Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Challenger: Can Shenna Bellows ’97 stun the political establishment by upsetting an entrenched incumbent and winning a U.S. Senate seat in Maine?

Published in Middlebury Magazine

Shenna Bellows ’97 is cold. This is not the sort of brief chill that passes now and again: It’s the deep, bone-shaking kind that both racks her slight frame and causes others nearby to shiver in sympathy. I am surprised for two reasons: First, Shenna knows Maine weather well. She grew up here, in a house that didn’t get electricity or running water until she was in fifth grade. When she and her siblings got home from school, their chore was to relight the woodstove. As often as not, though, they would huddle under the bedclothes, doing their homework until their parents got home. It is also surprising because the feeling she usually exudes is not contagious cold but rather infectious, friendly warmth.
Right now, though, Shenna is freezing. We have just gotten in the car after an election-campaign visit to Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, right on the Maine coast. She didn’t check the weather this morning and didn’t bring a coat on this blustery, sprinkling spring day.
As the heat comes on in the car, she settles into the backseat; her staffer-driver and I ride up front to give her space to work. She stops shivering, takes off her shoes, tucks her feet under her, and resumes her most frequent activity: typing on her iPhone.
Sending texts and emails whooshing into the ether is key to Shenna winning what she admits is “an uphill battle” against United States Senator Susan
Collins, a three-term Republican incumbent with a big bankroll, who is widely expected to win handily. Even more crucial will be Shenna’s idea of what a candidate and a campaign can be.
Her vision has paid off before. While heading the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, she co-led the 2012 statewide same-sex marriage referendum that made Maine the first state to approve marriage equality at the ballot box. (Maryland did the same that day.)
The ACLU of Maine lobbied for and won major legislative victories too: passing a first-in-the-nation law requiring police to get a warrant before tracking suspects with cell-phone data, defending transgender Mainers’ rights, limiting police use of drones, and protecting women’s reproductive health rights.
She is still campaigning—and gaining national media attention and donations—for civil-rights protections, economic opportunity and justice, constitutional freedoms, and environmental protection. She is bringing together what she calls “an unusual coalition” of people who, like her, hold positions that transcend stereotypical political divides.
On the left of most Democrats, she backs universal single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana, “bold, visionary action” on climate change, and student-loan debt reform as a means to boost the economic prospects of young college graduates, who face the toughest job market in decades.
In the middle, she supports Internet neutrality and equal pay for women.
And well to the right—at times on turf occupied only by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party—she insists on ending the National Security Agency’s domestic-spying program and repealing the USA PATRIOT Act.
We have been friends for years; when she asked me what I thought would be the hardest thing about her running, I told her she would have to ask people for money not to support a cause, but to back her.
***
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama from 1999 to 2001, Shenna helped give microloans to artisans in a remote community. And, more recently, as executive director of the ACLU of Maine for more than eight years, she was responsible for raising its annual budget of around $750,000, as well as for contributions to the various campaigns the group joined.
But even now, Shenna is not running for herself. She says that she wants her candidacy to be viewed as a revolutionary rethinking of how campaigning—and politics—can and should work. And her plan for victory is very much like her previous public-service efforts, most notably that 2012 same-sex marriage campaign.
Then, supporters had hundreds of thousands of individual conversations with their friends, neighbors, and communities, making personal connections to explain the importance of marriage equality. The strategy gave backers strong talking points they could repeat in their own words, multiplying the effectiveness of the campaign’s direct appeals to the broader public.
Shenna’s fundamental idea, one adopted by few on the left (though many on the far right), is that elections can be won by the power of human connection and fidelity to one’s ideals. (And integrity. Having spent years working for marriage equality, she refused to get married until all Maine couples could; her September 2013 emailed wedding announcement ended with a request: “And please… no gifts. For real,” with a link to the Federal Election Commission’s campaign-finance rules.)
And she believes that beyond being funded by small, individual donations for regular-person candidates (which Tea Party candidates espoused), campaigns should be staffed by actual humans, who have real lives and families amidst the fray.
Hearing Shenna talk about both unseating Maine’s senior senator and upending a broken electoral system is strange not because it’s so divergent from cynical national political punditry, nor because critics might call it na├»ve, but because it’s oddly empowering. It sounds rational, reasonable, possible. It’s an idea whose time, like Shenna’s, may at long last have come.
The execution of Shenna’s impossibly possible candidacy is being shepherded by campaign manager Katie Mae Simpson ’02, a native of rural Washington County, Maine. She’s the type of person for whom political science was too philosophical a major; religion was not.
A lifelong progressive activist and campaigner, Katie Mae was on maternity leave with her second child when Shenna came to her house to ask her to run the campaign. She declined; an all-consuming job running a campaign for U.S. Senate was not compatible with meeting the needs of her young family.
So Shenna went to work employing those skills of connection and persuasion that would go on to make her such an attractive candidate. She told Katie Mae that she wanted her to embody the campaign’s beliefs, to be the standard bearer for a candidacy based on fairness and equality and concern for the everyday Mainer. (To that end, all Shenna’s campaign workers are paid above minimum wage and have health-insurance benefits.)
“The pop culture picture you get of politics is not right for 99 percent of people,” Katie Mae says. So Shenna’s campaign manager (yes, she was quickly persuaded to join the campaign) has set out to reclaim it for the rest of us, which can include breastfeeding her son while conducting an interview. Two other campaign staffers are working mothers whose partners also work full time. Striking a balance is important—teammates who are exhausted from the spring’s battles are of little use come fall’s crunch time.
The same is true of the candidate herself. Her husband, Brandon Baldwin ’98, initially shielded himself from the campaign, hoping to create a refuge where Shenna could escape from the 12-plus-hour-days, seven-days-a-week effort. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Shenna to run— quite the opposite. He’s been supportive of her ambitions ever since she revealed on their fourth or fifth date in 2009 that she was going to run for U.S. Senate some day, possibly soon.
A watershed moment came in February 2012. With the announcement that Olympia Snowe would not run for a fourth Senate term that fall, Maine’s political circles went into a frenzy, handicapping potential successors to the state’s senior senator.
Shenna took a week of unpaid leave from the nonpartisan ACLU to explore her options. But then former independent governor Angus King joined the race (ultimately winning Snowe’s seat handily). Shenna went back to the ACLU, but with a new fire inside.
What surprised her husband about that week was how enthusiastic he felt about the prospect of her being a candidate. It was a powerful realization. “It didn’t feel like it was taking you away from me,” he tells her during a joint interview.
Though removed from the campaign at first, Brandon has slowly become more involved. “It’s tapped into everything that I hold to be important,” he says, admitting that her candidacy has awakened his “somewhat dormant love of politics.” He spoke on Shenna’s behalf at caucuses and house parties, where he would write “campaign spouse” on his nametag sticker. Crucially, he has found himself able to disengage, too. So has she.
“We take one day a month that is our day,” Shenna says. They hike, read, watch movies, sleep in, relax. It’s a private—and vital—aspect of the campaign they both say.
During this joint interview, Shenna suddenly stands up and walks to the fridge, retrieving a card that has been hanging there since she started campaigning. On the front is an inspirational quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is a note from Shenna to herself.
Brandon is surprised: He has seen the card daily for months, without realizing there was a message inside. Shenna wrote herself resolutions as she began the campaign. Highlights include “have fun,” “be your authentic self,” and, finally, what Shenna declares as “the most important rule of this race: ‘Love matters most.’”

***
Love is a strange value to want to bring to Washington, D.C. Congressman Mike Michaud, a Democrat now running to be Maine’s next governor, says that Shenna would do well in the nation’s capital, working hard to forge connections in spite of the heightened partisanship that has infected the city.
Shenna says that she’d bring activist organizing tactics to Congress, meeting with lawmakers as a colleague, while facilitating conversations between legislators and regular citizens. She wants other legislators to hear about the mother Shenna met who is a student and has a full-time job, but still can’t cover all of her bills. “She eats one meal a day so her son can eat three,” Shenna says, tearing up.
At a recent political rally, a woman told Shenna her house had just been foreclosed upon. And there she was, offering to volunteer for Shenna’s campaign, hoping for change. “There are people who are persevering in really horrible situations,” Shenna says. “That is humbling.”
Shenna’s personal touch goes a long way. On an evening in Lewiston, in a room full of Democratic supporters, Shenna makes sure to talk to each one, working the room with a smile, a ready hug for friends, and a laugh audible across the gathering. At one point she leaps with joy and shouts “Yay!” The next second, she regains composure and says soberly, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very senatorial.” But she is beaming: She has just learned that she was endorsed by the Maine People’s Alliance, a statewide progressive grassroots organization.
Her support is broader, though. Chuck Quintero, the director of the Maine Democratic Party’s coordinated statewide campaign, says of Shenna’s appeal across the political spectrum: “She kind of puts a wrench in our partisan politics. . . .We have to reach out to lots of people we might not otherwise.”
Just hours before Quintero’s half-complaint, some party faithful were lamenting—to Shenna’s face—her insistence on meeting with people she often disagrees with. Shenna had begun the day sparring amiably with popular Maine conservative Ray Richardson on his talk-radio show. Long a fan of Shenna’s, particularly on privacy and limited-government issues, he has announced on the air that he is not voting for Collins. (Cagily, he hasn’t endorsed Shenna—yet.)
Alienation and division get in the way of the important work she wants to do, Shenna says. When she learned that independent U.S. Senator Angus King was about to endorse Collins, Shenna was gracious, but worked to defuse any partisan angst. Moving quickly, she set up interviews on early morning TV and radio programs, so viewers and listeners would hear the news from her. It defused a problem political commentators might have harped on for months.
While still firmly in underdog territory, Shenna’s campaign is on solid footing. She outraised Collins in the first quarter of the race and has already hit $1 million in total fundraising, with the vast majority of that money coming from Maine residents giving under $100.
It’s late May, and Shenna and I are heading south on I-295 when we spot a “Shenna Bellows – U.S. Senate” bumper sticker on a car ahead of us.  As we pass it, she looks carefully at the driver and exults, half-kidding: “And I don’t even know him!” The driver must be a big fan: Our rear-view mirror shows a Bellows sticker on the front bumper too.
***

Though Shenna is still a relative unknown, those who know her like her—indeed, many Mainers agree with her positions on key issues, and, perhaps more important, disagree with Collins. Tasked with becoming better known every day, she is giving a nod to a state political tradition of sorts: She has planned a month-long, 350-mile walk across Maine to draw media attention and connect more directly with all stripes of voters.
Being the underdog energizes her. “The only way to win is to outwork my opponent. The only way to do that is to organize and inspire,” she says.
Brandon chimes in: “Then if you win, it’s an endorsement” of that approach by the voters. “It’s the best possible way to win.”
It is a winning strategy, whether Shenna beats Collins or not, says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election analysis website at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics that calls Collins’s seat safe.  Skelley points out in an email that though Maine leans Democratic at the federal level and despite Republicans’ national image problems, Collins’s reelection margins have been high. “In a midterm cycle with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans are naturally positioned to do better,” he says. “About the only way to change that would be for a scandal to develop that centrally involves Collins.”
Nevertheless, Skelley sees a silver lining for Shenna. “While she may deny this, a failed Senate run against a powerful politician like Collins may serve as a stepping stone for her political future,” he says. “If Bellows acquits herself well enough in a difficult race where she stands little chance to win, she might get another electoral shot in the future in more favorable circumstances.”
For the long term, Shenna believes her campaign is on “the right side of history” on the crucial issues facing the nation and the world. But the short term is here. And she is hoping two parallels in Maine’s political history are on her side. In 1964, the unsinkable Republican senator Margaret Chase Smith was beaten by Democrat Bill Hathaway. And more recently, Angus King entered the governor’s race as a relative unknown, and beat, yes, Susan Collins.
“A lot can happen between June and November,” Shenna says.