Editor’s note: Third in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
Debra Plowman warns people not to be fooled by her soft voice and soft looks. Sound advice from the 51-year-old grandmother.
Plowman has won nine elections and lost none, so she’s one of the longest-serving members of Maine’s Legislature. She hopes to win a couple more and become Maine’s next U.S. senator.
“I’m not all that easy to push around,” said Plowman, who last year became assistant majority leader in the state Senate.
Plowman is one of six Republicans who hope to win their party’s nomination June 12, then win in November and replace Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
The lawmaker from Hampden is the only woman in the GOP primary and the most politically experienced of the three socially conservative candidates who are vying for the support of the party’s right wing. She also helped to build a successful family business, PDQ Door Co.
Plowman has some big challenges to overcome. Her name isn’t widely known outside of her legislative district, and she lags behind other candidates in fundraising, in part because she was wrapping up the legislative session when her opponents were calling donors.
She had raised $5,261 and spent just $160 as of March 31, the end of the most recent reporting period. Her campaign, unlike her opponents’, is an all-volunteer effort.
Lawmakers who know Plowman and her election record aren’t writing off her chances.
“She could be a potential sleeper,” said Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
Hobbins called Plowman the road-tested conservative in the GOP race. And, while they disagree on many issues, Plowman was good to work with in negotiations across the political aisle, he said. “She was aggressive but respectful.”
Plowman was born in Birmingham, Ala., and raised the first few years of her life by her grandmother there after her mother died. She moved to Lewiston when she was 5 years old with her father, who was in the Navy.
She has worked multiple jobs ever since high school at St. Dominic Academy in Auburn.
It was at the Catholic school where she first took a stand against abortion. That stand would carry over into a 16-year legislative career. Plowman was 14 in 1974, when she and her St. Dom’s classmates raised money and went to Washington, D.C., for the national prayer breakfast on the one-year anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Plowman studied political science at the University of Southern Maine, where she met her future husband and business partner, David.
She left USM before graduation and went to work full time as a legal secretary with law firms and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Bangor, moonlighting as a typist. In 1992, she took a typing job for a former state representative from Hampden who was looking for a Republican to run for his seat.
‘I can do that’
“I heard him talk at the Republican caucus and said, ‘Yeah, maybe I can do that,’” Plowman said.
She ran, and won a three-way general election with 65 percent of the vote.
In her first two legislative sessions, she sponsored successful bills to boost child support collections from dead-beat dads and reduce the practice of state government placing at-risk children with foster parents instead of family members.
Plowman spent 16 of the last 20 years in the Maine House and Senate, rising to assistant Senate majority leader when Republicans took the majority in 2010. It was Plowman’s job to teach the ropes to new legislators and committee chairs, to help manage amendments and floor votes and whip Republicans into line when necessary, which she said was a matter of listening and problem-solving.
“She has a remarkable ability to walk into a room and size up the situation,” said Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, a candidate for Maine’s 1st Congressional District seat. “You know where she stands. She doesn’t back down. She’s a strong voice.”
Plowman took a four-year break from the Legislature after she and her husband started PDQ Door in 1995. (PDQ stands for Pretty Darn Quick.) The overhead door company has since grown from a four-person operation to 50 employees with six locations around the state.
Plowman talks to voters about creating jobs and the responsibility of making payroll for 50 families. But she is best known as a conservative, pro-business, anti-abortion stalwart in the Legislature.
“I’m very fiscally conservative. I’m very socially conservative. I have no problem saying that,” Plowman said at her official campaign launch last month in Lewiston.
She is a longtime and unapologetic member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national business-backed group that pushes for conservative state legislation.
The council has been criticized in recent months for promoting gun rights policies, such as Florida’s “stand your ground” law, and promoting bills to weaken labor unions and tighten voter identification rules.
Plowman has supported waiting periods and parental notification for abortion and repeatedly introduced legislation to give legal victim status to fetuses killed as a result of violence, such as the murder of a woman who is pregnant.
The bills have consistently been defeated in the pro-choice Maine Legislature, although Plowman isn’t conceding.
“Some issues will take longer to come around,” she said.
While Plowman’s views on abortion may help her in the primary, some of her campaign rhetoric has drawn criticism from outside the party.
At a candidates’ forum last month in Bangor, for example, she told an audience of conservative Christians about a neighbor who was pressured by Planned Parenthood to get an abortion even though she didn’t want one and said medical school students are required to perform abortions to graduate.
Megan Hannon of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England disputed both claims.
“I don’t want to call Senator Plowman a liar, but we definitely don’t do that,” Hannon said. “We counsel women with facts. We don’t judge, we don’t use scare tactics and we don’t tell people how to make decisions.”
And, while medical school students who specialize in obstetrics and gynecology learn about doing abortions and removing fetuses after miscarriage, they are not required to perform abortions to graduate, she said.
Plowman is leaving the state Senate this year because of term limits. She said she was already planning a future run for Congress when Snowe announced her unexpected retirement in February.
“I want to make this my tenth win,” she said.