PORTLAND – Ever since she announced her campaign to unseat Maine’s popular and senior U.S. Senator Susan Collins , Shenna Bellows, a Democrat and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, knew she had an uphill climb.
But she has never contemplated the possibility of defeat, often telling campaign supporters that while the race against Collins – a moderate Republican with national influence and a near limitless campaign war chest – was a “David and Goliath” affair, they needed to remember “David won.”
Bellows, who is running for her first public office, said she hopes Democrats who supported President Obama in the past but who also voted for Collins will swing their support to her.
“If we can reach all of those Barack Obama voters, I will be the next U.S. senator from Maine,” Bellows said confidently.
Like her opponent, Bellows said she’s most disappointed with some of the negative attacks that have come her way – largely from well-heeled political action committees that are always at least an arm’s distance from Collins’ official campaign.
“I’m really disappointed in what some of the Republican operatives have done in attacking me online,” Bellows said “The tenor of the partisan attacks on my character is really disappointing. People who have worked with me in the State House know I have a reputation for honesty and coalition building that is bipartisan.”
Track record backs bipartisanship
Bellows can indeed back up her statements with victories for privacy rights she helped usher through the State House in 2014, working for the ACLU and bringing together a broad cross section of lawmakers, including liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans, to do so.
Among those victories were bills requiring search warrants for the collection of cell phone GPS data, drone surveillance and other remotely operated cameras. The ACLU also sided with Republicans on a bill that made secret — except to police — the information on a concealed handgun permit. A change from previous law made the information public.
Bellows also sides with libertarian conservatives on the issue of marijuana legalization and has said she believes the federal government needs to end its war on drugs, replacing criminal sentences for marijuana use and possession with more preventative measures including education and drug addiction treatment.
She has also called on a re-prioritization of federal spending with an eye toward trimming back defense spending and reallocating those resources to other programs.
She and Collins have contrasting views on a federal minimum wage increase: Bellows said she would fight to bring it to at least $10.10 per hour as proposed by Obama and rejected by Republicans in Washington.
She’s also advocated to do more about the growing amount of student loan debt facing thousands of young Mainers and others who are looking to acquire the skills and education they need to get good jobs.
The self-described daughter of a carpenter and nurse, Bellows started her campaign with a tradition created years ago by former Republican U.S. Sen. William Cohen: She walked the length of the state from Houlton to Kittery.
Even her opponents have said it was a savvy move on her part and it drew a lot of attention to her campaign early on. For a first-time statewide candidate, Bellows has also been remarkably successful in raising money for her campaign, collecting nearly $2 million.
She said most of that came in small amounts from individuals and largely from Maine. She’s also enjoyed some high-profile support in endorsements from well-known Mainers, including horror writer Stephen King.
And while Collins picked up the support of union workers at Bath Iron Works, dozens of smaller unions have thrown their support to Bellows.
She’s also gained national attention and support for her plucky effort to take on the iconic Collins.
Back story matters
A native of Hancock County, her back story is an important part of her campaign, Bellows said.
“The reason I bring up my background and where I come from is because working families deserve a voice in Washington,” Bellows said. “Our policies in Washington are benefiting the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations at the expense of our local communities. We need people who understand what it is like, who will stand up for working-class values.”
Bellows said she enjoyed the 350-mile trek more than most would have expected, and has referenced it frequently in recent weeks and during a series of debates with Collins that have aired on television statewide.
“My campaign has actually been about building a strong coalition of people, across party,” Bellows said. “The media covers the heat and the light, the areas of real contrast between me and Susan. Those talking with me along the campaign trail over 350 miles, that was about the struggles that working families here in this state are experiencing because of artificially low wages and lack of jobs and Social Security checks that don’t make it to the end of the month and student loan debt.”
She said “the walk” is the way politics should be.
“What democracy should be is a full and fair debate about the issues that really matter to people and engaging at a very grassroots level with the people,” Bellows said. “Instead, because of the influence of big money, it’s a war of television ads.”
Campaign finance reform
Bellows has also been an advocate for campaign finance reform, including the advancement of another amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would distinguish clearly that corporations do not have the same inherent rights as individual people do. The change, Bellows and other supporters believe, would make elected officials less beholden to special interests or those with the ability to bankroll campaigns.
“The influence of big money in our politics is drowning out the voices of ordinary people,” Bellows said. “We need campaign finance reform to restore citizen democracy.”
Bellows said that as a U.S. senator she would work to advance a national clean elections system, with public financing similar to the system in place in Maine.
“We need small-dollar, publicly financed elections,” Bellows said. “We need stronger disclosure laws so we know where the money is coming from as well.”
While, Collins, too, has said she supports some forms of campaign finance reform, including greater and quicker disclosure, she’s been reticent to support a Constitutional amendment or placing greater financial limits on corporate donors.
When asked what life has in store should she not capture the seat from Collins, Bellows, who is often quick with a thoughtful answer, demurred momentarily.
She then said she will be in the service of others in some fashion.
“My whole career, from the Peace Corps, to AmeriCorps to the American Civil Liberties Union, has been about making a difference in people’s lives,” Bellows said. “My future will always be about trying to make a difference.”
For now, Bellows said her focus is on what she hopes voters will see as the possibility for change. Over the last two decades the U.S. has been been confronted with what she called “tough challenges,” including economic, environmental and constitutional crises. Congress, including her opponent, have done little to make needed changes, Bellows insisted.
“We are not going to see the change we need by staying with the status quo,” Bellows said. “Electing the same people and hoping for different results isn’t going to move us forward to a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”