October 28, 2012

U.S. Senate race: Summers' previous losses don't stop quest for Congress

Defeated in three bids for the House, the Republican candidate believes his experiences in the military and as secretary of state will make the difference this time.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of profiles of the U.S. Senate candidates.

click image to enlarge

At his primary election night headquarters in South Portland in June, Republican nomination winner Charlie Summers greets Brooke Briggs of Biddeford and her father, Jason, after arriving at the reception.

2012 File Photo/Derek Davis

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Charlie Summers, a high school senior in 1978, was the 6-foot-4-inch captain of the basketball team and senior class vice president, having lost a close race for president.

1978 photo from Kewanee High School yearbook

Additional Photos Below

SCARBOROUGH — Five years ago, Charlie Summers was lying on the floor of an unfortified sleeping trailer in Baghdad's Green Zone as mortars fell nearby. He turned to his roommate, a fellow Navy reservist who was married to the best friend of Summers' wife.

"I said to Mike, 'Who talked you into joining?' " Summers recalls with a laugh. "He said: 'Your wife'! And I said, 'Me, too. Look at where we are, and look where she is!' "

While her husband was taking fire in Iraq, Ruth Summers was on the political front lines back here in Scarborough, running his tenacious campaign to represent Maine's 1st District in Congress. Though prohibited from campaigning until he returned to the States in June 2008, Summers won his party's primary, but would go on to lose the seat for the third time to a Democratic rival: this time, incumbent Rep. Chellie Pingree.

"Just because you get knocked down, it doesn't mean you can't get up and do it again," Summers says of the chain of losses. "If you lose an election, two elections, whatever it is, if you look at it as a learning process and ask how you could have done it differently, it makes you a better candidate."

Now Summers is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by his estranged political mentor, Olympia Snowe. While he last won a popular election 20 years ago, the tall and affable secretary of state hopes his accumulated life experiences will make the difference this time, allowing him to upset the apparent front-runner, two-term independent former Gov. Angus King.

Those experiences have brought Summers from his parents' hotel in a small Midwestern town to stints as a state senator, regional small business administrator and secretary of state, as well as state director for Snowe and military deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pentagon. With the support of his wife -- who suceeeded him as state party vice chair and is running for his old state Senate seat -- he hopes to bring his congenial style to a legislative body paralyzed by dysfunction and partisan gridlock.


Charles E. Summers Jr. was born the day after Christmas 1959 in Danville, Ill. He was the fourth of five children in a family of hoteliers. His great-grandfather had founded a hotel in Mt. Vernon, Ill., and his uncle owned two in Alton. At the time of his birth, Summers' parents were leasing a local hotel, but in 1960 moved to the northwestern part of the state and into the Hotel Kewanee, a failing establishment they had just purchased.

Built in 1916, the hotel was in the center of Kewanee, a town of 10,000 that billed itself as "the hog capital of the world." Summers describes the town as "a cross between Presque Isle and Biddeford" in that when he was growing up it was a small industrial community surrounded by flat, open farmland. But by the time he was in grade school, it had started its long decline.

"This is typical Rust Belt," says local veterinarian Tom Schwerbrock, who attended Kewanee High School with Summers and has seen many of the factories close and the farms consolidate. "We're nowhere near being the hog capital of the world today."

The hotel was the most prominent in town, a four-story structure with a bar, ballroom, full restaurant and the studios of two radio stations on the top floor. It had bankrupted its two previous owners.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Charlie Summers, seen as a teenager at right, grew up in Kewanee, Ill., a Rust Belt town of 10,000, but in 1978 still arguably the “hog capital of the world.” Summers describes the town as “a cross between Presque Isle and Biddeford” – a small industrial community surrounded by flat, open farmland.

1978 photo from Kewanee High School yearbook

click image to enlarge

Charlie Summers kisses his wife, Ruth, on primary election night last June. Ruth Summers replaced her husband as state party vice chair in 2010, and is currently the Republican candidate in state Senate District 6.

2012 File Photo/Derek Davis

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The candidate takes a call as he was waiting for primary results in June at his headquarters, the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland. Charlie Summers won the six-way contest for the Republican nomination.

2012 File Photo/Derek Davis

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Republican Charlie Summers responds to a question last month during a debate at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The candidate looks to bring his affable style to a legislative body paralyzed by dysfunction and partisan gridlock.

2012 File Photo/Gregory Rec


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