AUGUSTA – Sen. Peggy Rotundo strides into Gov. John Baldacci’s office, a dozen legislators in her wake.

He is standing in front of his desk chatting with the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. He has been expecting her.

She smiles and they shake hands. She lifts a sheet of paper clutched in her other hand and reads: “Gov. Baldacci, the two branches of the Legislature are in convention assembled, ready to receive from you such communication as you may be pleased to make.”

It’s January on the night of the governor’s State of the State address, his biggest speech of the year. It’s nearly 7 p.m., the hour he is scheduled to deliver his remarks.

One of Rotundo’s duties as head of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is to summon the governor on the night of his annual speech to state lawmakers, a symbolic nod to her powerful grip on the state’s purse strings.

Minutes later, in the House Chamber, Rotundo pauses halfway down the aisle that separates Democrats and Republicans. She lifts the script again, calling out: “Madame Chair,” her diminutive voice straining.

Senate President Beth Edmonds stands at the podium and recognizes Rotundo with a crack of her gavel.

“Madame Chair,” Rotundo repeats, “We have delivered the message with which we were charged and are pleased to report that his excellency, the governor, will attend forthwith.”

No Louie Jalbert

After just four years as a state lawmaker, Rotundo has risen to arguably one of the most powerful positions in Maine politics, third in the Legislature only to the Senate president and House speaker.

She is Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, the place where the governor’s budget is scrutinized and where state programs and projects that feed on money either flourish or perish.

For more than two decades, no state lawmaker from Androscoggin County has held such a position of power – not since Rep. Louis “Louie” Jalbert, also of Lewiston, served between 1944 and 1984. Spending most of his 19 terms on the Appropriations Committee, Jalbert earned a legendary reputation as an effective lawmaker with a gruff exterior. (See related story.)

Rotundo didn’t rise to her prominent post by fiery oratory, glad handing or strong-arm politics.

It is, instead, the absence of those qualities that has set her apart from many of her legislative colleagues and the politics of old.

Her style is said to be more in keeping with her long-serving Senate predecessor, the late Georgette Berube, also a Democrat, who developed a reputation as a compassionate fiscal conservative.

Rotundo’s signature whisper can be disarming, commanding attention because of what she says, not how loudly she says it. Likewise, she usually taps her gavel, rarely banging it.

“Some people feel that Peggy’s such a nice woman,” Senate President Beth Edmonds said. “Yeah, she is a nice woman and she’s also very firm in what she believes. I don’t feel like she’s a pushover at all.”

Rotundo’s style is sometimes mistaken as a sign of weakness, a soft touch, Edmonds said, adding, with a laugh, “It confuses the enemy.”

Other virtues extolled by political colleagues include:

Rotundo’s work ethic.

“She’s a very hard worker,” said Edmonds, who picked Rotundo for the coveted leadership position. “She’s deliberative. She will go over every piece of the budget carefully and thoughtfully and, if it’s possible, to improve it.”

Her integrity.

“She’ll never lead you astray on purpose,” Edmonds said. “That’s important in a leader. You want somebody you can absolutely trust to do what they say they are going to do.”

Her open-mindedness.

“One of her top qualities is her sense of fairness and her willingness to understand all sides of an issue,” said Jim Handy, a former legislator who also served with Rotundo on the Lewiston School Board.

Her desire to include others.

Rotundo is aiming for a unanimous vote from her committee on the budget and bond package. Given the rancorous partisanship last session that failed to produce any agreement on borrowing, many feel she is overreaching.

But others, like Sen. Arthur Mayo, D-Bath, said he has faith in her.

“It’s going to be very difficult, but if anybody can succeed in it, she can,” said Mayo, a former Republican.

Even Rotundo’s critics like her approach, if not her politics.

“She’s a very diplomatic and nice person,” said Rep. Michael Vaughan, R-Durham.

He credited Rotundo with advocating successfully for Maine’s public schools and universities. But, he noted, she has not represented the business community with equal vigor.

He pointed to Rotundo’s scorecard as graded by the Maine Economic Research Institute, which gave her 25 out of a possible 100 percent. The nonprofit pro-business group rated her performance according to the votes she cast on 11 target bills during her second legislative term.

Vaughn, who received a MERI score of 88 percent, called it a major oversight.

“Jobs is a big, big issue right now,” he said. “No matter who you are you have to concentrate on making the business climate (in Maine) a little more friendly.”

A busy day

Up at 5:30 a.m. the day of Baldacci’s legislative address, Rotundo first plowed through dozens of e-mails at home. She had stayed up late the night before signing 400 letters inviting honor roll students to come to the State House and serve as legislative pages.

By 9 a.m., she was in Augusta and had already met with her committee’s analyst and scheduler and made several phone calls to constituents.

Her small office is tidy. Her desktop is clear. One of the few decorations is a print of a Marsden Hartley painting featuring Mount Katahdin. The print is not for show. It is advertising for the upcoming opening of a new Marsden Hartley Cultural Center at the renovated Lewiston Library. The world famous painter is a Lewiston native. She wants the world to know it – and Lewiston.

Like her office, Rotundo’s personal appearance is practical, no frills. Her typical attire is a jacket, long skirt and flat-soled shoes that say she means business – sans business suit. Her salt-and-pepper bobbed hair and oversized glasses give her a scholarly look.

That seriousness runs in her family.

Her mother, Barbara, who died at 83 on Christmas Eve, was a longtime professor of economics and government at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where Rotundo grew up.

Her father died when she was 3 years old, leaving her mother alone to raise three children. There wasn’t much money.

Rotundo said: “I remember asking her where she got that courage. She said, ‘You just do what needs to be done.'”

It’s a philosophy that has guided the younger Rotundo through life, she said, along with a passion for making sure everybody has an equal educational opportunity.

After her husband’s death, Barbara Rotundo went back to school to earn first a master’s degree, followed by a Ph.D.

Peggy Rotundo earned a bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke College, relying heavily on federal funding.

Mother, like daughter, was a member of her local school board and served as its head.

The granddaughter of immigrant Italian Catholics, Peggy Rotundo was raised by her mother in the Religious Society of Friends. The daughter, in turn, has also raised her children as Quakers.

“That’s where my commitment to social justice comes from,” she said.

But she doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

“It’s very deeply personal for me. I don’t talk about it often,” she said. “Friends believes you put your faith to action, and that’s what I’m all about.”

At home

Family comes first, Rotundo said.

She is often still in Augusta when her daughter, Ann Danforth, 15, gets home from Lewiston High School. Son Nicholas Danforth, 22, is a recent graduate of Yale University.

Their father, Loring “Danny” Danforth is a professor at Bates College, where Rotundo serves off-session as director of the Center for Service Learning, an outreach program she developed where students engage in community service. It is an example of how she has worked to dovetail her interests in education, government and community.

Another example is Lewiston Aspirations Partnership, the name stitched on the green and white canvas tote bag that serves as her brief case. While serving on the Lewiston School Board, she developed the program where high school students can attend classes at regional colleges for credit.

One night in late January, Rotundo walked in her front door at about 7 p.m. (As the session wears on, the hour will grow later, she said.) Her husband had gone out, leaving a pot of spaghetti on the stove. Ann sat on the couch doing her math homework.

Stacks of documents from the State House and newspaper clippings were piled in the front hall, waiting for Rotundo to find time to file them or haul them to the local library, she said. Her campaign materials also needed to be put away.

“I’m a little behind,” she said.

On a crowded bay window, next to a piano, is where she stores the certificates and plaques that mark her public service accomplishments. They are intermingled with photos of family and friends as well as ceramic efforts from her children.

She has served as a role model for her kids. Both have become involved in the Democratic Party on their own. Ann recently formed the Young Democrats at Lewiston High School.

And their mother makes time for them, despite long hours in Augusta and impromptu meetings with constituents during casual outings around town that sometimes drive the kids crazy.

When Ann graduated from middle school, Rotundo escaped from the State House during a Senate recess. She drove back to Lewiston for her daughter’s ceremony, then back to Augusta later that night for an important budget vote.

“You just juggle,” she said.

Saving taxpayers’ money

It’s about 12:30 p.m. the day of Baldacci’s speech.

A roast beef sandwich wrapped in wax paper sits on Rotundo’s desk. She had picked it up at a noon reception in the Hall of Flags. It will take her four hours and fifteen minutes to finish it.

She is headed upstairs to caucus with her fellow Democratic senators in Edmonds’ office and carries the sandwich with her, stealing a bite on the way.

After the caucus, she enters the outer office to use the phone. She eyes a page-one story in a newspaper sitting on a table. Three legislators are seeking to end the merger of L-A College in Lewiston and the University of Maine at Augusta, a headline reads. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell, is featured in the story. By coincidence, Cowger files out of the office behind Rotundo at that moment and asks her: “Are you with us on that?”

“No,” she says simply, smiling as she walks away.

A short time later, she is back in the Appropriations hearing room, sitting at the center of a long crescent of desks, her perpetual Poland Spring bottle of water close at hand.

Asked later if she buys it by the case, she confides with embarrassment that she refills the bottles with tap water from home as a cost-savings measure.

“I take the same care with the taxpayers money,” she said. “There’s no difference.”

Naturally frugal, she brings that same tight-fistedness to her role in the State House, she says, even turning down the heat in her office when she leaves for the day.

“I’m always trying to save money for the taxpayers,” she says.

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