During her 39 years as a lawmaker, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has worked to protect the rights of Maine’s commercial fishermen, advocated for small-business owners and fought to save the Brunswick Naval Air Station.
But she won’t be remembered as a champion of causes, said Oliver Woshinsky, a retired political science professor from the University of Southern Maine.
“She was one of the last moderate Republicans,” he said. “That’s what made her stand out.”
Throughout her career, Snowe has shown a willingness to cross party lines.
In July of 2010, she became one of only three Republican senators, including Susan Collins of Maine, who supported President Obama’s landmark financial reform bill. Her support of the bill – she was lobbied hard by the president – allowed the legislation to pass.
Also in 2010, Snowe voted with her party against Obama’s health care reform legislation.
Woshinsky said he has admired Snowe’s independence. “She was a very decent person who never became part of the shouting culture that has become so predominant in Washington,” he said.
Born in Augusta on Feb. 21, 1947, Snowe celebrated her 65th birthday last week.
She was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1973, filling the seat left vacant by the death of her husband, Peter Snowe. She was re-elected to the House in 1974, then was elected to the Maine Senate in 1976.
In 1978, Snowe won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served for 16 years.
In 1994, she was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first woman in America to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress. She was Maine’s second female senator, following the late Margaret Chase Smith, who served from 1949 to 1973.
Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College who wrote “This Splendid Game, Maine Campaigns and Elections, 1940-2002,” said there are many similarities between Snowe and Smith.
“They both had that independent streak and that willingness to fight even their own party on matters of principle,” Potholm said.
Potholm, who is a Republican, said Snowe has won more federal elections in Maine than any other person since World War II. He said that fact impresses him more than whether Snowe was able to push through landmark legislation.
“She was very effective. I think the Republicans at the national level should have followed her example of making the Republican Party a big tent where everyone is welcome,” he said.
Woshinsky, who has donated to the campaign of Democrat Jon Hinck, a candidate for Snowe’s seat, said Snowe was not a true policy maker but was not afraid to take on a cause, especially if it affected her constituents in Maine.
In 2009, Snowe and Collins sponsored legislation to overturn proposed federal restrictions that fishermen said could have killed Maine’s groundfishing fleet. The rules would have cut fishing days across the board by 20 percent.
Snowe was not afraid to question Republican President George Bush’s policies. And she wasn’t timid about questioning government policy, even if it was advanced by her own party’s administration.
In 2006, Snowe, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Bush’s intelligence director, questioning the legality of the administration’s collection of millions of phone records of American citizens.
In 2005, print and television attack ads labeled U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as “an extremist.” The ads, which ran in Maine, were designed to persuade Snowe and Collins to oppose Roberts’ confirmation because he was too conservative.
Snowe voted to approve Roberts’ nomination.
Snowe broke with Republicans in 2004, voting to help defeat an amendment to the Constitution that would have prohibited same-sex couples from marrying. Snowe and Collins joined four other Republicans, 43 Democrats and one independent who voted against considering the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Throughout her years of service, Snowe kept her sense of humor.
In 2008, the town of Bethel built a 122-foot-tall mountain of snow named “Olympia,” in honor of the senator. The snowwoman stood nearly 10 feet taller than “Angus, King of the Mountain,” a snowman dedicated to the governor in 1999.
Snowe’s staff issued a statement that read, “I’ve joked that it’s just my luck I’d have a world record-breaking monument named after me – and it will be gone by summer.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]