AUGUSTA — In a speech to business leaders Friday, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe praised small businesses and pledged to keep working to improve the Senate from the outside after she retires in January.

Snowe was the keynote speaker and guest of honor at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce annual dinner at the Augusta Civic Center. She received the 2012 Alton “Chuck” Cianchette Business Hall of Fame Award and was lauded for her attention to military issues, fiscal responsibility and the needs of Maine businesses.

“As I talked to business leaders present tonight, without exception the people told me that Sen. Snowe has been remarkable in her accessibility, that time and again when they would go to Washington to talk about an issue of importance to them, they would meet with Sen. Snowe herself, and she would give generously of her time to make sure that she understood their concerns,” said Frank McGinty, the chamber’s board chairman.

Snowe’s husband and former governor, John McKernan, said she always was concerned about America’s place in the world and Maine’s place in America.

A tribute video shown at the event featured comments from Maine residents, Democratic and Republican senators and former President George H.W. Bush, who all praised Snowe for her hard work and drive to find bipartisan solutions to national problems.

Snowe, a moderate Republican, traced her political roots to Maine’s tradition of independence, embodied by figures like former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. She said she’s been told that when she was a baby, Republican and Democratic legislators held her in their laps when they ate at her parents’ diner near the State House.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, there. That’s how bipartisanship was ingrained in my political DNA,’” she said.

Snowe said she is leaving the Senate to help return it to a place where political passions are tempered.

“The atmosphere in Washington is deeply regrettable, but it is not irreparable,” she said. “We can fight and reverse the that tide of gridlock and absolutism, and that’s what I intend to do in my days ahead.”

Snowe said everyone can help by voting for people who will work toward common ground and against those who won’t.

She is writing a book about how to reclaim government and has formed a new political action committee, Olympia’s List, to support candidates and elected officials who build consensus. The committee will not get involved in any races during this election, but its website, olympiaslist.org, lists the Republican and Democratic senators closest to the ideological center.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com