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

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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

Mainers don't tend to think of Bangor, circa 1983, as having a thriving economy, but that's what it looked like to the 23-year-old from Kewanee.

"It was really kind of a move up in the sense that in the Midwest things were stagnating and small towns were falling by the wayside," Summers recalls. "And I went up to Bangor and there was a lot going on in terms of business and development. I really enjoyed it."

He and Debra got married, and he took a job as the assistant manager of the Bangor Motor Inn. The first of their two children, Patricia, was born there. Charles III would be born in the Portland area, where the family moved in 1987, when Debra was hired by the University of New England in Biddeford. Charlie Summers stayed with the same company, which had recently opened a motel near the Maine Mall and is now a Day's Inn.

In 1990, Summers decided to try going into business for himself. His father offered him Hotel Kewanee, but he was in love with Maine and not eager to return home. Instead, he opened a convenience store and bottle and can redemption center in Biddeford, Charlie's Beverage Warehouse. He sold it a year later.

In 1990, he also became engaged in politics, running against Peter Danton of Saco -- a seven-term Democratic state senator -- for an open state Senate seat in the Scarborough area.

"I had been in town for maybe 2½ years, and of course they had never elected a Republican from that district," Summers says. "I found out pretty fast that you couldn't raise money and nobody would take you seriously, so I did what I could. I put some signs in the back of my truck and I knocked on doors on one side of the district, and my wife took the kids and went to the other side."

He won by just over 600 votes, exciting the state Republican leadership.

"He was a new face, that's what it was, unlike now, where he's been around the block a few times and hasn't been successful," says Danton, who is friends with Summers, despite having lost to him again in 1992. "I probably went to the well for water too many times."

Summers found Augusta exciting, even while working day jobs as a real estate agent and behind a car rental desk at the Portland International Jetport. "Suddenly you find yourself in the Legislature and the Senate and you're in with the governor and everything else," he recalls. "For a while I was like: Wow!"

In the Legislature, Summers was best known for joining 12 Republican colleagues in forcing a contentious 1991 government shutdown to force reform of the state's workers' compensation system. (Democrats controlled the Senate, but at the time, the state budget needed a two-thirds majority to pass.)

"It was a very high-stakes gamble, and I was a freshman legislator representing a Democratic district," he recalls. "But clearly jobs and businesses were leaving the state, in part because the (workers' comp) costs were suffocating business." After eight days, a compromise was reached that Summers argues reduced costs and saved jobs.

He also backed an unsuccessful 1994 initiative by Gov. John "Jock" McKernan to slash income taxes by 20 percent over five years, which Democratic opponents characterized as a "rich man's giveaway bill."

"Who is it that creates jobs in this state?" Summers asked the Bangor Daily News at the time. "If this is something that offers a tax break to someone who is wealthy and that person in turn spends that money in our economy, then I say that is good."

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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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