He started as a farm boy in an Oklahoma town of maybe 400 people and wound up being Maine’s top law enforcement official.
Along the way, Steven Rowe became a West Point graduate, an Army commander, a single father, a corporate attorney and speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
Now, at 57. he wants to be Maine’s next governor. He says his upbringing, his service in the Army and his work as a public servant in Maine all speak to what he sees as his greatest strength — his work ethic.
“That’s why I think I’m the best candidate to carry the Democratic banner,” said Rowe. “No one works harder.”
Rowe faces three opponents in the party’s primary June 8 — Pat McGowan of Hallowell, Elizabeth Mitchell of Vassalboro and Rosa Scarcelli of Portland.
Rowe was the middle child of five on a farm that at times raised alfalfa, cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, horses, cows and ducks. He and his siblings did farm chores.
His father was a farmer who also worked as a welder, a carpenter and a railroad brakeman. He was also a World War II veteran who served on the local school board.
His mother was a stay-at-home mom whose formal education had ended in eighth grade, when she left school to take care of younger siblings. After her youngest child graduated from high school, she got a college degree to become a teacher and a librarian.
Rowe worked a variety of jobs as a boy, removing trash on Saturdays, selling produce, assisting a surveyor on a dam project. When he was 15, he went to Montana to work with a wheat combining crew. That upbringing, he said, began to form his work ethic.
That farm boy is still apparent. He and his wife, Amanda, a school nurse, keep chickens at their home in Portland.
Supporters describe Rowe as a man who works tirelessly, and is honest and straightforward. Former Senate President Beth Edmonds worked on issues with Rowe, when he was attorney general, including attempts to get ahead of the spread of methamphetamine into Maine.
“He was somebody who sort of saw problems and seized them,” said Edmonds. “We always are trying to catch up with all the things that go kerflooey in the world. Steve’s somebody who understands most of the difficulties we have are long-term problems, and they need long-term solutions. And they need someone to think about how they started.”
Rowe said his priorities as governor would be the same ones he had as a legislator and, to a degree, as attorney general: job creation, a strong education system (particularly early education), and making sure the state’s people are healthy and its government is efficient.
As speaker of the House, he pushed for bonds for community colleges and sponsored the Fund for a Healthy Maine, using the state’s share of tobacco settlement money to support public health programs.
As attorney general, he said, he tried to address the root causes of things like teen drinking.
He worked with other attorneys general on initiatives to address teen drinking and prescription drug pricing. He joined efforts to protect Maine’s environment by litigating state and federal environmental laws, and successfully argued a Clean Water Act case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
State Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, was in the House when Rowe was speaker. Trahan, a conservative-leaning Republican who is leading efforts to repeal a Democratic-supported tax restructuring law, called Rowe “an honorable man.”
“Philosophically, politically, we differ, but Steve Rowe’s a straight shooter,” said Trahan. “He was a lot less partisan than a lot of the speakers I’ve known. His beliefs run liberal, but I think he meant to do right for the state of Maine.”
If Rowe takes good qualities from his upbringing, he also exhibits some that can be challenging for a man who’s running for statewide office.
He has said at numerous debates and interviews that he’s not slick or polished, and doesn’t speak in sound bites. He resists quick answers and instead attempts to delve into in-depth policy discussions at debates, where answers must be brief.
“He’s not your standard politician, because he’s busy trying to figure out the solutions, not necessarily trying to figure out how to make a point in public for himself,” said Edmonds.
In Maine, he was first elected to the House in 1992, taking on an incumbent Democrat to win his seat. He became speaker in 1998 — without first holding a leadership position in the House, such as majority leader or whip. In 2001, he became attorney general after successfully challenging the incumbent Democrat, Andrew Ketterer.
In all those endeavors, one-on-one impressions were key. Winning a House seat involves a lot of door-to-door conversations. The speaker is selected by the House members and the attorney general is elected by secret ballot during a joint session of the Legislature.
“The challenge is going to be not sounding like a wonk when talking to larger groups, distilling the essence, making it believable. That’s what he keeps getting better and better at,” said Edmonds.
Rowe came to Maine in 1981 with his current wife, a South Portland native. The two met in the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was a captain in logistical command and she was a pediatric nurse practitioner.
Rowe had served at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany, where he was an infantry platoon leader in the late 1970s. When he got back from Germany, his first wife left him and Rowe became a single parent with three children, ages 2, 4 and 6.
Rowe credits his military background with teaching him about leadership, and cites the West Point motto — “Duty, Honor, Country” — as a key part of his makeup.
“Clearly, I learned about that, about leadership, about the importance of planning, of executing according to plan,” said Rowe. “I approach things with a can-do attitude. I look at not just trying to do a million things at once, but a few things, focus and move on.”
He recalled two commanders who had different leadership styles. One was “physically impressive,” and would constantly criticize troops in front of other troops. He didn’t inspire confidence, said Rowe, but had a style more focused on fear and intimidation.
The second company commander, said Rowe, set high goals and inspired his troops to meet them. Rowe said he modeled his style after that commander.
“Leadership is about inspiring people to accomplish the goal and vision because they understand the importance of achieving the objective,” he said.
When he and his family moved to Maine, his wife had a job teaching nursing, then became a nurse with Portland Public Schools. He got a job in marketing at Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland, having earned his MBA. He went to the University of Maine School of Law and got his law degree.
In the community, he taught Sunday school, coached youth baseball and served on the PTO at both Longfellow Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools.
“I never had any goals to run for governor back when I was 30-whatever years old. This has been a progression,” said Rowe. “I was trying to do public service at a level where I thought I could make a contribution.”
After reaching his term limit as attorney general, he looked to a higher office where he thought his skills and abilities would benefit the state, he said.
“I saw other opportunities as governor that I did not have as attorney general, with respect to state government, and with working with other governors and Congress,” said Rowe.
“Our best days are ahead, I really believe that,” said Rowe. “It’s going to take planning, and it’s going to take people who are hard workers.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: