Sara Gideon has donated $3.5 million of leftover campaign funds from her unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid to help low-income parents earn degrees and professional certifications.

Gideon said in a written statement that the donation will allow Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit civic legal aid and economic justice organization, to establish a new Build HOPE Project to help create pathways out of poverty for working parents and their children. The project will begin in January.

“This gift will provide immediate and significant support to working parents earning their degree, to their children – and ultimately to the entire state – by increasing the numbers of higher skilled workers badly needed by Maine’s employers and our economy,” Gideon said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Gideon said she was not available for an interview Wednesday. The former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives has kept a low-profile since the election loss in 2020 and had not spoken publicly about her plans for about $10 million in remaining campaign donations.

Maine Equal Justice, which works to increase economic security, opportunity and equity for people in Maine, announced the donation in a news release Wednesday.

The nonprofit noted that Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, sponsored a bill in 2018 that created the Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment, or HOPE, program at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That program is open to parents with household incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level who are pursing post-secondary degrees or credentials that the Department of Labor identifies as having employment potential.

The federal poverty level in 2021 for a family of four is $26,500.

The HOPE program is one way to address staffing shortages in health care by focusing on behavioral health and nursing fields. It’s currently serving 396 parents, with an additional 300 slots opening up because of an increase recently approved by the Maine Legislature, Maine Equal Justice said.

The new fund will help parents make ends meet while they pursue their educations, Maine Equal Justice Executive Director Robyn Merrill said in a statement.

“The HOPE Program provides critical support to low-income parents working their way through school. Help with child care, transportation, and books and supplies can make the difference when it comes to success completing a degree,” Merrill said. “But we also know there are gaps in support in the current program that can work to derail parents’ successful completion.”

Maine Equal Justice noted that a recent survey by DHHS found that 83 percent of HOPE students had difficulty paying bills at the end of each month, with 59 percent being just $100 to $300 short of meeting their family budget. About 60 percent of students couldn’t pay vehicle costs or buy school supplies. About half could not afford internet service and over 44 percent could not afford utility costs.

“The Build HOPE Fund will be there when students face an emergency car repair or a leaking pipe,” Merrill said. “It will be there when students cannot afford the internet they need for school or their groceries for the month.”

Gideon had a relatively huge amount of money leftover from her unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Susan Collins in the U.S. Senate. The race shattered Maine campaign fundraising records, with the candidates raising more than $104 million combined.

Gideon had about $15 million remaining on Election Day. She previously donated $4 million to other candidates, the Maine Democratic Party and other nonprofits – all of which are legal uses.

It’s unclear what Gideon plans to do with the remaining $6.5 million.

In 1995, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat and former Senate majority leader, used unspent campaign cash to launch the Mitchell Institute, which among other things awards $10,000 Mitchell Scholarship grants to graduating high school seniors in communities across the state.

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a long-serving Republican who did not seek re-election in 2012, used leftover campaign funds to start the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, which develops the leadership skills and aspirations of girls attending high schools statewide.


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