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

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"My recollection is that Summers was widely regarded at the State House as a consistently pleasant, always even-tempered guy who got along well with everybody, although I don't remember any noteworthy legislative accomplishments," says retired journalist Paul Carrier, who covered the State House for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. "The more sarcastic 'wags' saw him as an empty suit and took to calling him 'Jock lite' because he was seen in some circles as a lightweight version of McKernan: gubernatorial-looking, like McKernan, but lacking McKernan's substance, experience and political smarts."

In this period, Summers also served on the national Republican Party's platform committee, where he joined an unsuccessful 1992 effort to get the platform changed to reflect the position of pro-abortion rights Republicans like himself.


In 1994, he stepped down from the state Senate to run for U.S. Congress, but lost the primary to Jim Longley Jr., the first in a series of electoral defeats.

"I think it was a challenge and an opportunity to serve," he says of his three congressional runs. "When you are in Augusta or Washington, to be involved in something that's bigger than you and to play a productive part in it, that's something that drives me in this."

That December, fellow Republicans nominated him for secretary of state at a time when the Legislature was almost evenly split between the parties. Ultimately, Windham Democrat Bill Diamond came away with the position.

Summers had worked closely with McKernan and in early 1995 secured a job with his wife, Sen. Olympia Snowe. He would serve as her state director for nine years. She would be an important force in his life for the next 17 years, helping him with his subsequent electoral campaigns, with his professional career and a personal tragedy.

In 1995, he joined the Navy Reserve and was trained as a public affairs officer. He was 36 with two young children, but the Cold War was over and Summers acknowledges it seemed unlikely that he would ever be activated for an extended period.

His first assignment for his "two weekends a month, two weeks a year" commitment was as an information officer in Boston. "It was great. You go to Boston and you get to be down there in the summertime with your white uniform and the wintertime in your blue uniform," he recalls. "There were just great people down there who were associated with the unit over the years."

In January 1997, Debra Summers was killed in an automobile accident while driving home from UNE. Her vehicle was discovered a day later, upside-down in a brook.

In the years that followed, Summers continued serving as Snowe's state director while raising two children and serving in the Guard. (He has said that Snowe, whose first husband also died in a tragic car accident, helped him get beyond the tragedy.) He considered leaving military service, but was talked out of it by a colleague he met at a conference of Navy Reserve public affairs officers in Washington. He would marry that colleague, Ruth Rayburn, in 2002.

Today, the couple have a young child of their own. Since moving to Maine, Ruth Summers has also become a public figure in her own right. She replaced her husband as state party vice chair in 2010. Until earlier this year, she was executive director of the Education Management Corp.'s Education Foundation, whose corporate parent was headed by McKernan and is currently battling two whistleblower lawsuits alleging fraud, one of which is being represented by the U.S. Justice Department. Ruth Summers is chair of the board of the proposed full-time virtual charter school managed by Connections Academy of Baltimore. She is also currently running for the state Senate.

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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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