PORTLAND – The partisan gridlock in Washington is now “worse than it’s ever been,” former Sen. George Mitchell said Wednesday morning.

Mitchell was asked about Congress’ approval rating, which has fallen to 9 percent, at this morning’s “Eggs & Issues” breakfast sponsored by the Portland Community Chamber.

“Never in American history has Congress been popular” with the American public, Mitchell said, but the current level of public unhappiness with lawmakers is unprecedented.

Mitchell said redistricting of Congress has, over the years, made very few House seats competitive. That increases the importance of primary elections, he said, and those elections attract lower levels of voter turnout than the general election. That, he said, increases the influence of partisan extremists – who tend to play a greater role in the primaries – and creates a more partisan Congress.

Mitchell also blamed the increasing importance of money in congressional elections, particularly since the Supreme Court loosened restrictions on corporate donations to political campaigns.

The situation is likely to continue until some major scandal leads the public to make changes in the system, Mitchell said.

Mitchell also spoke about education, saying it has an important role to play in society by encouraging people to challenge their assumptions, and the Middle East, where he said both Israelis and Palestinians will eventually realize negotiations for peace are in their own best interests.

Mitchell was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1980, replacing Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, who had resigned to become Secretary of State. Mitchell served until 1995, the last six years as the Senate’s Democratic majority leader.

He is now a partner in the international law firm DLA Piper and works primarily in the firm’s New York office.