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Olympia Snowe, on compromise, Citizens United and former colleague Kay Hagan

CHARLOTTE – Olympia Snowe made her case for a return to governing from the “sensible center,” and she did it with conviction. But while the audience was both loud and supportive at a women’s summit in Charlotte, no one – and that includes the former Republican U.S. senator from Maine — thought it would be easy.

Snowe was considered moderate in her approach and her politics when she decided not to run for a fourth term in the Senate in 2012. How bad had it gotten? Republicans and Democrats honored her at separate celebrations, a departure from the past. “It’s not even bipartisan today to say goodbye,” she said. Snowe lamented as a “tragedy” elected officials “surrounded by all this history but not inspired by it.”

Former GOP senator Olympia Snowe believes the values of political teamwork and collaboration must be restored for government to work. (Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty) Former GOP senator Olympia Snowe (seen here in a 2010 photo) says the values of political teamwork and collaboration must be restored for government to work. (Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty)

Snowe, who had served in her state and Washington for four decades, said she “loved being in the legislative branch of government.” She said she is just as committed as she travels the country urging others to become vocal by demanding accountability from elected officials in social media in real time and supporting candidates who value teamwork, collaboration and compromise. There is, she said, “no other sphere of life where you get 100 percent of what you want – none. If there is, let me know about it.”

The 2014 summit of the UNC Charlotte Women + Girls Research Alliance on Friday provided Snowe the perfect audience of about 400. She complimented the group’s “credible, nonpartisan” research on issues that resonate with women, including poverty, the wage gap, homelessness and domestic violence. “Facts matter,” she said. “All too often facts fall prey to ideological and partisan warfare.”

At the conference and in her book “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress,” which she signed for a long line of admirers, she offered some solutions, including  open primaries and independent redistricting committees to break up gerrymandered boundaries that overwhelmingly favor one party. Both would give independent voters a louder voice and encourage more center right and center left candidates, Snowe said. She said a five-day work week in Washington would help lawmakers get to know their colleagues and focus on issues that matter to the country.

“The forces of division are well organized, and they are united,” she said. “But the majority of Americans want their government to work, and it needs to work for all of us.”

Snowe, who endorsed Mitt Romney, her party’s candidate, in 2012, blames Democrats and Republicans for the gridlock. On Friday, she rather nostalgically recalled legislative alliances in the Senate that crossed political lines – for example, her work with Democrat Ted Kennedy on a bill to prevent discrimination based on the results of genetic testing.

Last week’s standoff on a Paycheck Fairness Act that was rejected by Republicans in the Senate was more about the next election than solutions, Snowe said. She agreed with questions about language in the bill concerning civil lawsuits, and said adjustments could have reconciled differences. But, “you solve the problem, you don’t have anything to talk about,” she said, or “have millions to spend on in these third-party ads.”

It’s fitting that Snowe dropped into North Carolina with this message, a state in the middle of a tumultuous midterm election campaign and a Senate race – defined so far by a barrage of those third-party ads — that could tip the balance in Washington.

In an interview with She the People after her keynote speech, Snowe talked about the monthly dinner she shared with women senators – “those voices make a difference” – including North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan.

“I’m not weighing in on any election,” said Snowe. She did, however, have positive words for Hagan. “I worked with Kay. She was tremendous to work with; she worked across party lines.”

She said the Supreme Court is headed “in the wrong direction” in its decisions on campaign financing.

“My provision that was struck down by the court in Citizens United addressed issue advocacy,” she said, “to make a distinction between those that were advocating for positions on issues that were before Congress and those that were designed to influence the outcome of an election.” She said, “There was a very distinct difference.”

Snowe said there is still much that can be done for transparency, accountability and disclosure for groups behind third-party advertising. “We have to address this issue on all of these ads because ultimately candidates want to be able to run their own campaigns, I did, not to have outside groups coming in and spending millions and millions of dollars. … “It has really turned the campaign finance system on its head.

“Ninety percent of these ads that are on are attack ads, so it demonizes the other side, it demonizes candidates. It enhances the negativity of these campaigns; it spills over to the legislative process.”

“I think most Americans are in the middle,” Snowe said. They want the government to work. There are a lot of shared beliefs. From that standpoint, you could galvanize people now. …Now people understand it matters.”

Former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts said she thought Snowe’s call to action could start with women. “They’re community minders, community builders,” she said, who understand “the long-term impact of issues like education and poverty.”

Civic leader Sarah Shifflet asked Snowe where she could sign up. Shifflet is a registered Republican who said she has become “embarrassed” by what she considers the “extreme stance” of GOP-led legislation in North Carolina. “I love my state,” she said, and is worried that those in the middle are fearful of entering a political process characterized by such polarized campaigning. “Women are problem solvers.”

Clarissa Brooks, 18, a high school newspaper and yearbook editor, was part of a GenerationNation group of engaged students who asked Snowe’s advice. “I’m a voter; I’m a citizen,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of kids who care about community service and volunteering.”

Snowe encouraged her as she pressed her own cause of bipartisan collaboration: “Your future is at stake.”

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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