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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

"It was the place to stay in Kewanee, and when they ran it the restaurant was one of the nicer places to eat," Schwerbrock recalls. "It was a tight ship."

Summers was literally raised in the hotel -- the family lived in a second-floor apartment -- and he and his siblings joined in to keep it running.

"It was truly a family business: We all worked at the front desk, the kitchen, the bar. We all did whatever it was that needed to be done," he recalls. "Unlike most kids growing up, if your mother or father are working they are gone and you were alone in the house. At a hotel, you're never alone because there were also the clerks and the restaurant or the bar or the radio station." It was, he says, a world unto itself.

Children would come to peer through a glass wall at the WKEI staff and their automatic tape changers. "Charlie and his little brother Ray used to harass us, making faces through the glass and running away when we would go and chase them off," says former disc jockey Dave Clarke. "They'd yell back that their dad owned the hotel!"

The hotel ballroom attracted politicians, because local Republicans rented it out to stage events whenever one of their luminaries passed through. Charlie met them all -- Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Barry Goldwater and future Texas Sen. John Tower -- but it was Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen whose visit to his family home/hotel made the greatest impression.

"Dirksen was the kind of politician I knew growing up, the kind of person who would work with Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats to get things done, like getting civil rights legislation passed," Summers says of the former U.S. Senate minority leader.

In Kewanee, Summers says, "The Democrats worked in the factories and the Republicans either ran stores or were farmers, but we all went to school together and church together and played on the same (sports) teams."

Growing up in the hotel trade also shaped the approachable style he would later bring to politics. "In that business, you serve everybody, and as long as they're paying their bills and aren't causing problems, you don't question them," he says.

Summers was active and outgoing in high school, serving on the student council, Key Club, student advisory board, and as homeroom officer and captain of the basketball team. (He is 6 feet 4 inches tall.) He ran for class president his senior year, but lost in what his yearbook described as a close race.

"He was a good kid growing up, involved in sports, and a bit of a leader when he was in high school," recalls Schwerbrock, who, like many people in town, has followed Summers' rise in Maine politics, including his selection (by Republican legislators) to secretary of state, which is a very prominent, popularly elected position in Illinois.

"He's probably one of the only people coming from Kewanee who has done that well in something political, ever," says Clarke, who has covered Summers' career for the local Star Courier newspaper since 2004. "People around here are proud he's become secretary of state, and that somebody from Kewanee has become secretary of state of someplace!"

In 1978, when he graduated from high school, Summers says he had no interest in politics, and assumed he would spend his career in hotel management. He attended the local community college and, in 1980, transferred to the leisure studies program at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.


He says he also considered joining the Marine Corps, but instead met his future wife, Debra Draper, a doctoral student from Ontario who'd been educated in Switzerland and Canada. Instead of signing up for basic training at Quantico, Va., he would find himself in Maine, where Debra had been hired as a professor in the University of Maine's health, physical education and recreation department.

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Additional Photos

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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

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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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