U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine Staff file photo by Joel Page

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has been in both the majority and minority party multiple times during her nearly 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Maine Democrat also acknowledges that, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Congress wasn’t exactly setting new standards for productivity or collegiality since President Trump won the White House four years ago.

But despite the partisanship and turmoil witnessed by the public, Pingree said she loves “working in the democratic process and I feel really lucky to do it.” As she seeks a seventh term representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District, Pingree said she hopes to continue working on issues important to constituents across the political spectrum – from food and agriculture policy to fisheries, climate change and supporting Maine’s large veteran population.

“There is much more agreement at times than people can see,” Pingree said, even amid what she portrayed as “an overarching chaos” caused by the Trump administration.

“You don’t take on the job because you always expect to be in power and get everything that you want,” Pingree said. “Sometimes you are fighting back to stop bad policy, and sometimes you are fighting for good policy when the stars align.”

It is far from clear how those stars will align after Nov. 3 when it comes to the battle for the White House as well as control of the U.S. Senate. The high-profile Senate race between Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon has sucked up much of the state’s political oxygen and money, overshadowing the other two congressional contests in Maine.

Pingree, 65, is widely viewed as the heavy favorite in her race against Republican Jay Allen, a family physician and veteran from the Bristol area who is running on a staunchly conservative platform. For her part, Pingree has barely seemed to campaign this year – a fact she attributes, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would say this is as busy of a year for constituent service as we have ever had, and we are always busy,” Pingree said.

But the lack of high-visibility campaign activity on Pingree’s end is also indicative of the race’s low profile.

Neither political party nor any outside groups have spent money on the 1st District race, as of the most recent campaign finance reports, and several nonpartisan campaign tracking organizations list the district as safely in Democratic hands.

Allen, meanwhile, has accused Pingree of ignoring or overlooking the concerns of some constituents. And Maine Republican Party officials portray the Democratic incumbent as being cozier with her colleagues in Washington than with Maine voters.

“Chellie Pingree should spend more time with the people of Maine and less time with AOC,” Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said in reference to the high-profile progressive freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I think even the liberal voters in the 1st district would agree with that.”

Democratic leaders in Maine counter that Pingree’s track record both in Washington and during elections shows otherwise.

“Whether it’s fighting for access to health care, mitigating the effects of climate change that have already taken a toll on our environment and economy, or fighting for frontline workers, first responders, small businesses, and every day Mainers who have been impacted by Trump’s failed pandemic response, Chellie is a tireless champion for the people of Maine’s 1st Congressional District,” Kathleen Marra, chair of the Maine Democratic Party, said in a statement.

“Mainers have time and again put their trust in Congresswoman Pingree to fight for our state in the halls of Congress, and we’re confident they will continue to support her this November,” Marra said.

If re-elected in November, Pingree would be the first person in six decades to be elected to more than six consecutive terms representing the 1st Congressional District. The last person to do so was the late Rep. Robert Hale, a Portland Republican who left office in 1959.

A Minnesota native, Pingree moved to Maine in the 1970s as a teenager and was among the first classes to graduate from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. She would eventually settle on the island of North Haven in Penobscot Bay, where over the ensuing decades she would run a farm, a knitting business called North Island Yarn as well as the Nebo Lodge bed & breakfast/restaurant.

In 1992, after serving on the local school board, Pingree was elected to the Maine Senate representing parts of Knox County. Several years later she was chosen by her fellow Democrats to serve as the Senate majority leader.

After failing to dislodge Collins during the Republican’s first re-election bid in 2002, Pingree worked as the president and CEO of the nonprofit progressive group Common Cause.

She won her first election to the 1st Congressional District seat in 2008 and has handily won her subsequent re-election campaigns. In 2018, for instance, Pingree defeated conservative Republican Mark Holbrook and independent Martin Grohman by winning 59 percent of the vote.

Over the past decade, Pingree has been most vocal in Congress on food and agricultural issues through her positions on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. Among her proudest accomplishments, Pingree lists her work on opening up additional markets to small farmers, investing in school lunch programs and expanding access to nutritional programs for children and low-income families.

She has also been a vocal advocate for clean energy technology as well as addressing ocean acidification and other impacts of climate change. Pingree also was a high-profile advocate in the House for reforming the military’s sexual assault reporting and prevention programs, as well as advocating for more support for veterans who endured military sexual trauma while serving.

“I feel like we have made a fair amount of progress but, certainly, we are always looking for ways to improve it,” Pingree said on the issue of sexual assault in the military.

Allen, her opponent on Nov. 3, views Pingree as part of the leftist wing that he believes is destroying the country.

“She is one of the most progressive members of Congress, she calls herself a proud progressive and is a member of the Progressive Caucus,” Allen said. “And progressives are one of the biggest problems down in Washington, D.C.”

Pingree has three adult children, one of whom, Hannah Pingree, served as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and now is a member of Gov. Janet Mills’ Cabinet. But Pingree has also drawn scrutiny – and criticism – for her personal life.

In 2011, she married S. Donald Sussman, a billionaire hedge fund manager and seasonal resident of Maine. A philanthropist, financier and former owner of the Portland Press Herald, Sussman is also one of the nation’s largest political donors, giving $20.7 million to Democratic candidates and left-leaning groups during the current election cycle.

Republicans criticized Pingree for her relationship to Sussman given her vocal criticism of the role of money in politics, although the relationship never hurt her electability in the heavily Democratic 1st District. The couple divorced amicably in 2015.

If re-elected next month, Pingree said she will continue to work on the issues that are at the top of her priority lists, including local agriculture, nutrition, climate change, health care and support for veterans.

Pingree said she and her Democratic colleagues will also continue fighting this year and next for a coronavirus relief package that provides support to businesses, individuals, and state and local governments. The Trump White House and some Republicans have opposed the latter, suggesting that leaders of Democratic states or cities will seek to use COVID funds to fill other budget holes.

“I honestly don’t think the dollar amount is the big fight,” Pingree said. “The biggest sticking point of all that has been a problem since Day 1 is aid to states and municipalities. And it’s something that Democrats just won’t back down on.”

Pingree is hoping for a Joe Biden victory but pointed to her work with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — as well as with Republican lawmakers —as evidence of her ability to work with the Trump administration.

“This has been a really, really hard year for our country and we are not out of it yet,” Pingree said. “Whether we end up with the same administration and have to figure out how to navigate their policies and fight back, or we get a new administration, … we just have a huge job in front of us.”

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