The Democratic US Senate primary is a struggle between two minor political-candidate types. In one corner: the Left-wing Perennial, Jean Hay Bright, who belongs to a distinctively Maine old-hippie subtype. In the other corner: the Mysterious Stranger, Eric Mehnert, who had never been sighted before in Maine politics. In bird watching, he would be known as an accidental, but he also belongs to the common Democratic species of liberal lawyer.
Both candidates belong to the genus of Self-Sacrificial Lamb. No established politician wanted to challenge the highly popular incumbent, Republican Olympia Snowe. This November she may set the Maine record for votes for a Senate candidate, says Chris Potholm, Republican pollster.
Hay Bright, 58, was a 1970s urban-refugee homesteader and is still an organic farmer in Dixmont. A former reporter and environmental activist, she did poorly in the 1994 congressional and 1996 senatorial primaries. Interviewed on the first day of the recent Democratic State Convention in Augusta, she looked like she had stepped out of a movie parody of the 1970s, with bad hair, bumblebee-yellow jacket, and plastic-looking, sickly red pants. If she wins the primary, her outfits will be a contrast to Snowe’s rich-lady, black-and-gold haute couture.
But Hay Bright is totally dedicated to making the world a better place. She has the sincere smile that many professional politicians sold with the rest of their souls when they ran for student council president in high school. Although she falters in media appearances, she gave a stirring speech at the convention, blasting out liberal positions like a machine-gunner.
By May 24, she had received $33,000 in contributions from about 275 individuals, her husband and campaign manager, David Bright, reports. This sum contrasts with the $2.4 million collected by Snowe as of the same date — and Snowe doesn’t even have a primary opponent.
“It’s the perfect time to run against her,” Hay Bright says, in an unaccountably chipper way.
She adds, in another non-sequitur: “I’m her first woman opponent. She’s never had a woman run against her who’s stronger than her on women’s issues.”
She explains that she wouldn’t have voted, as Snowe did, to confirm Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court. Many social conservatives anticipate Alito will provide the key vote to make abortion illegal. (See “Ditched,” by Sara Donnelly, March 3.)
Hay Bright also cites her differences with Snowe on such issues as the Iraq War (Snowe voted for it, and Hay Bright says “Bring our troops home now!”), the bankruptcy bill (Snowe voted for it, and it hurts the little guy to benefit the banks), and National Security Agency spying on Americans (Snowe is sponsoring a bill to legitimize it, Hay Bright notes).
If she is chosen in the primary, she says, “It will show that the grass roots of the Democratic Party are ready to take back the country.” Populist former presidential candidate Congressman Dennis Kucinich has endorsed her.
“She’s running a courageous fight,” says former legislator Neil Rolde, grimacing when asked why he contributed to her campaign. “I know how difficult it’s going to be.”
He ran in 1990 against another popular Republican senator, William Cohen. Despite putting much of his considerable fortune into the race, he got squashed.