Fifth in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider has an impressive resume: champion rifle shooter, West Point graduate, Army special forces commander, drug prosecutor, state legislator, anti-terrorism coordinator, alpaca farmer.
What impresses many people more is how he has overcome an accident 27 years ago that broke his back and left him in a wheelchair.
Friends and former colleagues say Schneider’s personal strength, as much as his resume, is the reason they called him when they heard that U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, would retire at the end of this year.
“I immediately thought of him,” said Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who hired Schneider as an intern prosecutor two decades ago.
Schneider, 53, is one of six Republican candidates for the party’s nomination to succeed Snowe. The primary election will be held June 12.
Schneider’s military and legal background is considered a strong platform for a U.S. Senate candidate. He also is a politician who is personally liked by his adversaries, as well as his allies.
Of the six candidates, he raised the second-largest sum of money in the first month of his campaign — $40,095 in March, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
However, Schneider isn’t as well-known as some of his opponents. He’s not a natural self-promoter, and he isn’t the kind of partisan firebrand who attracts attention in a crowded primary race.
“Campaigning is tough for Bill because he can’t turn off the humble switch,” said Joseph Bruno, who served with Schneider in the Maine Legislature and is his campaign treasurer. But, Bruno said, “he’s done things in his life other people only think about.”
Schneider grew up in rural upstate New York, where he was a two-time state champion on his high school rifle team. He also was a good student, and turned down an offer from MIT to go to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“He was a great cadet, a good person. Everybody liked him,” said Ken Hamill, who was West Point’s rifle team coach and became a lifelong friend of Schneider. “He was meant to be successful. He’s got all of the attributes.”
Schneider was chosen captain of the West Point team, became an NCAA All-America marksman and tried out for the Olympic shooting squad, though he didn’t make the team.
As a young Army captain, he commanded a guard post 15 feet from the North Korean border. He later became a Green Beret, commanding a Special Forces Operational Detachment A, an A-Team, “a group of 12 of the best soldiers in the entire world,” Schneider says.
With weapons, communications and medical experts, his team was trained to parachute behind enemy lines to train insurgent forces. There were no international wars in the mid-’80s, but Schneider, who speaks German and Russian, spent nine to 10 months a year deployed in Europe, working with foreign forces.
“We got to go around the world doing important national security missions,” he said.
In 1985, while stationed on an Army base in Massachusetts, Schneider’s military career ended abruptly. He was driving a van during Hurricane Gloria when the van hydroplaned and crashed. He suffered smashed vertebrae and lost the use of his legs.
He spent five months in the hospital, most of it flat on his back in a bed that automatically tilted him on his side every two hours so he wouldn’t get bed sores.
Schneider speaks openly about the injury and being disabled, but doesn’t bring it up unless he’s asked. He says he still feels lucky, compared with some of the others who went through the military hospital.
“You take a lot of lessons out of it,” he said. “You really learn that no matter how bad it is, somebody’s got it worse.”
Schneider went to work as a project manager for a global security company before enrolling in the University of Maine School of Law in 1990.
He also bought a farm in Durham with his wife, Barbara, a former West Point cadet. The couple eventually adopted a daughter and started raising alpacas, which they breed and shear as a family business. He continues to shoot and hunt, even traveling to Africa last fall to hunt antelope.
Schneider started his law career as intern prosecutor in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office.
Anderson, the district attorney, remembers Schneider assuring her that he could navigate around the old county courthouse in a wheelchair, and how she soon forgot that he was disabled. She also remembers his sense of humor.
“I had to ask him how tall he was for an ID badge. He said, ‘Six-two lying down,’ ” Anderson said.
Schneider’s ability to put people at ease helped make him an effective prosecutor, Anderson said. “He’s just very nice to work with, but also he’s very bright and he’s very strong. He can hold his ground in a way that is totally non-offensive,” she said.
Schneider became an assistant attorney general in Augusta in 1993, prosecuting major drug cases.
He was elected to an open seat in the Maine House of Representatives in 1998, and was chosen assistant House Republican leader at the start of his second two-year term.
“When Bill spoke, people listened,” said Bruno, who was the House Republican leader at the time. “He sticks to his principles, but he’s not in your face about it.”
Schneider was in line to be the Republican House leader, Bruno said, but he left the Legislature after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to serve as the anti-terrorism coordinator in Maine’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. He worked with law enforcement around the state on preparedness efforts and terrorism-related investigations.
Schneider also served on a national task force that evaluated the threat posed by each detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. “I learned an awful lot about al-Qaida,” Schneider said.
In 2010, Schneider was elected by the Republican-led Legislature to serve as attorney general. One of his first acts was to join a multistate lawsuit against President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on that case next month.
Earlier this year, Schneider signed on to a letter from several attorneys general objecting to an Obama administration requirement that all employers except churches cover contraception in employees’ health insurance plans.
The anti-Obama stands, and increased efforts to crack down on welfare fraud, earned him respect among conservatives.
Democrats, women’s advocacy groups and others criticized Schneider for wading into political battles. “Those instances were more about politics than anything else,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono.
Schneider said his stands as attorney general have been driven by the law and the U.S. Constitution. He earned a reputation for independence in 2011 when he issued a strong opinion that one of Gov. LePage’s original Cabinet members — Environmental Protection Commissioner Darryl Brown — appeared unqualified to serve because of his interest in a land development business. Brown resigned.
Despite the political disagreements over health care, Schneider has worked well with Democrats on issues such as domestic violence, said Cain.
“Generally, I think Bill has a reputation of being fair and thoughtful,” she said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: