The Voice of Caribou
At a school reunion in a small-town Maine hotel, the most celebrated member of Caribou High's class of '71 is reminiscing with friends about school plays and English teachers. It is several weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, and the conversation is casual and easy, soon turning to the highlight of every autumn—the three-week recess when students would pitch in to help with the annual potato harvest. "It really did teach you the value of hard work," says Sen. Susan Collins, 48, who has come from Washington, D.C., to her hometown, 15 miles from the Canadian border, just to visit with old chums. She was such a slow spud picker and so dreaded the 12-hour days, she recalls, that she chose to work for a small farm so she could finish a couple of days before her friends. "I knew if I had to rely on my hands to make a living," she says, "I was going to be in deep trouble."
Instead, she followed the lead of her parents—both former Caribou mayors—and paternal grandfather, who was a state legislator, to a political career that led her at age 44 to Capitol Hill. There, the first-term moderate Republican has earned a reputation as an independent thinker who refuses to give in to partisan blustering. That, too, may be explained by her roots in Maine, which she visits frequently. "Going home centers me and grounds me and reminds me of what is important," she says, referring to friends, family gatherings and the natural beauty of her home state. Those values are even more treasured now for Collins, who has become a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and who visited Ground Zero nine days after the collapse of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. "The memories will stay with me the rest of my life," says Collins, who applauds President Bush's new war against terrorism. "America will prevail."
She never shies from a worthy battle. The first freshman senator to chair the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, she has used her clout to fight Internet fraud, securities scams and Medicare corruption. And while she fully supports Bush, Collins has not held back in opposing him if she feels strongly enough, as she did on his plan to allow gas and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "You can't grow up in Maine and not care about the quality of our air," she says. Such candor has not always played well within her party. "She claims to be for limited government, but she is an enabler for the nanny state," says John Reisman, who teaches economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias and takes issue with Collins's opposition to school vouchers.
Even if it costs her some good will in her party, Collins has made it a mission to battle partisanship, teaming, for instance, with Democratic senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York and now-independent Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to sponsor the Clean Power Act, which seeks to reduce power-plant emissions. "Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas," she says. "Oftentimes, the best solutions are crafted from the center." A highlight of her Senate term was an attempt to bridge the bitter divide over the impeachment of President Clinton. As Republicans and Democrats dug in their heels with the vote approaching, Collins drafted a three-page resolution that would have condemned Clinton while stopping short of conviction. "It would have sent a message to future generations," Collins says of her proposal, which drew national attention before she withdrew it for lack of support. "I felt the weight of history was on my shoulders."
History has always loomed large for Collins, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather served in Maine's legislature. Her mother also headed the University of Maine's board of trustees, and her uncle was a state supreme court judge. Born in 1952, the third of six children of Donald, 75, and Patricia, 74, Collins was a leader from an early age. "She was able to inspire people to try things they would never try," says classmate Jean Wakem, 48, a social worker in Searsmont, Maine. Not interested in the family lumber business, Collins—who had pitched in on her father's first legislative campaign—sought a career in public service. After graduating from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., in 1975, she had an internship with William Cohen—then a Republican Maine congressman, later a senator and Clinton's Secretary of Defense—who recognized her talent. "Susan is intelligent and has a laser-like intensity," he says.
She spent 12 years working for Cohen, then headed Maine's Commission of Professional and Financial Regulation, which regulates banks and insurance companies. In 1992 she was named New England Administrator of the Small Business Administration. That gave her sufficient stature in Maine to launch a 1994 run for governor, her first bid for public office. But the campaign proved painful after a reporter asked Collins about her brother Michael, now 51, who had been arrested—and was later convicted—for attempting to purchase half a ton of marijuana from an undercover cop. "It was very difficult for me," says Collins, who insists she was blindsided by the revelation and ultimately lost the election. "I felt particularly bad for my parents." She bounced back to replace Cohen in 1997, when he left the Senate for the Clinton Cabinet. "People liked her feisty attitude," says Christian Potholm, a political science professor at Bowdoin College. "She seemed like one of them."
Those who know her well say it's no act. "Her mind is in Washington," says Stephen Diamond, a member of Maine's Public Utility Commission and a colleague from her state government days. "But her soul is in Caribou." That has made her a solid advocate for small towns across the country. When the Clinton Administration slashed Medicare in 1997, she teamed with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to restore funding that benefited rural areas. "I don't make it a practice to go around to other states for Republicans," says Feingold, who did so in Maine. "She's just terrific to work with."
Indeed, Senate colleagues have high expectations for her. "During her career, we're going to have a woman President," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), "and it could be her." Collins, who is single and has no children, says she plans to run for Senate again next year but is not interested in a job that would keep her away from Maine. Returning to her home in Bangor and summer house on a lake in West Enfield, she enjoys kayaking and cooking dinner for various friends and colleagues. "It's basically a gabfest," says Julie Green, director of public affairs at Bangor's Husson College, where Collins worked before her Senate election. "She doesn't go up there to be a hermit."
In fact, despite her stature, Collins mingles casually in Maine, often visiting Caribou, where her parents and two brothers still live. At the reunion, dressed in a decidedly unsenatorial floral print dress, she embraced friends who remember her as a wholesome A student. Only toward the end of the night does she rise to give a toast, lauding the adventurous spirit of her classmates and then quickly returning to her seat. She has already sat down when she catches herself. "I forgot one thing," she says. "I really need your vote next year."
Tom Duffy in Caribou and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.