John and Charlene Messinese, of Rumford, had just finished telling Sen. Olympia Snowe about their appreciation for the government aid they receive for heating oil. John, a retired law enforcement officer, then leaned his crewcut head toward Snowe, and said, “It’s still so hard to ask.”

Maine’s senior senator replied with a tone of frustrated understanding. “It’s the Maine way,” she said.

This is not Snowe’s way, though. The senator is bullish on heating assistance, and regaled the B-Street Community Center on Wednesday with her story about, as a freshman in Congress, first testifying for an assistance program alongside legendary political heavyweight Tip O’Neil.

Then there was the year Snowe threatened to keep Congress working through Christmas, unless the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was funded. Again, Congress yielded to the feisty senator.

Snowe might need an even bigger stunt this year. With partisan politics and presidential vetoes flying around Washington D.C., desperately needed funding for LIHEAP has been held up. There’s hope, but no guarantees, the congressional stalemate will be broken sometime in December.

More money for heating oil would be an early Christmas gift for many Maine families, like the Messineses, who are down to their last $130 for oil after their most recent fill-up. John Messinese joked with Snowe about burning their possessions for heat – “We always have wood furniture, senator.”

There’s no excuse for Mainers, or anyone else, to shiver because of partisan hand-wringing. Nor is there excuse to let stubborn pride – the “hard to ask” to which Messinese referred – deter people facing dire situations from asking for assistance from the various agencies ready and willing to help.

Many people have. Community Concepts reports an astounding 20,000 requests recently for information about LIHEAP, a reflection of the paralyzing fear $3 and higher per-gallon oil instills. Yet, around the table at B-Street, those who receive assistance repeated how difficult it is to even ask for it.

Or, how it’s others who really need the help. “I’m sure there are people worse off than me,” said Reta Bowen, a widow from Wilton who keeps her home at 60 degrees during the winter.

Unless a miracle occurs and oil prices plummet, this coming winter could be the most trying in recent history. Reliance on rugged individualism and pride to get through, rather than asking for help, could be deadly. The Maine way, as Snowe called it, in this looming crisis is not the right way.

The senator is setting the right example. In needling her congressional colleagues to support LIHEAP and other assistances, Snowe has gotten what she wanted. If she felt it was pride-bruising to ask for their assistance, these programs that help so many Mainers each year might not exist.

And Snowe is still asking. For the sake of her efforts, so should everyone that might need help.


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