AUGUSTA – He got the bug while sitting with his grandmother outside the polling place in rural Washington County, as she checked off names of local Republicans as they performed their civic duty.
“Eventually the local Republican Party chair would come over and ask, ‘How are we doing?’ and she’d let him know who hadn’t shown up yet. Then he’d walk off and a bit later, those folks would show up to vote,” said Sen. Kevin Raye, the presumptive Senate president.
The Republican from Perry said he remembered thinking that process was “so neat.”
Raye has since become dedicated to Maine politics, serving 18 years on the staff of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, making a failed run for Congress in 2002 against U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, and finally winning a state Senate seat in 2004.
With his wife, Karen, Raye also owns Raye’s Old Fashioned Gourmet Mustard, a fourth-generation family business in Washington County that started in 1909.
“I’ve always though public service was a very honorable thing, a good way to serve people and make a mark in life,” he said in a recent interview. “From the time I was a little kid I was drawn to it — I loved politics, elections and government from the time I was old enough to read.”
It was a letter he penned to a state legislator as a teenager that helped shape his career.
“I was 15 or 16 years old when I wrote that letter to (Snowe) and she wrote back this handwritten letter — she answered all my questions and then sometime after that she called me on the phone and she was in Washington County and she wanted to come meet me,” he said. “So, from that point on I was sold.”
After graduating from Bates College, Raye joined Snowe’s staff. He served in Bangor as her district director for 11 years, before moving to Washington, D.C., and working as her chief of staff upon her election to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
He left in 2001 to run against Michaud.
John Richter, Snowe’s current chief of staff who worked with Raye for many years and is a close friend, said Raye is a “tireless, hard worker” with a deep sense of duty.
“He is in office and in public service for the best of reasons — because he thinks he can make a difference, because he is someone who thinks that the process and the system ought to be made to work for people and that it’s about results and solutions and getting things done,” Richter said in a recent interview.
Similar to Snowe, he added, Raye has an ability to work productively with people of differing political beliefs.
“He’s always had that innate sense of being able to work with people regardless necessarily of political persuasion for, frankly, the common good,” Richter said. “It’s the ability to put labels aside when necessary and that doesn’t mean putting aside principles by any stretch. But it does mean looking for ways to forge consensus.”
Raye, who will lead a 21-member Senate Republican caucus, said the biggest challenge facing the new Legislature will be the budget.
“It’s going to be very difficult. We know that. But we’ve got to be able to do it, and do it thoughtfully,” he said, adding that the other imperative would be to improve Maine’s business climate — a strong Republican campaign theme.
“We have an obligation to do it, so that as the recovery gets underway, we’ll be in a position to really leverage it and do better for Maine — because even before the economy went down, Maine was doing badly, vis-a-vis other states,” Raye said.
Sen. Jon Courtney, the incoming majority leader, served with Raye as minority Republican leaders over the past two years.
“He’s one of the most intense, passionate people I know. I’ve been really honored to work with Kevin, he’s been inclusive and he’s been able to do something that I’ve been learning from my Dad — he sees beyond the immediate circumstances and that’s a terrific trait,” said Courtney.
As Senate president, Raye has responsibilities to the entire state, but did acknowledge his roots would shine through.
“I’m glad to be in a position where I can help remind people about Washington County and sort of the unique circumstances that we’ve faced for so long.
“You know, many people in Washington County have felt, over the years, forgotten,” he said, “almost as if, the fact that our unemployment has been higher, our poverty levels have been higher, that is sort of accepted. And we don’t accept it. It’s the way things are, but there’s nobody in Washington County who feels that’s OK.”
“I do feel a special obligation to represent a part of Maine that has often been left behind,” Raye said.
MaineToday State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: