Secretary of State Shenna Bellows in her Augusta office. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Before Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows stepped into the national spotlight Thursday with her decision to bar former President Donald Trump from Maine’s ballot in the state primary next March, her work embraced numerous causes dear to Democrats.

But Bellows, who is 48 years old, has also been willing to go against party leaders, including when she took a more independent stance on civil liberties following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

She was chosen by the Democratic majority of the Legislature to serve as secretary of state starting in January 2021. She is the first woman to hold the post as Maine’s top election official. But the Maine native’s career in public policy began nearly 20 years ago.

Bellows served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and advocated for legalized same-sex marriage, abortion rights, immigration rights and abolishing the Electoral College. She also served in the Peace Corps, an enduring 1960s-era institution established by President John Kennedy as an idealistic U.S. outreach to developing countries to counter Soviet advances in the Cold War.

None of her previous experiences were factors when faced with the decision to kick Trump off the ballot, she said when asked Friday in an interview with the Press Herald.

“No, my decision was based exclusively on the evidence presented to me at the hearing and I had an obligation to have no other considerations other than Maine election law and the Constitution,” Bellows said.


On civil liberties issues and national security, Bellows has not been in lockstep with Democrats.

Shenna Bellows, as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, testifies in favor of a bill to protect citizens’ privacy during a hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in February 2013. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Zach Heiden, chief counsel at the ACLU of Maine, said she “stood up for liberty” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when “civil liberties were not popular” amid calls for greater security that critics said clashed with individual rights.

“She was an outspoken advocate for America’s basic values,” said Heiden, who has known Bellows for nearly 20 years.

The Patriot Act, which broadened government surveillance authority, passed with bipartisan support, he said, putting Bellows occasionally at odds with fellow Democrats.

“She has a very strong moral center and commitment to public service,” Heiden said. “It’s only grown stronger with each difficult decision she’s made over time.”

In an interview with the Washington Post in 2014 during her unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Bellows praised Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky on civil liberties while criticizing then-President Obama on surveillance by the National Security Agency, or “NSA spying,” as she phrased it.


“On civil liberties, he’s been terrific,” she said of Paul.

Referring to Obama, she said, “he and this administration have absolutely gone too far and it’s time to restore checks and balances.”

A former two-term Democratic state senator representing 11 towns in southern Kennebec County, Bellows was Senate chair of the Labor and Housing Committee and served on the Judiciary Committee. Her official biography on the secretary of state’s website touts as legislative accomplishments an internet privacy law that prohibits internet service providers from selling or sharing customer information without consent, establishing an online application system for school meals, and expanded access to broadband for rural communities.

Bellows also supported automatic voter registration, elections audits and ranked-choice voting. And she has championed a national popular vote to replace the Electoral College, the 18th century institution devised to elect a president who can establish a national constituency by winning votes beyond his or her home state. The system has especially drawn the ire of Democrats after it delivered victories to Trump in 2016 and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 despite each losing the popular vote.

Shenna Bellows is all smiles as she launched her campaign to challenge Sen. Susan Collins during a press conference at Rising Tide Brewery in Portland in October 2013. John Patriquin/Staff Photographerr

Bellows was executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine from 2018 to 2020 and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine from 2005 to 2013, taking part in legislative battles over abortion, voting rights, civil liberties and free speech. She helped lead ballot campaigns in 2009 and 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine.

In 2014, Bellows made a run for federal office and lost overwhelmingly to Collins, 67% to 31%. She raised more than $2 million largely on her own, but her campaign failed to win the support of large, national political groups often necessary to help challengers unseat a well-funded incumbent.

She won the endorsement of Stephen King, Maine’s best-known fiction writer, who said in a video ad that she “would be a breath of fresh air.”

Bellows, who grew up in Hancock, graduated from Middlebury College and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Panama and AmeriCorps VISTA in Nashville, Tenn.

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