By Susan Conely
Photographs by Patryce Bak
On North Haven Island: “There’s a truth meter out here.”
Have you found yourself shopping around for a new political hero lately?
Someone in the U.S. Congress who speaks her mind? Who breeds dairy cows and grows heirloom tomatoes and doesn’t bend in the fickle Washington wind? Chellie Pingree may be your person.
When she’s not in Washington D.C., she lives on North Haven, a tight-knit island off the coast of Maine where, she explains, “You can’t fake it. There’s a truth meter out here.” It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and my ferry’s landed at the North Haven dock after a crossing though the thickest primordial fog you can dream up.
Pingree meets me in the parking lot, one hand in her jeans pocket, the other holding a cup of coffee, her striking blonde hair cut to her jaw. I ask her if the hundreds of ferry crossings she’s made over the last forty-some years have helped her maintain her own truth meter down in Washington. She laughs, and it’s a warm, throaty laugh. Then she says the ferry makes everyone on the island honest: “You may disagree with a person at town meting, but then the boat going back to the mainland is almost full, and you have to sit next to that same person on the deck.”
She walks me up a hill past a small white house she used to live in with her three kids, then past the tiny lawnmower shed where she ran her first Maine Senate campaign, and on to a larger clapboard inn called Nebo Lodge, which Pingree bought on a wing and a prayer in 2004 when her neighbor said she was selling.
We sit in the fog on Nebo’s porch, and Pingree tells me that when she first landed on North Haven, she was only 16—a fledgling back-to-the-lander with a serious distaste for conventional schooling and a boyfriend named Charlie, who had roots on the island. She’d grown up in Minneapolis with her parents, who were of Scandinavian-farmer stock. Then she went to an inner-city high school. Or rather, she didn’t go. It was the 1960s, a time of what Pingree calls “great anger in the country.”
One day the wise supervisor at a drug abuse hotline where Pingree worked said, “You should go to school more often,” and pressed Pingree to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, of all places, to a nontraditional high school modeled after Outward Bound. Pingree was the youngest of four siblings and “the hardest to raise.” No one in her family had ever gone east.
A few months later she and Charlie drove north to Maine. “We set up shop in Charlie’s grandmother’s cabin down one of the long dirt roads and started raising chickens.” There was no running water, no electricity: “It was the early 1970s. All my friends either protested the war and marched on Washington, or dropped out. Charlie and I had a copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life and we went back to the land.”
It was hard work. But Pingree can work hard. Give her any job—chopping wood, planting a garden, canning vegetables, raising children, rewriting the U.S. Farm Bill—and she’s your woman. But first there was a humbling. There’s usually a humbling in any good hero story.
For Pingree it happened at 17, when she wanted to volunteer at the island school. After her first day, the school board took a quick vote. They didn’t want her back, and they sent the kind principal knocking on her cabin door to inform her. Pingree was shocked. Until then she hadn’t realized “what outsiders we really were,” or how much it mattered to her to belong to the fabric of the island.
It turned out it really mattered. She was longing for that sense of community, a sum bigger than its parts. After the principal left, Pingree said to herself, “I’ll teach them. I’ll go to college. Then they’ll have to hire me.” She wrote her application to College of the Atlantic on the back of sardine packing paper.
When the Pingrees returned to North Haven several years later, they’d been transformed into “a nice young married couple with a baby and a milking cow.” Pingree was now also a trained organic farmer, and they had “real value” to offer the island. She began asking everyone on the island for advice about the cow and the garden: “all the old-timers. I also had an egg delivery route. I’d knock on a door and say, ‘I’ve come with your eggs.’ Then I’d get invited in for a cup of coffee. This was how I learned how to engage with people and learned the history of the island.”
If you read between the lines here, you see the makings of an authentic Maine politician. But Pingree’s thoughts couldn’t have been further from Augusta or Washington back then. She and Charlie had three kids in five years: Hannah, Cecily, and Asa. She was just “trying to survive.”
She now likens North Haven to one long, ongoing Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody takes care of everybody. And everyone plays a part: “We can see into each other’s windows. It’s an extended family. I’ll bring the turkey. You bring the stuffing. We work together.”
By 1981 Pingree had “tons of sheep” on her rented farm and began taking the wool from her flock to be spun. The yarn sat in her farmhouse collecting dust until one of the island women said, “How about I knit some socks and put them in your farm stand?” North Island Yarn was born. It employed ten people at its peak.
The watershed moment that even Pingree still has a hard time getting her head around happens in 1991. She and a friend read about a legendary congresswoman named Pat Schroeder, from Colorado, who’s in Portland for a speech. The two island women pack their daughters into Pingree’s VW bus and head to the city. It’s as if Schroeder’s speech is meant for Pingree, especially when Schroeder says, “There aren’t enough women in politics. And not enough young people.”
The story then goes that Dale McCormick, a Democratic state senator from Maine, runs into Pingree after Schroeder finishes, and McCormick says, “We can’t find anyone to run for our open senate seat.” Then McCormick looks at Pingree and says, “You should do that. You should run.”
Pingree describes it as, “one of the most outrageous, out-of-the-blue ideas. I didn’t know anything about politics. But people started calling me saying they’d heard I was running. Then my face was on the cover of the newspaper. I kept saying No! No! No! But inside I was wondering, why can’t I stop thinking about running?”
Here’s Pingree’s secret to getting elected to the Maine Senate as a Democrat in 1992 when she was all of 37 and had no political experience: call it the egg delivery method. She knocked on basically every door in Knox County. At the time the county was 40 percent Republican, 40 percent Independent, and 20 percent Democratic. Pingree says she ended up “blowing my opponent out of the water.”
After she won, it was suggested that she vote “strategically” on a range of issues to please her diverse constituents. But Pingree drew a line in the North Haven Island sand. “Look,” she said, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to be exactly who I am. I won’t stay in politics if I can’t be the real me. I’m not doing this just to keep a job.”
Pingree and her first husband, Charlie, divorced soon after Pingree was sworn into office. She says, “Getting divorced for many women is like getting punched down into poverty.” What Pingree did was to plunge herself into issues of economic justice in the Senate and become a perhaps unlikely spokesperson for Maine small business: “I may have been a hippie back-to-the-lander. But I had a business. I couldn’t take higher pay so that my employees would suffer. I could never pay them minimum wage. How would they get by?” She also began to carve out space on the Agriculture Committee. Hers was an early, lone voice in the fight against bovine growth hormones and genetically modified food.
After her stint in the Maine Senate, Pingree took a job running a nonprofit for economic justice, called Common Cause, in Washington. But the call to run was still there. She tried for the U.S. Senate in 2002 against Susan Collins, running on an antiwar platform, “but after 9/11 there was no room to move in that race.”
Pingree and I climb into her Jeep and drive out to her farm. She doesn’t wear her seatbelt. I don’t either. But don’t tell anyone. It’s just part of sleepy island life—this chance to let go of some of the control levers. Turner Farm is the 200-acre property that Pingree owns with her second husband, businessman Donald Sussman. This farm could be why the word bucolic was invented: lush sloping fields down to the bay, clean geometry of gardens, red tomatoes on the vine. Baby goats and dairy cows in the fog.
Pingree seems to exhale at the farm. It’s like a second home to her: “If they kick me out of Washington, I can always farm. I’m a very good waitress, too.” She smiles and says, “I’ve waitressed more times than I can count. But I aspire to be a bartender. Because of the listening skills.” Egg delivery, bartending, waitressing, serving as a U.S. Congresswoman: all four jobs require that aforementioned ability to work hard.
Pingree calls the farm a great political equalizer. She can talk cows and chickens with the opposition in Washington. She’s carved out this farm territory assiduously, because she understood early on that when you’re in the minority, like she is in the U.S. House, “you need to find places where you feel effective.” For Pingree it’s about getting toxins out of our soil and air and diet. It’s about saving other small farms all over Maine.
I ask her one last question, the one so many women in Maine have tried to answer this past year: why she didn’t run for Olympia Snowe’s open Senate seat in 2012. We’re leaning against the open barn doors, looking down to the cow pasture. Pingree smiles again and says, “Angus called me and said ‘I’m thinking about it.’ And I said ‘I’m thinking, too.’”
Now she laughs: “I thought it was my turn! But then Angus said he was running. And the door closed. I love my job. I couldn’t give up my House seat to run.”
By the time we climb back into the Jeep and head down the dirt road to Pingree’s and Sussman’s house, the rain’s stopped. Sussman has the fires lit when we walk in, and bluegrass is playing on the stereo. Pingree’s adult children Asa and Cecily are there, and Asa’s eight-year-old son, Smith, and everyone’s barefoot. Sussman welcomes us with a big smile and a bear hug for Pingree.
She says Sussman “was already passionate about farming when I met him. Already living on an island in Maine. Already committed to many of my same social causes.” She never planned on getting remarried. Then she fell in love. Go figure.
Now she sits on the couch by the fireplace and says that working in the Congress has been a way for her “to do something for the people of this island that they would respect. And something I would respect.” Her low-slung house is warm and full of the sounds of family. Smith brings his grandmother an intricate new Lego tower he’s built. Asa laughs with his sister. It’s Sunday morning on North Haven. A place where Pingree belongs. It sort of feels like Thanksgiving.