State Sen. Rochelle Pingree

AUGUSTA, Me.–As eight-year term limits began closing in on many of the seasoned women legislators in Maine’s state Capitol, state Sen. Rochelle “Chellie” Pingree, the Democrat from the island of North Haven, knew there was just one thing to do–recruit more women candidates.

A lot more.

Right now, 26 women are running for seats in the 35-member state Senate (20 Democrats, 5 Republicans, 1 Independent) and 71 women are running for one of the 151 seats in the state House of Representatives (42 Democrats, 26 Republicans, 2 Independents, 1 Green Independent).

What’s more, polls show that U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has an overwhelming lead over her Democratic challenger, state Senate President Mark Lawrence, in her bid for re-election. That means the state will almost certainly continue to have two female U.S. Senators, out of the national total of nine women in the Senate.

With a speed made possible by Maine’s remarkably open political process, Pingree and Senate President Lawrence began lining up women to run, especially for the state senate.

“We tried to recruit women because they work hard on the campaign–we go into a campaign thinking we have to work ten times harder–and they make good legislators, besides,” Pingree said in a recent interview. “And I think more women should serve in elective office.”

The women-focused strategy and a targeted candidate training program, conceived when Republicans won control of the state senate in 1994, have paid off.

In 1996, Democrats won back control of the 35-seat senate. By 1998, women dominated the Democratic caucus, with women holding 12 of 20 Democratic seats. The party caucus named Pingree majority leader. State Sen. Anne Rand of Portland serves as assistant majority leader.

Across the aisle, Republican Sen. Jane Amero of the coastal town of Cape Elizabeth serves as minority leader. At the end of her own eight-year term limit, Amero is now the Republican candidate for Congress in Maine’s 1st congressional district, challenging U.S. Rep. Thomas Allen, a popular Portland Democrat.

In Maine, the face of politics has long been female to a remarkable extent.

At the federal level, Maine is the only state to have elected three women to the U.S. Senate in their own right. The first was the late Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican who served three terms in the Senate from 1949 to 1973, after serving in the House of Representatives from 1940 to 1949. She also was the first woman to serve in the House and the Senate. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins–both Republicans who support abortion rights–followed with victories in the 1994 and 1996 elections. Snowe also served in the U.S. House from 1979 to 1995 after beginning her political career in the Maine House of Representatives.

Though the legacy of Margaret Chase Smith is often cited as a source of inspiration, Maine was a leader in the proportion of women serving in legislative office even before Smith landed on the national stage. The state has ranked among the top ten in the proportion of women in the legislature for seven decades, though this term it is not among the top ten.

Since 1985, the proportion of women in the Maine Legislature has varied between 23.7 percent and a high of 32.8 percent in the early 1990s. In the latest session, women constitute 45.7 percent of the state Senate and 23.8 percent of the state House of Representatives, for an overall proportion of women of 28 percent. Nationwide, women hold 22.5 percent of all the state legislative seats.

Politicians and analysts say that the political culture in Maine, like a handful of other northern states, lends itself to a better representation of women than in states with more entrenched old-boy networks.

“We have this history of women in leadership,” Pingree said. “It might be because women have always taken care of town politics, but there’s no question that as a state we have a greater level of comfort with the idea of women being in charge.”

Maine, along with Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as seven Western states, consistently rank high in the proportion of women legislators, according to a spokeswoman at the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

“It’s these frontier, independent-minded states where there’s that spirit that women can do well, and they do do well,” said Gilda Morales, a program coordinator at the center at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics. “To voters there, a woman candidate does not seem strange.”

This long tradition of electing women to the legislature has now combined with Maine’s maturing term limits and its open political process to propel women into leadership posts.

  • In 1994, state Rep. Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell became Maine’s first woman Speaker of the House. The seat became available when the long-reigning former speaker, John L. Martin, was forced out by term limits. Mitchell, who once was the Democratic candidate challenging former U.S. Sen. William Cohen, served just one term as speaker before facing term limits herself.
  • In 1996, then-state Rep. Carol Kontos, a Democrat, served as majority leader in the House of Representatives. She has since been elected to the state senate.

Because Maine has a small population of about 1.2 million and a relatively large legislature, becoming a legislator is much easier than in bigger states, or than in states with entrenched party systems. With just about 10,000 constituents per seat in the state house, candidates routinely knock on every door in a district before getting elected. It’s a system called a “citizen’s legislature” that Maine officials are proud of. Someone who wants to run for office basically will be encouraged, Pingree says.

Party leaders and analysts differ in their assessments of the long-run impact that term limits will have on women’s status in the legislature.

Polly Kaufman, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, says term limits have had an ambiguous effect. “Without term limits, you can’t get men out of the way to make spaces for women and new faces. On the other hand, some of our women had just made it into positions of authority and then they hit the term limits.”

Amero, the Republican who is minority leader in the senate and a congressional candidate, says she is optimistic.

“Term limits have provided an opportunity for more women in the legislative leadership because it sort of levels the playing field,” Amero said. “When you have a level playing field, women usually come out on top because we prepare more and we work harder.”

Pingree, the Democrat who is the senate majority leader, says she is more pessimistic in the long run. “In the beginning, term limits were good because it’s opened some doors. In the long run, overall, I think it will be bad. That’s why we have to be vigilant.”

Ironically, Maine is one of two states never to have elected a woman to statewide office, a distinction shared by West Virginia. Only the governor is elected statewide.

Two women do hold statewide offices, however. State Treasurer Dale McCormick–a popular Democrat who narrowly lost the primary for the 1st congressional district to Tom Allen in 1996–and state Auditor Gail Chase both were elected by the legislature. Both are the first women to hold those positions.

Pingree hopes to cure this shortfall in Maine’s political history. After completing her term in December, she plans a race for governor.

Marie Tessier is a free-lance writer living in Bangor, Me. She is a commentator on Maine media, a contributor to public radio and adjunct assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maine.