Route 1 stretches 527 miles through Maine, from Fort Kent in the north to Kittery in the south. While there are plenty of other roads and ways to travel the length of our fair state more quickly, Route One is considered the more scenic, road less traveled. You may not get where you’re going quickly, but you will see Maine in all of its raw beauty, from the land to the coast to the people.
Shenna Bellows has taken this approach with her campaign to unseat Susan Collins in the US Senate – hitting the pavement from one end of Maine to the other and to spread her message. On July 20th Bellows began her “Walk with ME for Maine Jobs and the Economy” trip where she plans to cover roughly 350 miles of the state by foot meeting with voters along the way and we would hope icing her feet once in a while.
During a recent stop in Bangor we were able to catch up with Bellows to find out how she is coping with bilsters, what she hopes to do in Washington, and how she likes to fill her stein when she’s not on the campaign trail.
Fill The Steins (FTS): Thank you for taking time out of your campaign for to join us and answer some questions. We want to start off by asking about your Walk Across Maine to bring attention to your campaign and the issues that are important to you. How did that idea come about and how will you be combating blisters along the way?
Shenna Bellows (SB): I grew up really respecting Bill Cohen’s commitment to meeting voters and being accountable to the people he wanted to represent. His walk was always an inspiration to me, and when I decided to run for Senate I knew I’d want to do what he did. It’s been as incredible as I hoped it would be, especially in small towns that haven’t seen a candidate in a long time and haven’t been listened to in even longer. My staff and I have gotten good at avoiding blisters. I have a support truck up ahead of me on the route, and I change my shoes when they start to feel tight or uncomfortable. I’ve learned on this walk that shoes get tired and need a rest as much as people do. We have a first aid kit and band-aids that help us try to prevent blisters before they happen. Rather than starting out as fast as possible, I try to keep a steady pace – it’s hard when there are so many voters to meet and talk with, but it helps us end the day’s walk and keep working rather than crashing every afternoon.
FTS: You grew up in Hancock, graduating from Ellsworth High School and spending time doing summer work on Mount Desert Island. Would you categorize yourself as a “Downeaster” and how do you think that coastal work ethic translates into politics?
SB: I’m a Downeaster daughter of a carpenter and a nurse, and if there’s one thing I grew up understanding, it’s hard work. It’s easy to say you don’t quit, but I’ve seen what that really looks like: waking up before sunrise, day after day, pushing yourself as hard as you can to make a living and do what you want to do with your life even when it’s difficult. Running for office isn’t much different some days, but I’m grateful to have the opportunity. Some lawmakers’ strengths are in manipulating the system, finding loopholes and shading the truth. I like to think my strengths are closer to Downeaster values: knowing the value of work, respecting the people around you, understanding that it’s never time to just give up. That’s the kind of senator I’ll be – one who values working class Mainers and doesn’t give up.
FTS: You didn’t go to college at UVM, which is good, but you did end up in upstate Vermont for college at Middlebury where you graduated with honors in economic and environmental sustainability. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose that as a major and how that has translated into your professional career?
SB: I grew up just outside Acadia National Park, seeing how important natural resources and a healthy environment are to Mainers and our economy. Combating climate change with clean, sustainable energy sources is one of my top priorities as Maine’s next senator because I know how valuable a healthy environment is to our communities’ well-being. I’ve carried that with me from childhood as a daughter and student to today as a U.S. Senate candidate. I majored in international politics and economics because sustainable economies – not just in the U.S., but around the world – will build a better future than profit-now strategies that leave nothing for the long term. I wrote my thesis on economic and environmental sustainability for the same reason. Maine has succeeded best when its leaders planned ahead, conserved for the future and took advantage of natural resources without over-exploiting them. We need to get back to that.
FTS: Maine has a massive amount of land to cover for any politician running for office at the national level. In addition to your walk across the state, how do you find success in connecting with voters, and what additional steps do you plan to take in this effort?
SB: We made a strategic decision to start airing television ads in the summer. Typically, campaigns hoard their resources and then only really communicate with voters for a few months right before the election. They throw everything they have against each other and hope to come out on top. I don’t believe in that kind of politics. I think you should talk to people, meet them face-to-face as often as possible, work hard to earn their trust and respect, and then let them make a fully informed decision. I know I can’t meet every voter in Maine, but I can do everything in my power to make sure they’ve heard of me, they know what I stand for, and they know what I’m trying to do for communities like theirs. Rather than waiting until Labor Day to start making my case, I wanted to start as soon as possible and not let up. Our campaign has done that. We’ve also been accessible and transparent on social media, on blogs and in media interviews. I’m happy to go on conservative talk radio because I want to reach conservatives who might agree with me more than they agree with my opponent. I think there’s a tempting but mistaken idea candidates have sometimes that all they need to do is make enough people in their own party dislike the opponent. I’m running to attract everyone from progressives to conservatives who agree with me that the government should get out of our personal lives, make it easier to start a business and help create a stronger economy.
FTS: The majority of our followers are UMaine students and alumni, so we have to ask the question, what are your plans in the US Senate to help ensure affordable higher education?
SB: Student loan debt is a crisis. We are mortgaging our young people’s future. I completely support Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which lets students refinance at lower rates and requires loan counseling for students when appropriate. There’s no mystery about why student loan rates are too high. Bloomberg Businessweek explained it well last year: “Congress set the rates in 2001, when overall rates were higher—and hasn’t changed them since.” When Senate Republicans filibustered Sen. Warren’s bill in June, they probably killed any chance of making progress on the issue until the next Congress is sworn in. I hope to go to Capitol Hill as a new ally for student loan reformers who need more committed support in Washington. I will also pursue expanded student debt forgiveness programs and full funding of higher education to try to reduce tuition inflation.
FTS: Candidates for office, whether at the state or national level, have a platform of topics touching almost every constituent in some way. What is the one single topic that you feel is most important, that you hope to improve or solve in Washington?
SB: Everywhere I go on my Walk Across Maine, I tell voters I believe jobs and the economy have to be our top priority. Without people earning a living, helping their families and feeling pride in their work, our state and our country can’t get much done. Maine’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average on paper, but everywhere you go – and I’ve been all over – there’s a sense that things used to be better and Washington isn’t doing anything to make them right again. Maine needs more jobs, better pay and stronger protections against offshoring, and that’s the biggest reason I’m running for Senate. We can’t afford another six years of voting for corporate tax breaks and filibustering minimum wage increases, as my opponent Republican Susan Collins has done.
FTS: We’ll get you out of here on the same question we end all of our interviews with and that is, when you aren’t on the campaign trail how do you like to fill your stein?
SB: Now that I’m walking across the state, I’m pretty partial to cold Vitamin Water. I’m not sure how many of your readers have tried walking across Maine, but you can’t do it with a water bottle full of oatmeal stout.
For the record, it is important to stay hydrated while walking across the state, but we have to agree that water is probably a better choice than beer. Best of luck to Shenna on her Walk Across Maine and in the upcoming election. Make sure to check out all of our interviews with this year’s candidates as part of our FTS Q&A Maine Politics Series.