Northern Light

"We're slightly off course. But we wanted to let the trainee run the boat," jokes Chellie Pingree over the din of an outboard motor. It's a chilly, starlit September night off the coast of Rockland, Maine, and Pingree -- a onetime farmer, divorced mother of three, former owner of a wool-knitting business and progressive Democratic Senate candidate -- is providing navigation advice laced with good-natured jabs. Soon she pauses to explain some nautical terminology: A "gong" is a buoy equipped with a bell that rings when waves slap against it; a "spindle" is a tall metal pole with a reflector light that warns boaters about ledges of rock jutting out of the water. Along with the boat's compass, Trip ("the trainee") is using these landmarks to steer, doing it "the old-fashioned way" because the boat's Global Positioning System isn't working. Our destination: North Haven, population 350, an island 12 miles off the Maine coast that's home to scores of rugged lobstermen. Pingree has lived here for three decades; the island served, improbably if also picturesquely, as the launching point of her political career.

Out on the open water, Pingree is clearly in her element. Indeed, despite a grueling day spent talking to newspaper editorial boards, a Rotary club in Rockland and at a fundraiser in Harpswell, the woman once called the "Great Blond Hope" of Democratic progressives shifts easily from politics to a completely different form of knowledge: a mastery of boating and island history. ("Today there are 14 island communities [in Maine]; at the turn of the century there were 300," she explains at one point.) It's a mood that not even accusations of negative campaigning from Pingree's opponent, Republican junior Sen. Susan Collins, can deflate. "I don't think anyone should be a victim in politics," Pingree told the Rotarians earlier in the day. Tomorrow she will take her own advice, celebrating a day off by going kayaking.

While in the Maine Senate, where she rose to the rank of majority leader before being term-limited out in 2001, Pingree found time to contribute to a book titled Sustaining Island Communities: The Story of the Economy and Life of Maine's Year-Round Islands. The collection is actually thematically very close to her current Senate campaign. In her political ads and rapid-fire stump speeches, Pingree hones in on pocketbook issues, especially prescription drugs and corporate accountability. But she often approaches them not so much as an outraged corporate watchdog but from the folksy perspective of a small businessperson trying to keep the island's only general store running. Pingree observes that the difference between Democrats and Naderites resembles the difference between journalism and poetry: The poems may be good, but chances are few people will read them.

So call Pingree's gritty approach island populism, if you like. It's as good a name as any. Whatever you call it, it has Collins looking over her shoulder. Pingree's name recognition has shot up over the course of the summer; she has signed up a legion of inspired volunteers for a "frenetic ground campaign," as a Maine Democratic Party spokeswoman puts it; and a new Democratic poll says she trails Collins (who's at 47 percent) by just nine points. National Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and, most recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have stopped by to campaign for Pingree and have brought word about her crowds back to Washington. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee now rates Maine in its "top tier of races," according to spokeswoman Tovah Ravitz.

Collins has sought to blunt Pingree's health-care onslaught by running her own ads calling for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. And the specter of war with Iraq -- which Mainers keep asking about and which seems to get Pingree out of her comfort zone -- looms in the background of everything. Nevertheless, Democrats, progressives and labor types find themselves not just hoping but feeling in their bones that a gust of Maine populism, merging with the corporate accountability zeitgeist, could catch in Chellie's sails and carry her to Washington.

To be sure, part of it is that Pingree is such an inherently Romantic character. The fact that she hails from somewhere as idyllic as North Haven -- where people leave their keys in their cars so neighbors can borrow them, and where ospreys and bald eagles are spotted so frequently that the natives have almost become desensitized to their magnificence -- has a way of making pretty much anything seem possible. But as recently as a few months ago, very few seriously expected that Pingree would give Collins a run for it. After Pingree ditched her gubernatorial ambitions and announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the spring of 2001, the Portland Phoenix proclaimed, "If Maine political history is a guide, she will be trounced so badly that she will never be able to return to politics." And that was the perspective from relatively safe (and extremely crunchy) Pingree territory. Up north, an editorial in the Collins-adoring Bangor Daily News -- whose current executive editor, Mark Woodward, left the paper briefly to serve as Collins' communications director in 1997 -- recently compared Collins to the legendary Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith.

Not all Republicans have been fully convinced of Collins' invulnerability: In the now notorious, misplaced Karl Rove strategy memo discovered by Democrats and the media in June, Maine appeared in light-blue shading, indicating a possible Democratic Senate pickup. And John Reisman, a Maine Republican candidate for the U.S. House in 1998 and a professor at the University of Maine at Machias, is convinced that Pingree will win because Collins' conservative base is so "ticked off" by her refusal to vote to convict Clinton in 1998. All of which is fine with Pingree: "I would say the best thing we've done in this race is we've finally gotten to a point where people say, 'Well, I'm not sure what's going to happen.'"

For political lore collectors, the race presents a key interest: Not only is it the first all-woman general election in Maine since 1960, but both women in this race are unmarried. Pingree is divorced, with all of her children now in their 20s and working on her campaign (one daughter, Hannah, is also running for state office); Collins has never been married. Not that Mainers seem to care much about such matters.

By one criterion, the populist premise of Pingree's campaign violates a maxim of Maine politics: centrism. As Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor and frequent consultant to moderate Republicans and Independent Governor Angus King, puts it, "The center holds in Maine." The argument is that as denizens of the 40th most populous state (which has just two House seats), Mainers wisely cast their Senate ballots for centrists who can become Washington power brokers by working both sides of the aisle. In this scenario, the ideal politician would seem to be a moderate Republican qua Democrat such as former Sen. William Cohen. (One problem with the analysis is that two of Maine's most effective senators, George Mitchell and Edmund Muskie, were strong Democratic partisans.) Mainers also vote in high numbers and, with more unaffiliated or minor party voters in the state than either Democrats or Republicans, split their tickets with vigor. In the last election, they voted slimly for Al Gore but overwhelmingly to re-elect senior Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

To some extent, Chellie Pingree, too, thwarts typical political taxonomies: She was a small-business owner and came to politics from the private sector, a typical Republican story line; she was also first elected in a county that was only 20 percent Democratic. On North Haven, she rubs shoulders with Maine's most rustic types on a regular basis. Yet when it comes to Pingree's core issues, she's strongly populist and at least fairly partisan. Before her boat trip to North Haven, for instance, she told assembled Rotarians, "I don't want to see Trent Lott as the majority leader again," thus more or less painting Collins as an enabler of the entire Republican right wing.

The bedrock of Pingree's campaign has been her record in the Maine Legislature, one that seems eerily tailored to the current political moment. Her unprecedented Maine Rx bill, for example, allows the state to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers to land big discounts for seniors. Though implementation of the program has been delayed because of court challenges, Pingree hammers on drug prices in her stump speech, mentioning a recent trip to Canada to help seniors buy drugs that she says saved 25 people a dramatic $18,000.

On a related front, in 1998, Pingree pushed through a law mandating that corporations report how they are using tax breaks and subsidies received from the state of Maine. In keeping with her island populism, the bill actually arose out of Pingree's experiences chairing Maine's Committee on Housing and Economic Development and a think tank called the Economic Growth Council. Now, she's using the law as a platform to take on corporate tax havens, which a Collins spokesperson recently labeled "un-American" but which the senator herself has not pledged to oppose.

Both of these pieces of legislation have been models for other states. Pingree herself served as a fellow at the Center for Policy Alternatives, which encourages states to be laboratories of progressive reform. Such a combination of proven legislative history and outspoken advocacy has pumped up the grass-roots network of Maine unions and other progressive groups, some of whom are swearing Pingree is the best candidate they've seen in decades.

Of course, Pingree's effectiveness has also ensured that corporations, in what looks likely to be the most expensive political race in Maine history, will do anything to stop her. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of the end of June, 78 percent of Collins' political action committee (PAC) campaign donations came from business, and just 4 percent from labor. For Pingree -- who as of the same time had raised $ 2.3 million to Collins' $ 3.1 million -- the ratios are roughly reversed, but Collins has vastly more PAC money overall.

Occasionally Pingree has gotten herself into trouble by speaking freely, as when The Nation's John Nichols quoted her referring to the presidential election as "stolen," a word Pingree claims she never actually used but that Collins criticized her for. Similarly, at her Harpswell fundraiser, Pingree came close to suggesting that George W. Bush was playing a "wag-the-dog" strategy with Iraq, something that is probably true but still a potentially perilous statement for a politician. Asked to clarify, Pingree says she thinks the focus on Iraq "might be an intentional effort" to take general economic security issues "off the front burner."

At the end of the day, of course, the real issue will be whether Mainers are able to make the connection between national corporate scandals and their own lives. "You turn on the radio, at least once a month, and hear about a major layoff," Pingree says. "People hear about it all the time, so they have an underlying feeling of insecurity. ... I think it's a more dramatic time in our lives than people understand."