May 22, 2012

Election 2012: Bennett tries for a comeback

After an eight-year hiatus from elective office, Rick Bennett is reintroducing himself to Maine voters.

First in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.

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GOP Senate candidate Rick Bennett, left, talks with Rick Castonguay of Big Bear Real Estate on Main Street in Presque Isle on Friday.

Photo by Brenda Jepson

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Rick Bennett

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RICHARD A. BENNETT

AGE: 48

HOME: Oxford

FAMILY: Married with two children

OCCUPATION: Chief executive officer of GMI Ratings, a Portland-based global investment research company focusing on corporate governance; director of GWI, a Biddeford-based Internet provider

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Harvard University, 1986; master's in business from University of Southern Maine, 2000

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Maine state representative 1990-94; state senator 1996-2004; Senate president 2001-02; current Republican national committeeman; former Republican State Committee member; worked for Reagan-Bush re-election 1984; won Republican nomination for Congress in 1994, but lost general election to Democrat John Baldacci.

ON THE ISSUES

Do you support President Obama’s health care law? No

Do you support a balanced budget amendment? Yes

Would you support a tax increase for the wealthy? No, although willing to review tax policy

Would you vote to extend the nation’s debt limit? Not without meaningful spending reforms

Do you support legalizing gay marriage? No

Do you support legal access to abortion? Yes

What should Congress be doing to create jobs and improve the economy? Our government should not be seeking to harm businesses that play by the rules; instead, we should help them create jobs. Often the best thing the government can do is step aside. When big government colludes with big business to pick winners and losers, it is the small business job creators on Main Street who suffer. With my current firm, I have helped hold businesses accountable (for failing) to perform on returning value to their investors – including helping protect pension funds. As Maine’s Senate president and as a member of the House and Senate, I earned a very strong small-business voting record.

VOTING RECORD IN THE MAINE LEGISLATURE

ECONOMIC ISSUES: Voted pro-business 80-92 percent of the time, according to Maine Economic Research Institute scorecards for 2000-2003

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: Voted pro-environment 59 percent of the time, according to Maine Conservation Voters lifetime scorecard

LABOR: Bennett earned a 9 percent lifetime voting record on key labor issues, according to the Maine AFL-CIO legislative scorecard.

NOTABLE ENDORSEMENTS AND SUPPORTERS

The Republican Liberty Caucus National Committee

Josh Tardy of Newport, former legislator

Chandler Woodcock of Farmington, Maine commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, former legislator

Robert A.G. Monks and Millicent Monks of Cape Elizabeth

Karl Turner of Cumberland, former legislator

Kevin Shorey of Calais, former legislator

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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