First in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
PORTLAND – Rick Bennett was once the fastest-rising young star in Maine’s Republican Party. Now he’s hoping to add a second act.
Bennett joined the GOP state committee at age 20, was the Maine spokesman for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign at 21 and got elected to the Maine House of Representatives at 27.
At 31, he ran for Congress, coming up just 5 percentage points behind Democrat John Baldacci, a future two-term governor.
In 2001, at 37, Bennett became president of the Maine Senate after brokering a unique power-sharing arrangement with the Democrats’ own rising star, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
Now, after an eight-year hiatus from elective office, the 48-year-old business executive is one of six Republicans seeking Olympia Snowe’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
Bennett insists he was perfectly happy running an investment research company and raising two teenagers. But, he says, Snowe’s departure and his frustration with Washington changed his plans.
“I’m very worried about the future of our republic,” Bennett said. “The United States Senate, as Olympia Snowe said, is totally dysfunctional.”
Bennett is now reintroducing himself to voters, including many Republican activists unfamiliar with his early success in the party.
His pragmatic style and moderate social views — he has a pro-choice voting record, for example — don’t endear him to some in the party’s conservative wing. But long-timers from both parties say his experience in politics and business and his powerful connections make Bennett one of the top contenders in the race. He raised more money in March — $107,659 — than the other five Republicans combined.
“Bennett has always been very tactical and practical. He takes a very pragmatic approach to getting things done,” said former Maine Sen. Peter Mills, a longtime Republican legislator and now the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Bennett first got interested in politics while at Yarmouth High School. He majored in government at Harvard University, writing his honors thesis on Maine politics.
Bennett settled in Oxford County, where his family goes back several generations. He started a small newspaper and worked for a company that made manufactured homes. He also started a political career, which was an almost overnight success.
“He burst onto the scene,” Mills recalled.
The articulate, good-looking Harvard grad won an open seat representing Norway in the Maine House. Then he made a statewide name for himself walking 750 miles across the state as the Republican nominee in the ’94 congressional race. That campaign, coincidentally, also was prompted by Olympia Snowe, who gave up her House seat to run for Senate.
Bennett used his experience to lead a Republican comeback in the Legislature in contentious campaigns in 2000 and 2002. “He led us back to a point of parity,” Mills said.
The 2000 election ended in Maine’s first-ever evenly divided state Senate, with 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent. Jill Goldthwait from Bar Harbor was the independent, and some thought she would let Democrats control leadership, committees and agendas. Bennett, then the youngest member of the Senate at 37, was chosen as the Republican leader.
“I went to Jill and said, ‘Let’s try something different. Let’s show we can actually create function out of chaos,’ ” Bennett said.
Bennett, Goldthwait and Michaud, the Democrats’ leader, worked out a complex power-sharing deal. Michaud and Bennett would take turns as Senate president and Goldthwait would chair the powerful Appropriations Committee. Bennett and Michaud flipped a coin to see who would get first pick of committee leadership, then alternated picks like team captains on a playground.
Bennett’s reputation as clever and ambitious worried some Democrats. “Some of my colleagues were extremely skeptical and didn’t trust him,” Michaud remembered.
“There were a couple of times when it could potentially have blown up, but did not blow up,” Michaud said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Rick. It worked out very well.”
The Senate still had its partisan arguments and party-line votes, but Bennett proved he could work across party lines, said Michaud, who still considers Bennett a friend. “Every now and then we’ll go out and have dinner together,” Michaud said.
The timing of Bennett’s rise to leadership in the state Senate could spice up this fall’s election if Bennett becomes the Republican nominee. That’s because the governor he butted heads with at the time was Angus King, the independent now considered the frontrunner for Snowe’s seat.
Bennett’s power-sharing deal didn’t mean he lost his partisan fervor.
After the 2002 election, he faced a backlash for Republican campaign mailings aimed at a Democratic representative and alluding to his British upbringing. Bennett publicly took responsibility as leader of the party and apologized to voters and both candidates.
Bennett left the Senate in 2004, but remained active in the party. He is now in his fourth year as Maine’s Republican national committeeman. When he left the Senate, however, his business career heated up.
Robert A.G. Monks, a former Republican Senate candidate from Cape Elizabeth, had hired Bennett to help expand shareholder rights in American corporations. Bennett put his political skills to work reforming corporate boardrooms, sometimes by putting forward shareholder proposals and running slates of dissident candidates, he said.
Bennett eventually became chief executive officer of GMI Ratings. The Portland-based company has 42 employees in Maine and researches the world’s largest corporations, warning institutional investors about red flags such as excessive compensation for executives who may not deserve it.
Bennett’s business experience has added a new edge to his political speeches. He talks often about the “collusion between big government and big business,” for example.
“We need to say that corporations are not people,” Bennett said. “Our political system was built for people and the interests of people. The amount of money that corporations spend in government is unseemly.”
Monks said Bennett has international respect in the field of corporate governance, and many times flew around the world to present reform proposals to all types of companies.
“By the next morning when Rick went in (to the board rooms), he knew all about the business. He was extremely clever and persuasive,” Monks said. “I think Rick’s business career is a real important asset to the people of Maine.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: