Never married and, like Snowe, without children, Collins is known for carrying a bulging briefcase home in the evening, for night-owl e-mails to exhausted staffers and for plunging into every bill on her desk and catching mistakes and oversights, such as the 17-word clause she spotted, inserted by an anonymous colleague in the 1999 budget, that would have kicked back $46 billion to the tobacco industry.
“She does 100 things at once,” says Steve Abbott, her former chief of staff, “goes from committee meeting, to constituent meeting, and onto another hearing, without missing a step.” She is a classic junior senator in this way: happiest when she’s trying harder.
“I truly enjoy legislating,” Collins says, pausing for a 30-minute interview, all she has time for today, before an informational meeting with Us Against Alzheimer’s. “I love bringing people together from both sides and sitting down and figuring out what ideas they have. That’s exciting for me. And that’s why I think Maine has sent me here — not to be particularly ideological, although I am proud to be a Republican, but to solve problems and to work with people who are interested in solving problems.”
When Snowe, as The Listener, describes herself as “a problem solver,” it has an emotional component, a poignancy. She would fix life if she could, to soften its blows. Collins’s connection to her work seems strategic and process-loving, as though she is talking about a puzzle she’s passionate about piecing together, or a clock she’s itching to repair.
Flinty pragmatism is a way of life where she comes from, the northern town of Caribou, population 12,000, where Collins family members have run a lumber yard for six generations and have been civic leaders for four. “My family taught me that you had no right to complain about the outcomes,” she says, “if you didn’t care enough to get involved.”
Her parents, Donald and Patricia Collins, both did turns as mayor of Caribou. Her father, as well as her grandfather and great-grandfather, served in the Maine legislature. An uncle sat on the state Supreme Court. This year, when Collins was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame on March 19, she was following a trail blazed by her mother — a longtime trustee of the University of Maine — who was inducted in 2005.
A work ethic was instilled when 9-year-old Susan was paid 30 cents for each barrel of potatoes she dug up at a neighbor’s farm. And being a middle child, the third of six, may explain her skill at collaboration.
As a young girl, she was a strong swimmer, a sailor, an honor-society-type student and a neighborhood babysitter who was legendary for her fairy tales and games. “She entertained us,” says her younger brother Sam, who runs S.W. Collins Building Supplies with their youngest brother, Gregg.
“I don’t remember Susan having conflicts with me or our other siblings,” Sam says, “or even the usual parent-daughter conflicts.” Susan taught Sam how to ride a bike, how to read, and at a lakeside camp where the Collins family spent the entire summer, she and her sisters organized the “Summer Fun Club,” a shed where, Sam says, “all the kids gravitated for meetings.”
Collins took her first airplane trip as a senior at Caribou High in 1971. A Senate youth program flew her to Washington, where she was taken to meet Maine’s two senators, Muskie and Smith. “Ed Muskie did what I do a zillion times a day,” she says, gesturing to the window where she does her photo ops. “I chatted briefly with him, had a picture taken, and then he was off to a meeting.
“But Margaret Chase Smith took me into her office and talked to me for nearly two hours,” Collins says. The oft-recounted meeting is still fueling her.
“Even though my family was very encouraging of opportunities, there were a lot of mixed messages for women in that era,” she says. “But I left her office that day thinking that a woman could do anything.”
Collins met Bill Cohen, a 32-year-old lawyer running for Congress, when he walked the entire length of Maine’s 2nd District — 650 miles — staying with different families every night. When he got to Caribou, he stopped in to see her parents. Susan, on break from St. Lawrence University, wound up driving a campaign car and the next year, she sent Cohen a letter, which he has kept all these years, asking if she could be a summer intern in his office. She arrived in the summer of 1974, when Cohen was the first Republican in the House to vote for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. The following year, after graduating magna cum laude, she moved to Washington to join his staff.
“Susan was doing pretty serious stuff, high-level Senate hearings at 26 or 27,” says Bob Tyrer, former chief of staff for Cohen and who still works with him at the Cohen Group. “By the age of 30, she had done lots of responsible things.”
A dozen years later, she returned to Maine and became a much-lauded business commissioner in Gov. McKernan’s cabinet for five years, eventually running for the vacant governor’s seat in 1994. Tension between Collins and Snowe is said to have begun at this time, after Snowe and McKernan backed another candidate in the primary. Collins was hurt — dismayed — even though the other contender had more political experience and a deeper connection to the couple.
“Susan didn’t have any great force behind her,” says Abbott, who met Collins then, “just a belief that she was the right person for the job. There was a field of eight candidates. She was the least likely to win the primary, but she did.”
In the general election, she received only 23 percent of the vote. (“I was trounced,” she likes to say.) Conservatives painted her as a liberal, pointing to her support of gay rights. But mostly, nobody knew who she was.
“I was so uncomfortable just walking up to people as a total stranger and introducing myself,” she says. “In Maine, people were always polite, but they looked at me so blankly.”
Collins was a graceful loser, but failure pushed her forward. “She bounced back,” says Tyrer, who helped run her successful Senate campaign when Cohen chose to leave two years later.
That same poise, persistence and cool-headed humility characterizes her time in the Senate. It can take two or three terms for a senator to achieve the ranking to run a high-profile hearing or investigation. But within a few months, because of strategic moves learned during her years as a Senate staffer, Collins became the first freshman senator to lead the permanent subcommittee on investigations, which had found $26 billion worth of fraud in the Medicare system. She landed on the nightly news and on the front of The Washington Post. She jumped aboard the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, too, which had been languishing and in need of a third Republican sponsor.
Before her first term was over, the former staffer had the makings of a Senate celebrity — and a Cinderella story — something that wasn’t easy for a certain senior senator who had worked her way more deliberately to the Senate, one elected office after another, and who had waited 12 years just to run for her seat. The wintry chill set in.
Collins plowed on — she always does — partly relentless, partly impervious. “Susan has been underestimated throughout her career,” Abbott says. “She doesn’t rely on charm or charisma. She gets things done by being incredibly insightful. And her work ethic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Plus, she’s just lucky. Time and time again.”
Luck or pluck? She was chosen with Sen. Lieberman to lead the crafting of the homeland security legislation after the Sept. 11 attacks, because of their close partnership and get-along-with-everybody style. “We had to take on so many people,” Collins says, “including Donald Rumsfeld, who was trying to sink the bill behind the scenes even though the president was for it.”
When she’s being undermined, she has learned to “undermine the underminer” — by finding allies and generating public support for her side. That is how she dealt with Rumsfeld, she says.
“She hung in there, all the way,” Lieberman says. “She is a real competitor, and tenacious.”
Last December, in a dramatic moment on the Senate floor, Collins took on Majority Leader Harry Reid when his strategy for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” was tanking and he tried to blame his problems on Republicans, particularly Collins. Rather than admit that it had been a mistake to tack the repeal onto a mammoth appropriations bill, Reid sent out press releases calling Collins “disingenuous” and “inflexible” and “unreasonable in her demands.”
She confronted Reid on the floor, then huddled with Lieberman. Two hours later, they presented a stand-alone bill that called for repeal, and Collins spent the weekend phoning House and Senate colleagues to ensure support. “We wound up with more votes than I dared dream of,” she says. Repeal passed in the Senate with 65 votes. Six Republicans, including Snowe, supported it on the first count.
Getting things done on Capitol Hill — while not generating new enemies — is an art that Collins has mastered. When asked about her rules for civility, she offers them:
l “Don’t surprise people. Be open and straightforward about what you want to do.”
l “Be flexible. . . . It is like buying a plane ticket online. You can be flexible about the date and time, but your destination is the same.”
l “Don’t make a concession unless you are getting something in return. It took me a while to learn that.”
l “Your allies today may not be your allies tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay friends.”
What if there is somebody you can’t be friends with, no matter how hard you’ve tried?
Collins thinks for a second and sighs. “Like anyone in public office, I would like everybody to like me,” she says. “But after 14 years in the Senate, I’m realistic enough to know that isn’t always going to happen.
“Respect — that might be the best we can do.”
The ground is white. The cars on the highway are caked in salt. It is February in Maine. Olympia Snowe makes a surprise visit to one of her favorite Portland haunts, Becky’s Diner on Hobson’s Wharf.
“Becky’s is a great place to pick up things,” she says. “You will get unvarnished, unfiltered comments here. People in Maine really like to share their views.”
In black pants, a gray fringed jacket and big pearl earrings, she has a sober, almost spectral quality. She’s not a chronic smiler, and as she makes her way through the crowds of constituents, she isn’t given to lobbing the feel-good icebreakers that Collins does — such as, “What a pretty sweater” or “I’m so impressed.”
At the eatery, against the acoustic backdrop of restaurant sounds — the vowelly murmuring of Maine accents, the clanking of silverware and the burbling of the lobster tank — Snowe becomes The Listener.
When she arrives at a table of diners who don’t act as though they voted for her recently — or ever — she lingers longer, digs in and gets specific. In a back booth, a husband and wife have stopped in the middle of their fruit medley to share their dark-times views, mostly about “out of control” government spending and “spiraling” Social Security costs.
Snowe is nodding, and keeps nodding. She leans in. The hunch becomes so dramatic that her head seems to be angling for its own seat at their table. In 2001, she pushed for a trigger mechanism that would use government surplus to pay off future debt. Budget deficits have been one of her bugaboos forever — a view she thought she’d have in common with the Bush administration, and was sorry to learn she didn’t.
Four guys in another booth want to confab about health care. “What happened?” one of them asks. He turns out to be an internist with a primary-care practice in Portland. He puts down his fork and stops eating his omelet, and does a headfirst dive into the nuts-and-bolts of “ObamaCare.”
Words such as “preexisting” and “individual mandate” are batted about, and “young adults being able to tag onto their parents’ plan.”
Snowe nods sincerely. “I agree with you,” she says.
Among conservatives and independents alike in Maine, her early support of Obama’s health-care plan was not popular. But the table of men she’s talking to, all Democrats, don’t seem to like the fact that she didn’t back the legislation on the Senate floor.
The conversation is polite, though. The civility in Maine is dependable, as is tolerance for opposing views. “Maine isn’t blue or red,” Snowe says, “it’s purple.” Later, two of the four men at the internist’s table say they will probably vote for her in 2012, as do two Republicans in the back. And the independent in the side room? Yep.
“I’d be so ashamed to see her removed from office,” says Vance Brown, a self-described centrist. “Ashamed for Maine. Ashamed for the country.”
“She and Susan Collins may not represent all my values and politics,” Bob Giles — half of the conservative couple who were talking to Snowe about Social Security in agonizing detail — says later, “but I am proud of how they conduct themselves and do their jobs.”
After a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, Snowe tours a career center in Portland just a mile away, where the unemployed receive job training, help with resumes and advice about navigating the system. Every seat is filled.
She makes the rounds — nodding, hunching, listening — and asks everybody she meets how the job search is going, if they have any prospects. “Don’t get discouraged,” she says. “Keep trying, okay?”
But after 30 minutes of this, and finding more rooms upstairs filled with the unemployed, Snowe starts to look pretty grim herself. Her brow sinks, and her jaw sets. Maine had its share of problems — a dispersal of young talent, troubled textile and paper industries, the oldest population in the Northeast — long before the economy made everything worse.
“I get what people are mad about. I really do,” she says. “They feel they’ve lived by the rules and have been punished for it. Their personal security has eroded and Main Street is withering and they see no appreciable and positive change in their lives. And at a time when the financial institutions are bailed out. And they are angry about that. And I was angry, believe me. Because it meant that there were lots of people in various areas and agencies — regulators — who weren’t doing their jobs. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
She has lived through several recessions in Maine, she says, “but this one seems to have permeated so many levels — the job market, savings, government spending, pensions, retirement. It’s so broad-based and unsettling for the country. People are reeling. Everybody. Everywhere.
“This is a major moment in America,” she says, shaking her head in disappointment, almost disgust. “No question. We are at a transcendent point. I feel it. I see it. And I am not seeing people rising to the moment. Like after 9/11, the country came together and we rose to that moment. We are in different times now. But these times deserve that kind of response. Right now. And people aren’t getting that — on the right or left.”
‘A healthy tension’
State highways are likely to be named after them, a few schools, maybe a state park. They might have to share a statue one day — The Sisters. Let’s hope they won’t mind sitting for it together.
“Do they have a professional relationship? Yes,” Bill Cohen says. “Are they close? I don’t think so.”
Pioneers in any field — male or female — are often loners, people who are driven to lead, not become part of a crowd. And conflicts between them, not unlike those between older and younger siblings, can be so deep that they are hard to define or articulate. “If you are having trouble making sense of their rivalry,” says a longtime friend of both, “it’s because it doesn’t.”
“State congressional delegations act like families,” says Cokie Roberts, who has covered the Hill for more than 30 years and whose mother and father served in Congress. “Sometimes two senators can be very close, and others engage in more than a little sibling rivalry and a few downright hate each other . . . whether they are men, women or one of each.”
Yet, civility endures between Snowe and Collins. Like Maine, it is a state they share — and a guiding principle of their lives. Last month, when the first fundraising letter for Snowe’s 2012 reelection effort was sent out, it was signed by Collins, appealing to her own supporters to give generously to Snowe.
“I have always had the utmost respect for Olympia,” Collins says, when asked to describe their relationship. “She is a fighter who cares deeply about our state and its people.”
Snowe says: “I have known Susan and her family for a long time. We work well together and combine our efforts to address Maine’s priorities. That relationship has served Mainers well, both in Maine and Washington. Oftentimes, members of our staff will travel the state together to ensure people are receiving the representation and service they deserve.”
Do they like each other? No— according to dozens interviewed. But it may not matter. And it could be too much to ask. “When I was first elected,” Lieberman says, “Christopher Dodd told me that the hardest relationship most senators have is with the senator from their own state. He hoped that wouldn’t happen to us.”
Even Cohen, so respected for his decency while serving in the Senate, jostled for attention with his same-state nemesis, Mitchell, who rose during their tenure to positions of greater power, eventually becoming the Senate majority leader in 1989.
The rivalry between the Cohen and Mitchell offices could be heated at times — and kind of pathetic. “We went to ludicrous extremes,” confesses Bob Tyrer. “If we could get an announcement in Mitchell’s hometown paper, taking credit for something he had done — ‘Cohen hails passage of blah, blah, blah . . . ’ – it was like a 12-point word in Scrabble that lands on a triple-bonus square. What’s the expression? The battle was so fierce because the stakes are so small.”
By all accounts, Snowe and Collins have not descended to such antics. Could it be because they are women? “Without question, the women in the Senate are the most collegial group of all,” Roberts says. “They are truly the last bastion of bipartisanship. They get things done, and work together — the way that men and women in Congress used to but don’t anymore.”
“In this time of prickly partisanship,” says Sen. Mikulski, “the Senate women want to be a force. We want to be functional.”
Snowe’s and Collins’s offices issue joint announcements when needed. Their staffs collaborate frequently, and sometimes discuss votes before they are made — in an effort to decide what is best for Maine. Republican organizers in the state say the senators work well together at party functions and complement each other. The animosity between them is “vastly overblown,” says Nicholas Graham, a former press secretary in the Snowe Senate office.
“It’s a healthy tension,” claims Kevin Raye, the president of the Maine Senate, “and it makes the staff better.”
Being a senator
The ground is white. The cars in the parking lot of Hampton Suites in Saco are caked with salt. At 8:30 in the morning, Collins walks out of the hotel lobby elevator. She is wearing a maroon suit that is cut like a “Star Trek” uniform and she is pushing her own luggage trolley, which is weighted down with her suitcase and an assemblage of unmatched bags and totes, as well as a pair of black snow boots.
She is not a morning person. “I mean, really not,” she says.
But how would anyone ever know? Alert and gracious, lipstick and eyeliner perfectly done. Her smile as bright as ever. Thirty minutes later, reading a book called “Antlers Forever” to second-graders at Horace Mitchell Primary School in Kittery Point, she is smooth, so polished that the kids aren’t even fidgeting. They are rapt.
Collins fires questions at them as she goes.
“Has anybody ever seen a moose?”
All hands rise.
She continues reading, and turns a page. Her voice is wobbly and sweet. When she finishes, she closes the book and sets it on her lap. She talks a little bit about being a senator, and what her job is like.
“Do you know,” she asks, “the name of the other senator from Maine?”
She straightens her back a little. “You will recognize her name as soon as you hear it. I promise you will.”
“Because,” Collins says, “she is so well known here in Maine.”
One skinny arm goes up.
“Nooo,” Collins says, with a little flutter in her voice.
Another small hand rises.
“Nooo!” Collins says with the faintest purr. “Olympia Snowe!”
Sherrill is a freelance writer.