned to the states in June 2008, Summers won his party's primary but would lose the seat for the third time to a Democratic rival, this time incumbent Rep. Chellie Pingree.

"Just because you get knocked down, it doesn't mean you can't get up and do it again," Summers said of the chain of losses. "If you lose an election, two elections, whatever it is, if you look at it as a learning process and ask how you could have done it differently, it makes you a better candidate."

Now Summers is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by his estranged political mentor, Olympia Snowe. While he last won a popular election 20 years ago, the tall and affable secretary of state hopes his accumulated life experiences will make the difference this time, allowing him to upset the apparent front-runner, two-term independent former Gov. Angus King.

Those experiences have brought Summers from his parents' hotel in a small Midwestern town to stints as a state senator, regional small business administrator and secretary of state, as well as state director for Snowe and military deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pentagon. With the support of his wife -- who succeeded him as state party vice chairwoman and is running for his old state Senate seat -- he hopes to bring his affable style to a legislative body paralyzed by dysfunction and partisan deadlock.

Raised in hospitality

Charles E. Summers Jr. was born the day after Christmas 1959 in Danville, Ill. He was the fourth of five children in a family of hoteliers. His great-grandfather had founded a hotel in Mount Vernon, Ill., and his uncle owned two in Alton. At the time of his birth, Summers' parents were leasing a local hotel, but in 1960 they moved to the northwestern part of the state and into the Hotel Kewanee, a failing establishment they had just bought.

Built in 1916, the hotel was in the center of Kewanee, a town of 10,000 that billed itself as "the hog capital of the world." Summers describes the town as "a cross between Presque Isle and Biddeford" in that when he was growing up, it was a small industrial community surrounded by flat, open farmland. By the time he was in grade school it had started its long decline.

"This is typical rust belt," said local veterinarian Tom Schwerbrock, who attended Kewanee High School with Summers and has seen many of the factories close and the farms consolidate. "We're nowhere near being the hog capital of the world today."

The hotel was the most prominent in town, a four-story structure with a bar, ballroom, full restaurant and the studios of two radio stations on the top floor. It had bankrupted its two previous owners.

"It was the place to stay in Kewanee and when they ran it the restaurant was one of the nicer places to eat," Schwerbrock recalled. "It was a tight ship."

Summers was literally raised in the hotel -- the family lived in a second-floor apartment -- and he and his siblings joined in to keep it running.

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Additional Photos

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Charlie Summers talks on the phone while waiting for results to come in during the primary election on June 12.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by Derek Davis

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Photo from Kewanee High School yearbook, 1978: Charlie Summers (right) in his hometown of Kewanee, Ill., now a rust belt town of 10,000, but in 1978 still arguably the "hog capital of the world."

Contributed photo

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Charlie Summers greets Brooke Briggs, of Biddeford, and her father, Jason, after arriving at the Maine Military Museum, the headquarters for Summers' primary election night, on June 12.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by Derek Davis

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Photo from Kewanee High School yearbook, 1978: Charlie Summers as a high school senior, 1978. At 6'4"" he was captain of the basketball team and senior class vice president, having lost a close race for president.

Contributed photo


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