LEWISTON – Even with a substantial lead in the most recent polls, Susan Collins — Maine’s incumbent Republican U.S. senator and one of the state’s most popular politicians – still hits the campaign trail with the vigor of a first-time candidate.
Collins, who is seeking her fourth term, of late has been alternating between her work in Washington and a campaign tour bus that’s been wheeling around Maine, now a tradition for Collins.
“I never take any election for granted. Plus, I feel you need to ask people for their vote, explain why you are running and what you want to do and what you have done,” Collins said during a short stop in Lewiston earlier this month.
She said her time on the bus tour, which she’s seen plenty of in her four campaigns, is her favorite part of the work. “Because visiting with people in their home towns and their work places is a lot of fun.”
She said the biggest downside of campaigning by bus in Maine in the summer is too much ice cream. “I’ve literally gained five pounds in just the last two weeks, I’m serious,” Collins said. “Maine has more good ice cream stops than you can imagine.”
All talk of ice cream aside, Collins has been hearing about some of Maine’s not-so-sweet problems as she rolls from town to town.
She’s also fended off repeated claims from the campaign of her Democratic opponent Shenna Bellows that, Collins said, have been surprisingly negative in tone.
“The most difficult part for me is how negative the campaign has been. I’ve always run positive campaigns. I campaign on my record and what I want to do for the people of Maine,” she said. “It has been frustrating, to say the least, to see my opponent consistently misrepresent my voting record and my philosophy, and on some issues she’s just been flat-out wrong and we have my roll call votes to prove it.”
The two have just finished a series of statewide televised debates, and Bellows and Collins have gone head-to-head on several key issues, including the minimum wage.
Collins has been attacked on her opposition to a bill that would have increased the federal minimum age, as proposed by President Obama, to $10.10 an hour. She’s said she believes a minimum wage hike is needed, but she also wants it to be something that small businesses will be able to tolerate.
She was unsuccessful in her attempt to negotiate a minimum wage increase that would have been in the vicinity of $9 an hour, but said she does believe the federal minimum wage needs to be more than it is currently at $7.50 hour.
Collins is also firm that she believes a minimum wage was not intended to be a so-called “livable wage.”
She’s also been criticized for voting against a bill that Bellows believes would have further leveled the playing field for women in the work force. But the bill, which was designed to ensure women are paid the same wages as men for the same work, sets up a complex reporting regime that would require all employers to report to the federal government the wages of their employees based on gender.
“The last thing that small businesses in our state need are more paperwork burdens that aren’t going to produce any results,” Collins said.
Collins has said federal law already requires equal pay for equal work, and another law she supported, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, made it possible for women to more easily seek relief from paycheck discrimination.
The measure was the first signed into law by Obama after he first took office in 2009, and Collins, because of her role in its passage and despite her party affiliation, was invited to the White House for the ceremonial signing.
“To state the obvious, I am a woman,” Collins said. “And I’ve worked literally since I was age 10.” A native of Caribou, in Maine’s northern Aroostook County, she grew up picking potatoes as a kid.
“The boys and the girls were paid exactly the same per barrel of potatoes — back then it was 30 cents,” she said. “Some girls picked more than some boys and some boys picked more than some girls, but each got the same per barrel of potatoes and it was 30 cents.”
She says that experience instilled in her the sense that the value of her labor was equal to that of her male counterparts, and it’s been a view she’s never wavered on.
“The fact is, pay discrimination has been illegal since 1963 when the Fair Pay Act passed,” she said. She also notes she knows that doesn’t mean pay discrimination has “disappeared from the workplace.”
She said both former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Maine’s current junior U.S. senator, Angus King, both voted as she did against the measure she’s being criticized for opposing. “If I’m against equal pay for women, then Olympia Snowe and Angus King are also against equal pay for women, and that just isn’t the case,” Collins said.
While it personally frustrates her, the political attacks against her on paycheck fairness, as well as on a host of other issues, seem to have little resonance with Maine voters.
With 64 to 79 percent approval ratings according to two recent polls, the attempts to chip away at Collins’s image have had little apparent impact.
Washington deal maker
Collins remains arguably one of the most popular politicians in state history – a trajectory that started after she finished in third place behind King, an independent, and Democrat Joe Brennan in a race for the governor’s office in 1994.
But her political experience stretches back to her time on former U.S. Sen. William Cohen’s staff and her service in Maine in the cabinet of former Republican Gov. John McKernan.
But since winning the U.S. Senate seat in 1996 she’s seen a steady climb in popularity by becoming one of Congress’ best-known and often best-liked moderates.
Even in the midst of a bitter federal government shutdown in 2013, caused by a budget impasse between Democrats and Republicans, the Senate’s hard-line Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “Susan Collins is one of my favorite senators, Democrat or Republican. I appreciate her efforts — as always — to find a consensus.”
A few days later Collins would be heralded again for working with a bipartisan group of female Senators to negotiate an end to the stalemate and its far-reaching economic implications for the nation.
Back in Lewiston, Collins was appearing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Hampton Inn on Lincoln Street about two weeks ago with a small delegation of business people and local Republican elected officials, including Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald and Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte.
The atmosphere was one of a homecoming, of sorts, but while Collins carried Lewiston in her last election, a fact she often mentions as one of her proudest political moments, she hasn’t always been well-received in the city that’s usually dominated by Democrats.
She’s hoping for a repeat performance, but Bellows has also made Lewiston a key target, including announcing her campaign from a downtown market here in 2013.
While she will and can defend her voting record for hours, Collins is equally pleased to talk about what she wants to do – besides maintain her perfect attendance on roll call votes in the Senate – if Maine voters send her back to the Senate.
“Jobs and the economy remain my No. 1 issue,” Collins said. She’s touted a 7-point job plan that she hopes would create more jobs for Maine.
The plan includes myriad possible policy retools touching on everything from a more streamlined federal tax code to work force training programs to policy that would help Maine do a better job exporting its agricultural products.
Collins also wants the federal government to invest more in biomedical research as a means of finding better treatments for a range of medical conditions, but especially Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, she said.
“We are spending a lot on caring for people and not enough on trying to prevent illnesses from happening, coming up with better treatments and cures,” Collins said. The amount spent on the care of Alzheimer’s patients costs the country $214 billion a year, with $150 billion of that coming from Medicare and Medicaid.
Collins said by comparison the amount spent on research to unravel the disease is less than $600 million. She said all the leading experts suggest the figure should be $2 billion. “That’s still less than 1 percent.”
She said if Republicans win the Senate she looks forward to being the chairwoman of the Senate’s Committee on Aging, but even if they don’t win the majority back, she intends to push for more research funding as the ranking Republican on the committee.
The research is important for a state like Maine, with its aging demographic, Collins said.
“It’s going to hit us like a tidal wave in this country,” she said. She also noted that nearly one out of every four Medicare dollars spent in Maine goes for the treatment of diabetes.
Collins has also softened her position on the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health care bill often dubbed Obamacare by its opponents. Collins said she doesn’t believe a repeal of the law would be productive or realistic.
She said she opposed the bill when it was passed, but there were many parts of the measure she and many other Republicans agreed with – including prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions.
A repeal of the bill would only be vetoed by Obama while creating havoc for many Americans who have already procured health insurance under the new law, Collins said. Going forward she would rather focus on improving the measure, she said.
“What would be more constructive at this stage, even though I wished we passed a different law, is for us to correct the egregious flaws in Obamacare,” Collins said.
One change she wants to make is in the definition to full-time work, currently at 30 hours a week, which puts a squeeze on many small businesses in Maine. Collins wants full-time work to be defined as 40 hours per week.
She also said the law has too many so called “cliffs” in it, like the one that allows those making up to 400 percent of poverty to get a federal subsidy to purchase health insurance in the government exchange, but nothing for somebody making 401 percent of poverty. She said that provision will prompt many employees to reject promotion or advancement at their jobs because the subsidy for insurance would be lost.
Collins instead wants some sort of step-off program so beneficiaries don’t face an all-or-nothing choices.
She said the same cliffs exist in other types of federal benefit programs, including those commonly deemed welfare, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps.
“We ought to have some kind of phase in and phase out so that we don’t have these disincentives to work and to advance yourself,” Collins said.