October 14, 2012

U.S. Senate race: Democrat Dill stands her ground, then and now

From the schoolyard to the campaign trail, the Democratic nominee for Senate has a reputation for challenging the big guys.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Cynthia Dill speaks during the Maine Democratic Convention in June. Dill won a four-way primary to become her party’s nominee to vie for Sen. Olympia Snowe’s seat in the U.S. Senate, but has lagged behind her rivals in polls. Political scientist Jim Melcher says Dill “has a reputation for being tenacious, scrappy, willing to say what she is thinking and to let the chips fall where they may, even if they rub her own party the wrong way.”

2012 file photo/Kennebec Journal

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Democrat Cynthia Dill speaks at a candidates’ forum Oct. 4. In six years, she has gone from being a town councilor to her party’s nominee for U.S. Senate.

2012 file photo/Gordon Chibroski

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According to Dill, she was also drawn to law school by spending two weeks traveling with a Eurail pass in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she says. “I had traveled and I think I had my sights set on this international business law career, that that would be an opportunity for me to make a difference.”


Dill attended Northeastern Law School and in 1990 moved to Portland, taking a job with a medium-sized law firm, Thompson, McNaboe, Ashley & Bull. “I did a lot of transactional work, closing loans for banks and doing some work around Canadian free trade,” she says. “You’d just sit down with a pile of documents and you’d have to read through and negotiate terms. It was incredibly boring.”

Former colleagues remember Dill in her mid-20s as competent, brave and spirited in her political views. “She was always driven and was clearly smart, dedicated and represented her clients well,” says Adrian P. Kendall, one of her peers at the firm. “We’d have spirited conversations about social and progressive issues.”

“She was very focused, a quick study, and one thing that struck me very early on is that she’s courageous,” says Ed Ashley, who was a firm partner. “She’s pragmatic and focused on what she wants to get done ... I think what you see is what you get with Cynthia.”

One day in 1991, Dill was assigned to litigate a civil rights case involving a disabled veteran and the Old Orchard Beach Police Department. “It was the first litigation case I had on my own and I just loved it,” she recalls. “I remember feeling so exhilarated that this is what I really wanted to do.”
Soon other cases alleging civil rights violations by southern Maine police departments were coming her way, some of which she settled for significant amounts, placating her superiors at the firm, which didn’t normally focus on such work.

In 1994, Dill struck out on her own, setting up a solo legal practice out of rented offices on India Street. She had some business clients and real estate closings, but a review of court documents confirms her primary work was civil rights and employment discrimination litigation in federal court. Often she was in a David-and-Goliath situation, representing clients against the U.S. Postal Service, Rite Aid, the U.S. Navy, KeyBank and Hartford Insurance.

“It’s very exciting,” she says of going head to head with the U.S. attorney or major law firms such as Pierce Atwood. “I work really hard and am almost always underestimated. It’s also a big financial risk, so I would spend a lot of time really evaluating a case before taking it on.”

Her friends weren’t in the least surprised when she made the move to a solo practice. “I’d been surprised (earlier) when she said she’d joined the big law firm,” says Kane. “I’d always expected her to take up to the fight of the underdog and to make sure they aren’t run over by the overdog.”


She had married Tom Clarke, a teacher at Thornton Academy in Saco, in 1990 and had the first of two children in 1995. In 1996 they made two real estate purchases that would pay off, a modest South Portland home on Bowers Street and a 1,500-square-foot home on D Street, near Legion Square, which they converted to offices and where she moved her law practice.

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Additional Photos

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Cynthia Dill, then a state representative, listens to a debate in the Maine House in 2007. In Augusta, Dill sponsored measures to allow the recall of the governor and to ban nepotism in state government (both in response to actions by Gov. Paul LePage). She also spearheaded the creation of an expansion of broadband Internet in rural Maine.

2007 File Photo/John Ewing


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