Shenna Bellows knows she’s facing an uphill battle to unseat US Senator Susan Collins, the Republican from Caribou. Collins, an incumbent who enjoys her carefully crafted reputation as a moderate conservative, handily beat former US representative Tom Allen in 2008. She was instrumental in brokering a compromise to end the government shutdown earlier this month (a shutdown she actually voted for before she tried to end it, but nevermind that). She has more than two million dollars in the bank, which won’t be depleted before the general election unless she faces a right-wing primary challenger, and one has yet to emerge. In light of all this, a friend recently advised Bellows to “enjoy the freedom of being the underdog.”
But while Collins is a formidable opponent, she will face a legitimate challenge from Bellows, who just stepped down as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, a post she held for nearly a decade. The 38-year-old Hancock native presided over the state chapter of the ACLU as it achieved significant victories, including requiring police to obtain probable-cause warrants before tracking individuals through their cell phones, marriage equality for same-sex couples, and rejection of the Real ID Act in Maine. Some of these efforts have won the Democrat unlikely champions in the form of those who lean libertarian.
Bellows, who formally launched her campaign at the Rising Tide Brewery in Portland this Wednesday at noon, recently hit a $50,000 fundraising goal, but admits this aspect of campaigning isn’t her favorite. “One of the things I’d like to change if elected is our campaign finance system,” she says. “There are enormous barriers to entry. People like me don’t usually run for federal office. And that’s why we have a Congress of millionaires instead of average people, and that’s a problem.”
When it comes to her millionaire opponent, Bellows speaks adroitly, but with pointed criticism.
“I respect Susan Collins’s work ethic,” Bellows says, acknowledging the senator’s long tenure of public service — the year Collins was sworn into the US Senate, 1997, is the same year Bellows graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in international politics and economics. “But in those nearly 20 years we’ve experienced an economic crisis, a constitutional crisis, and an environmental crisis. I’m interested in working in all three of those areas to restore economic fairness, restore our Constitutional freedoms, and address, in a significant way, the looming crisis of climate change.”
The Phoenix sat down with Bellows at her home in Manchester, just outside Augusta, to talk about those issues and many more. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Under what circumstances did you decide to run? I made the decision to run when I was working on the cell-phone privacy bill in the legislature. We had this amazing coalition of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Greens; some of our harshest opponents were some of my best friends. But what we were able to do was pull this really diverse coalition together and be one of two states in the country to pass groundbreaking cell-phone privacy legislation and we were one of five veto overrides [in the state legislature]. One of the ACLU philosophies that I have taken to heart is the philosophy of “no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”