PORTLAND – When Steve Abbott crossed the Charles River daily from Harvard’s classrooms to its football practice fields, he would often pause to read the inscription on the bronze plaque at Anderson Memorial Yard: “May this bridge, connecting the College Yard and playing fields of Harvard, be an ever present reminder to students passing over it of loyalty to country and Alma Mater.”
The words “loyalty to country” meant something to him, said Abbott. They reinforced his desire to work in public service. After college, he worked on political campaigns in Maine and eventually became U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ chief of staff, a position he held for the last dozen years.
Public service, said Abbott, is what has driven him to run for governor of Maine on the Republican ticket. For Abbott, being governor would be an opportunity to shape the future of the state.
“I am a Mainer, I love the state, I believe in the state,” said Abbott. “We’re at a point now where there’s going to be a restructuring in Maine, because of the financial situation. Things are going to look different. Now is our chance to set what our course is going to be. I want to have a say in what that looks like.”
Abbott, 47, is in a crowded field for the June 8 primary. He is running against Bill Beardsley of Ellsworth, Matt Jacobson of Cumberland, Paul LePage of Waterville, Peter Mills of Cornville, Les Otten of Greenwood and Bruce Poliquin of Georgetown.
He is seen, to an extent, as the Republican establishment’s candidate, with key endorsements from figures like House Minority Leader Joshua Tardy, former House Minority Leader Joe Bruno, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jon Courtney, Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue, and Peter Cianchette, former ambassador to Costa Rica and the 2002 GOP nominee for governor.
Cianchette said the crowded field with viable candidates makes it hard for anyone to distinguish themselves. But, he said, Abbott’s commitment to public service should stand out.
“It’s more than just a love of government and politics. It’s more about serving the state,” said Cianchette. “We’ve had many conversations. It’s entirely genuine. He feels it as part of his responsibility to try to make a better place.”
Abbott’s looking to draw votes from both Portland, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and two young children, Hannah and Henry, and from Orono, where he grew up.
Abbott’s father was the football coach at the University of Maine. His mother was an elementary school reading teacher.
The university campus was like a playground for Abbott and his friends, he said. He would spend most fall days hanging out at practices; during the football season they were some of the only times he would see his dad. He was a ball boy for the games and was on the sidelines from the age of 7 on.
He says he learned about determination, dedication and hard work from watching his father and the players. Sports and competition would pervade his life. He played football, basketball, baseball for a year and track for three years at Orono High School.
He played football on the Harvard College team, playing on two Ivy League championship teams and serving as team captain in 1984.
After college, many of his friends headed to Wall Street — it was the mid-’80s. Abbott headed home, worked at summer sports camps and began to substitute teach in the fall.
He was interested in politics, and UMaine professor Charlie “Chick” O’Leary — who would later head the Maine AFL/CIO — tried to get him on some Democratic campaigns. Abbott explained that he was a Republican, and O’Leary called John McKernan, who was running for governor. The fact that O’Leary would reach out to a Republican for him made a real impression, said Abbott.
“It’s OK if you have philosophical disagreements. If you have good people involved, then government can do good things. That’s the lesson I learned from Chick O’Leary — it stayed with me my whole life,” said Abbott.
Abbott worked with McKernan, driving him all over the state. He later worked for McKernan’s wife, Olympia Snowe, as a computer operator and mail tracker.
“The thing I saw right away was that you can have an impact. Even though the government’s big, there’s a lot to it, and moving the government is a hard thing to do, even a kid out of college can have an impact,” said Abbott. “There are no real barriers to entry there; they are looking for people to help.”
He worked for Snowe for about a year and a half, then returned to school to get his law degree at the University of Maine School of Law. In his first year there he met Deborah Shaw, whom he would work with later at Pierce Atwood.
It was an election year, and Abbott was clearly supporting George Bush, while Shaw was a Mike Dukakis fan, she recalled. Despite political differences, they became good friends, and remain so today. In fact, Shaw switched parties recently so she could vote for Abbott in the primary.
“Here’s why I think he’s just perfect for the job: he really is a natural leader. People do gravitate toward him, he can listen to your views, he can disagree with them,” said Shaw. “He never diminishes your views, he’s respectful of opinions and can absolutely work across the aisles.”
While working at Pierce Atwood, he became interested in Susan Collins’ 1994 run for governor. He volunteered for the campaign, and soon found himself running it. They lost, but a few years later, Collins reached out again to Abbott, to help run her Senate bid. This time, she won. The next winter, she offered him the chief of staff position. He began in May 1997
In that position, he essentially had to anticipate Collins’ needs. Her schedule is planned to the minute — she has no time to waste. So it was Abbott who would direct her staff, make the office work. Much of what he learned on the job is applicable to being governor, said Abbott.
“Being governor is like being chief of staff. Instead of reporting to a senator, you report to the people,” he said.
In particular, he pointed to the intense pre-loading that goes into the process of filing a federal bill. He contrasted it with the system in Maine, where the work generally starts when a bill is filed.
“All that time we spend meeting with experts from both sides — proponents, opponents, you line up co-sponsors, how can we fix that, what’s wrong with that idea, all that piece you do before you introduce the bill, so your product is pretty good. You know who your friends are, who your opponents are, your friends know what you’re doing, your opponents know what you’re doing. That’s something we can do in Maine, and I think the governor’s got to provide that leadership.”
He learned how the various parts of Washington work together, from the administration to the Senate, the House and all the connections in between. As governor, there’s a lot of work that’s done with Washington, he said, and he would have a handle on that.
“Government’s government. There’s a lot of those lessons you can translate,” he said.
Abbott has talked about making the state more business-friendly, supporting higher education and even bonding, for long-term infrastructure improvements. He has spoken in favor of looking at an east-west highway, as well.
He said he’s from the “leave me alone” wing of the Republican Party, something he said he thinks will resonate with unenrolled voters and even Democrats.
“As governor, I want people to be able to work, to be able to make a living, and I want government to leave them alone,” said Abbott. “That’s what Maine is. We’ve got 400 years of that tradition, and we’re losing that right now. That’s what has to be changed in this state.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]