Adrienne Bennett, 41, of Bangor says her experiences, beginning as a poor child, would make her a “fighter” if elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Living off welfare with her mother, Adrienne Bennett grew up in a shack in rural Maine, where she slept on a blue vinyl seat pulled from an old van.

Every morning, she would stack wood for the stove and walk past the outhouse to a neighbor’s house, where she would fill two old milk jugs with water.

Bennett was often sprinkled with soot by the time she reached the classroom. One day, a fellow fifth-grader at Unity Elementary School told Bennett, “Shut up, dirt!”

“People have been underestimating me all my life,” Bennett, 41, said.

As a kid, she added, “I had an attitude. I will prove you wrong. That was motivation for me.”

Now a Bangor real estate agent who served for seven years as Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary, Bennett is running for Maine’s 2nd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, facing former state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn and ex-state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon in a ranked-choice July 14 Republican primary contest.

The winner will face U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a first-term Lewiston Democrat, in the November general election.

Bennett said her early years are a source of strength, a launching pad from which a young woman possessing grit and determination could soar.

The odds were stacked against her from the start.

Her mother, who relied on government assistance to survive after a divorce when Bennett was still a toddler, aborted her first child and gave up a second child to adoption. Bennett was her third.

They lived together in Troy, with next to nothing in the way of conventional niceties — even for rural Maine.

“I was the dirty kid then,” Bennett said, with multiple bouts of lice, constantly judged by peers, teachers and neighbors. She said she constantly felt shame and anger.

Sports offered a path to something better, she said, because as “a bit of a tomboy,” she excelled at softball, a skill that helped her overcome some awkward years and develop some confidence.

“It allowed me to be good at something,” Bennett said, and to become a valued asset at third base for her teams.

Adrienne Bennett at a boxing club in her 20s. Provided

By Bennett’s senior year in high school, her mother, who had earned a college degree, moved to Ohio, leaving Bennett behind to fend for herself in Old Town at age 18. Bennett started to put herself through the University of Maine, but never finished.

Bennett said she loved to write, and had some poetry published in high school. She thought she might like to become a sports reporter, combining her passions.

She headed to the New England School of Communications, where she had a daughter, Katelin, in her last semester.

Then 20, she married Matthew Bennett, an ed tech, five months before their daughter’s birth.

Their wedding was the last time Bennett saw her mother, although they have spoken a little by telephone over the years.

Her father, a truck driver, was not a part of her life until she reached out to him during college. They have seen each other occasionally since, she said.

Bennett was always determined to make sure her daughter had a better life than she experienced growing up.

“I refused to bring up my family on welfare,” she said, “and I worked hard.”

She said she was determined to be a good example for her daughter.

For a time, both Katelin’s parents worked three jobs apiece to cover the cost of a house in Freedom and some beat-up cars, she said. Among them was a deejay business she ran that kept her busy with weddings, proms and such.

All of that hard work, combined with her journalism, turned her away from her Democratic roots. She became a Republican, Bennett said, because she realized her own journey of self-reliance was the path the GOP stood for.

Bennett became a producer for WABI-TV in Bangor, where she soon got a chance to become a videographer, an outlet that allowed for more creativity.

Within a decade, Bennett wound up as the station’s bureau chief in Waterville, doing four or five stories a day, and enjoying it.

When Bennett was not working, she loved to box, including one featured bout in her 20s at Wyman’s Boxing Club in Searsport, which she lost. She also got into CrossFit training, running and biking.

When LePage, who had been mayor of Waterville, won the governorship in 2010, he asked Bennett to serve as his press secretary, a move she called “a natural transition.”

She said she supported LePage’s policies, felt she was part of “a great team” and felt good about helping to empower ordinary Mainers to reach their potential.

Working at the television station and for LePage, she said she came to recognize the hazards of welfare dependency. Bennett said government assistance sapped her mother’s motivation to improve her circumstances.

Bennett said one of her mantras is: “You don’t have to be ashamed of where you came from. You determine where you want to go.”

Bennett said she told her daughter, who is in college, “to be kind and use your mind,” and never join the crowd in making fun of someone.

Divorced in 2014, Bennett has been single since. After working as LePage’s press secretary, she took a job as a bank vice president. A year later, at the end of the LePage’s term, she left that position for a policy role at the state Department of Labor.

That proved a tough time for her, when a confluence of events left her anxious and depressed enough to seek help from friends and professionals. She said her faith provided grounding, as well.

“I was extremely fortunate,” Bennett said, adding the experience convinced her of the need for mental health issues to get more attention.

She said she got into the congressional race “because I see the direction our country is going in.”

Her experiences, she said, provide her “a unique set of skills” that sets her apart.

“We need a fighter,” Bennett said.

This is the first of three profiles of the 2nd District Republican candidates in the July 14 primary. Absentee and early voting is underway.

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