The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the decision loomed, anti-Kavanaugh demonstrators weighed on a Maine senator’s tiny staff

Kate Simson, state office representative for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), fields phone calls from constituents about their opinions on Brett M. Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in Collins's Portland office on Thursday. (Tristan Spinski/For The Washington Post)

PORTLAND, Maine — The first visitor Kate Simson greeted Thursday morning at Sen. Susan Collins’s office was a pastor who came to share her story of sexual abuse.

The 72-year-old woman, her cleric’s collar loose around her neck, bent her head and began reading from a letter that described how her grandfather molested her. “He would take me in his lap and fondle me beneath my underpants,” the Rev. Anne Fowler read in a trembling voice.

She glanced up at Simson, who was taking notes. Simson has done this for thousands of protesters who have passed through this small office in the three months since Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was announced and for tens of thousands of others who began showing up here to register their frustrations starting the day after President Trump’s election in 2016.

Trump’s boisterous, unruly, norm-defying presidency has shaken up the country’s political life. No place has been more changed than the small four-person office Simson runs for Maine’s lone Republican senator.

Collins, one of a vanishing breed of moderates, has for the past two years been a key swing vote on just about every contentious issue that has come before the U.S. Senate and the nation.

That role has transformed Simson, a single mother of two and Collins’s state office representative, into a portal for aggrieved Mainers, and increasingly the entire country, to vent, rage, share personal stories and plead their case. Most of the demonstrators at her office opposed the nomination.

“A professional protest greeter” is how Simson sometimes describes herself these days. On Thursday and Friday, she was also a last hope for those seeking to influence the vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

She briefly locked eyes with Fowler, who was still recalling her trauma. “And yet, as a young child, I kept being sent up to say hello to Grandpa,” the reverend continued. “I’m living proof of the power of repression, of the elusiveness of memory.”

“Thank you for sharing that,” Simson said.

“It’s never easy, but it’s necessary,” the reverend replied.

With that, Simson walked through the door into her small, gray-carpeted office where the phones have been ringing nonstop for much of the past two years. Outside in the waiting room, which Simson recently cleared of furniture so there would be more room for protesters to gather, Fowler wondered whether her letter had moved Simson.

“When I looked up, she had stopped taking notes,” Fowler said. The reverend took that as a sign that the emotional impact of her words had forged a connection. “It seemed as if she was listening carefully,” she said.

Behind her office door, Simson glanced out her eighth-floor window toward Lobsterman Park, where the protesters usually gather before they make their way to her office. There were a handful of marchers holding signs.

“Dare I say, it seems quiet,” she told her staffer Ryan Angelo, 31, who was fielding calls from around Maine and around the world. He arched an eyebrow.

Simson, 40, was raised as a political junkie in neighboring Vermont, where her mother served as a Republican in the state legislature. As a child, she helped her run for office, blowing up helium balloons bearing her mother’s face and campaigning door to door with her. She moved to Maine with her former husband in 2007, volunteered for a congressional campaign, worked on a local referendum in her hometown of Scarborough and got involved in county politics.

She landed a full-time job with Collins in 2014. Her first two years were filled with typical fieldwork — helping constituents negotiate the federal bureaucracy and business outreach. She went suit shopping with the senator at Macy’s and learned to keep an extra set of stockings for Collins in her purse in case she got a run in them right before an event.

Everything changed, though, with Trump’s election. The first waves of protesters came to the office in February 2017 to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination to be education secretary. “DeVos was huge,” Simson said. “We had outraged families coming by, especially those with disadvantaged children” who worried services were going to be cut. Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) were the only Republicans to oppose her nomination.

Other waves of disapproval followed Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general and last year’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In December, Simson had to call police to arrest nine religious leaders who set up a portable toilet in her waiting room and tried to stage an overnight sit-in at her office to oppose Trump’s tax bill.

“We are gentle, loving people, and we are singing for our lives,” they sang as police led them away in handcuffs.

Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 vaulted the protests to a new level. Out-of-state progressive groups, such as UltraViolet and MoveOn, began organizing demonstrations, Simson said. Protesters no longer just wanted to share their stories. “Increasingly, they are focused on filming me as they hand me something,” Simson said.

In the past month, protest groups have delivered more than 1,000 hangers — many of them spray-painted red — to Simson’s office, symbolizing the threat to women if Kavanaugh votes to overturn Roe v. Wade. One group staged “a die-in” at Collins’s office in Lewiston, about 30 miles north, that included a woman splashing her pants with red paint as part of a mock abortion. Last week, another group mailed cardboard penis cutouts with the message: “F---You and the donor class you rode in on.”

There have been regular death threats. “You don’t deserve a uterus,” protesters have yelled at Simson.

Last Friday, she had to close the office 15 minutes early so police would have time to detain protesters who refused to leave and also finish their paperwork. Her worry: If she waited until 5:01 p.m. — the normal closing time — she’d be late to pick up her children, ages 12 and 14, from their after-school activities.

It has become harder and harder for Simson not to take the stress home with her. She was deboning a roasted chicken a few weeks ago after work and started sobbing. “I was just mentally and physically exhausted by the barrage,” she said. “I get that people feel the need to tell me how they feel face to face. When you are looking a person in the eye, you feel more heard. But it becomes a lot. That night, it just pushed me over the edge.”

Another frustration: The almost ceaseless demonstrations are making it hard for constituents who need help with Veterans Affairs benefits or emergency medical visas to get through to Simson and her team. For years, this had been their bread and butter.

Simson also has begun to worry about the pressure the country’s dysfunctional politics imposes on Collins, her boss. “Is this even sustainable for everything to come down to the same handful of senators?” she asked. “Is it fair?”

She glanced up at CNN. A picture of the senator looked back at her, over a chyron that read: “Key GOP Sen. Collins: FBI probe ‘appears very thorough.’ ”

Simson snatched up one of the office phones that never stop ringing. On the other end, a man was spitting expletives. “How can Senator Collins say this is a full investigation?” he yelled. “She needs to get her head out of her a--!”

On Thursday, most of the big outside protest groups were focused on ferrying demonstrators to Washington for thunderous protests of the sort that would paralyze the Hart Senate Office Building.

The 100 or so protesters who came to Collins’s Maine office were a mix of Simson’s regulars from the past two years, most of whom she knew by name, and some newcomers. A pair of women had driven seven hours from Syracuse, N.Y. A hotel worker had hopped the 6:25 a.m. ferry from Chebeague Island.

Amanda Nash, 59, and Susan Erony, 69, decided to drive two hours up the coast that morning from Gloucester, Mass.

“F---ing sham of an investigation,” Nash had texted her friend after flipping on the morning news and seeing the FBI had finished its work. “Let me know if you want to go.”

Now they were standing in front of Simson, who was jotting notes in a black notebook, her 11th since Trump became president. Most of the day’s comments from the in-person visits, the phone calls and the thousands of letters that clutter the conference table in Simson’s office would get boiled down into a few paragraphs that she would email to Collins’s D.C. office at the day’s end. From there, someone would pass them to the senator.

“We’re so depressed,” Erony told her.

“We’re freaked out,” Nash added.

Around 2 p.m., about a half-dozen of Simson’s regulars arrived and took up positions on the floor in Collins’s waiting room. Naomi Mayer, 68, a member of the protest group March Forth, asked about Simson’s kids and offered her homemade cookies. Then she delivered her remarks of the day for Simson, who wrote them down.

“We do believe we’re watching the demise of our democracy,” Mayer told her.

Jackie, 52, who declined to give her last name to protect her privacy, pulled Simson aside for a more personal testimony. “I’m a sexual abuse survivor, and my wife is, too. We’ve been through so much therapy,” she said, her face turning red and her voice choked with emotion. “But the hardest part is my 16-year-old daughter, who woke up the day after the election and said, ‘Does this mean it’s okay for a man to grope and violate me?’ ”

“I can’t have my daughter go through life feeling like a piece of meat,” she added. “I know you feel the same way.”

“I have a 14-year-old daughter,” Simson replied.

Back inside her office, Simson glanced at the latest CNN banner, which now read: “Key GOP Sen. Collins Returns to Review FBI Report.” On the office’s voice mail was a death threat she would report to the Capitol Police and a tirade from a local nursing professor who had visited the office several times.

“If she caves on this, she can f---ing forget about ever getting anything done in this state,” he screamed. “I am f---ing irate, and you are pathetic.”

With that, she shut down the office for the day. It was a little after 5 p.m. as Simson strode past protesters in Lobsterman Park who were shouting in the direction of Simson’s now empty office.

“Susan Collins, sexual violence is not a partisan roadblock,” a woman yelled through a bullhorn.

On Friday morning, with the phones still ringing, Simson watched the senators vote 51 to 49 to advance the nomination to a final vote. Murkowski was the lone Republican who voted against pushing the nomination forward. Collins voted in favor but said she would reveal her final decision on Kavanaugh later that day.

“It’s not going to be her and Murkowski anymore,” Simson said, looking up at her television where the two female lawmakers, seated next to each other on the Senate floor, were talking. “It’s just going to be her.”

Just after 3 p.m., Collins began speaking. Simson kept one eye on the senator on television and another on security footage from her waiting room, packed with about two dozen protesters praying she would oppose the judge.

“When passions are most inflamed, fairness is most in jeopardy,” said Collins, making a dispassionate case for the judge’s respect for legal precedent. The senator’s speech was also a plea for comity, moderation and the “common values” that bond Americans together. All have been increasingly scarce during the past two years.

“I will vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh,” Collins said.

Simson’s eyes at that moment were fixed on her boss. She had been unsure what Collins would decide but was prepared to support her either way.

“It was the best speech I’ve ever heard her give,” Simson said. “I’ve got goose bumps. I’m so proud.”

Simson could hear the two dozen protesters outside her office door moan: “Shame.” She could see them on the security camera, staring at the floor, hugging and crying. After about 10 minutes, most of the protesters quietly collected their belongings and filed out. A few who remained said they would wait in the room until Simson called the police at 5 p.m., when the office closed, to have them arrested.