December 29, 2012

Olympia Snowe: a career of firsts and fights

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It was just a few days before Christmas 2004 when Sen. Olympia Snowe received word that thousands of jobs at Bath Iron Works, Maine's largest employer, were in serious jeopardy.

Olympia Snowe
click image to enlarge

A video image provided by Senate Television shows retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, giving her farewell speech on Dec. 13. Snowe said she remains hopeful that the Senate can overcome “excessive political polarization” and work together to reach consensus on important issues facing the nation.

The Associated Press/Senate Television

Then Navy Secretary Gordon England informed Snowe in a phone call that the Navy was exploring using a single shipyard to build destroyers, a shift that would pit BIW against its longtime rival shipyard in Mississippi in a final, all-or-nothing competition.

"I said, 'That's absolutely not going to happen. I'm going to fight that with every fiber of my being,'" Snowe recalled recently. "So the fight was on."

Over the ensuing months, Snowe worked with fellow Maine Sen. Susan Collins as well as lawmakers from Mississippi and other states to organize Senate opposition to the single-source proposal. And when England was tapped by Republican President George W. Bush to become an assistant secretary of defense, Snowe held up his nomination for weeks.

"We finally prevailed," Snowe said.

That battle is one of many Snowe has recounted in recent weeks as she serves out her final days as Maine's senior senator.

"It's hard to comprehend that it has been 34 years," Snowe, 65, said while seated in her spacious Senate office. That service includes 16 years in the House, plus three, six-year Senate terms.

During the past three decades, Snowe has been summoned to the White House for private meetings with presidents, shaped tax and health care laws and helped break down gender biases in both politics and federal policies.

"Our government's attention to women's health issues has come about, in part, because of the efforts of Olympia Snowe," said Susan Carroll, author and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Snowe's position as one of the few remaining moderate Republicans and her willingness to cross party lines -- voting against President Clinton's impeachment and for President Obama's stimulus package, for instance -- elevated her status and influence in the sharply divided Senate.

Time magazine said Snowe is found "in the center of every policy debate in Washington" and named her among the Top 10 senators in 2006. Four years later, she landed on Time's list of the "100 most influential people in the world."

Snowe's legislative star-power led to a cameo appearance earlier this year on the sitcom "Parks and Recreation." But in the early weeks of Obama's presidency, Snowe also politely turned aside White House queries about a potential Cabinet position.

"It was a pretty short conversation," Snowe said. "This is where I wanted to be, in the Senate. I wasn't prepared to move over."

Snowe has also earned a reputation for staying in touch with folks back in Maine -- despite decades in Washington -- with her constituent service, regular "Main Street walking tours" and presence at civic events (including every Maine Potato Blossom Festival parade since 1978).

Moderate among hardliners

On a recent afternoon, Sen. Olympia Snowe stood next to a bookshelf stacked with plaques bubble-wrapped for safe transport back to Maine.

In one hand she held the U.S. Navy's highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award, while the other gripped pictures of the latest Navy destroyer under construction at BIW.

With her was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who had presented Snowe with the award.

"She has been a forceful advocate for Navy issues, for Marine Corps issues and making sure we have what we need," Mabus said in the brief ceremony.

Although they account for just two votes in the 100-seat Senate, both Snowe and Collins have on occasion wielded disproportionate power as the number of moderate Republicans has dwindled. Both were swing votes in support of Obama's 2009 economic stimulus package, for instance.

(Continued on page 2)

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