Former Senator lectures at CMU

“I’m a fighter, and I don’t give up,” former U.S. Senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe, said at Carnegie Mellon last Friday. In her speech “What’s Gone Wrong in Washington, and Why It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way,” Snowe addressed the Senate’s dysfunction and political polarization. Nowadays, she said, this polarization makes it more difficult for the government to effectively solve problems. Associate Dean of Dietrich College, Joseph Devine, moderated Snowe’s speech.

Snowe also criticized the Senate for not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. She points out that the status quo becomes problematic because the electorate of America is divided, and it is difficult to motivate officials to look past their differences and reconcile through bipartisanship. She explained that the reasons for this division are deeply rooted in the evolution of the government over the last three decades, which make it no longer viable for the majority of senators and congresspeople to work across the party line.

Snowe also said that political realignment is fundamental. “Republicans dominate the South and much of the West, while Democrats take the Northeast and many West coast states,” Snowe said, and Republicans have become “monolithic and ideologically intolerant.” In other words, the widening divergence between the two parties is harming the U.S. political system.

To improve the political system, Snowe called for reconciliation — something that she has been fighting for for decades.
Moreover, she emphasized the participation of people, saying that politics are too dangerous to be left to politicians. She proposed that the Congress should work on a five-day-a-week basis. She said this five-day workweek would be more efficient compared to the existing (and insufficient) two-and-a-half-day workweek.

Snowe also spoke about her career and early life. Snowe’s independence and passion for serving others stemmed from losing both her parents before she was 10 years old. In 1973, when Snowe was 26, her first husband and Maine state congressman Peter Snowe was killed in a car accident. Since she was already dedicated to public service, Olympia ran for the open seat, representing her hometown of Auburn, and won. Thus began her 40 years in politics.

Snowe served in both Houses of the Maine Legislature. She was re-elected in 1974, then moved to the Maine Senate, representing Androscoggin County in 1976. Snowe was U.S. Senator from Maine (1995-2013) and Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives (1979-1995). Her work in the U.S. Senate garnered her nationwide recognition as a leading policymaker in Washington. In 2005, she was named the 54th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine. With her election in 1994, Olympia J. Snowe became only the second female Senator in history to represent Maine, following the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who served from 1949-1973.

In November 2006, Snowe was reelected to a third six-year term in the United States Senate with 74 percent of the vote. Before her election to the Senate, Olympia Snowe represented Maine’s Second Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years.

Senator Snowe is only the fourth woman in history to be elected to both houses of Congress, and the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of state legislature as well as both houses of Congress. Additionally, she is the first Greek-American woman ever elected to Congress. She has won more federal elections in Maine than any other person since World War II.

Snowe had a reputation as one of the Congress’ leading moderates, as she aided in bipartisan consensus on key issues that matter to Maine and America. In 1999, she was cited by Congressional Quarterly for her centrist leadership, and was co-chair with Senator Mary Landrieu of the Common Ground Coalition, a bipartisan, consensus-building forum for communication and cooperation between Senate Democrats and Republicans.

When Snowe was still in the Senate, she worked extensively on a number of issues, such as budget and fiscal responsibility; education, including student financial aid and education technology; national security; women’s issues; health care, including prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients; welfare reform; issues surrounding oceans and fisheries; and campaign finance reform. During her tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, she co-chaired the Congressional Caucus on Women’s issues for ten years and provided leadership in establishing the Office of Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. She also served as a member of the House Budget Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she was Ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on International Operations; and the former House Select Committee on Aging, where she was Ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Human Services.

Snowe stunned Washington when she announced in February 2012 that she would not seek re-election.
Snowe had recognized, she said, that “changes always occur on the other side and not from within,” and decided to take her battle against partisanship outside the institution of government. It was that year that she realized that legistlative polarization is not a short-term problem, so she decided that she would work throughout the country to accomplish her goals. “I’m a fighter and I don’t give up,” Snowe said.

Snowe has published three books, including Women in Congress 1917-2006, Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate, and her most recent book, Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress. In Fighting for Common Ground, published in 2013, Snowe wrote about her political and personal beliefs and goals.