WASHINGTON — It was just a few days before Christmas 2004 when Sen. Olympia Snowe received word that thousands of jobs at Bath Iron Works, Maine’s largest employer, were in serious jeopardy.

Then Navy Secretary Gordon England informed Snowe in a phone call that the Navy was exploring using a single shipyard to build destroyers, a shift that would pit BIW against its longtime rival shipyard in Mississippi in a final, all-or-nothing competition.

“I said, ‘That’s absolutely not going to happen. I’m going to fight that with every fiber of my being,’” Snowe recalled recently. “So the fight was on.”

Over the ensuing months, Snowe worked with fellow Maine Sen. Susan Collins as well as lawmakers from Mississippi and other states to organize Senate opposition to the single-source proposal. And when England was tapped by Republican President George W. Bush to become an assistant secretary of defense, Snowe held up his nomination for weeks.

“We finally prevailed,” Snowe said.

That battle is one of many Snowe has recounted in recent weeks as she serves out her final days as Maine’s senior senator.

“It’s hard to comprehend that it has been 34 years,” Snowe, 65, said while seated in her spacious Senate office. That service includes 16 years in the House, plus three, six-year Senate terms.

During the past three decades, Snowe has been summoned to the White House for private meetings with presidents, shaped tax and health care laws and helped break down gender biases in both politics and federal policies.

“Our government’s attention to women’s health issues has come about, in part, because of the efforts of Olympia Snowe,” said Susan Carroll, author and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Snowe’s position as one of the few remaining moderate Republicans and her willingness to cross party lines — voting against President Clinton’s impeachment and for President Obama’s stimulus package, for instance — elevated her status and influence in the sharply divided Senate.

Time magazine said Snowe is found “in the center of every policy debate in Washington” and named her among the Top 10 senators in 2006. Four years later, she landed on Time’s list of the “100 most influential people in the world.”

Snowe’s legislative star-power led to a cameo appearance earlier this year on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” But in the early weeks of Obama’s presidency, Snowe also politely turned aside White House queries about a potential Cabinet position.

“It was a pretty short conversation,” Snowe said. “This is where I wanted to be, in the Senate. I wasn’t prepared to move over.”

Snowe has also earned a reputation for staying in touch with folks back in Maine — despite decades in Washington — with her constituent service, regular “Main Street walking tours” and presence at civic events (including every Maine Potato Blossom Festival parade since 1978).

Moderate among hardliners

On a recent afternoon, Sen. Olympia Snowe stood next to a bookshelf stacked with plaques bubble-wrapped for safe transport back to Maine.

In one hand she held the U.S. Navy’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award, while the other gripped pictures of the latest Navy destroyer under construction at BIW.

With her was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who had presented Snowe with the award.

“She has been a forceful advocate for Navy issues, for Marine Corps issues and making sure we have what we need,” Mabus said in the brief ceremony.

Although they account for just two votes in the 100-seat Senate, both Snowe and Collins have on occasion wielded disproportionate power as the number of moderate Republicans has dwindled. Both were swing votes in support of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package, for instance.

Snowe was the Republican most heavily involved in the Senate Finance Committee’s attempt to craft a bipartisan health care reform bill, although she ultimately voted against the final version now known as Obamacare.

Her independent streak and reputation as an old-school, Northeast centrist Republican helped Snowe remain in Congress for decades despite dramatic changes in Maine’s political landscape. She never lost a re-election bid and often captured more than 60 percent of the vote.

But some hard-core conservatives scorned her willingness to work with Obama and the Democrats, dubbing her a “Republican in name only,” or RINO, in online message boards and letters to the editor. The resentment occasionally bubbled to the surface, such as when a group booed Snowe at a Republican caucus in Bangor last winter.

Snowe has said there wasn’t any one event that triggered her retirement. Instead, it was the realization that the political discord in Washington wasn’t getting any better, as evidenced by the current stalemate about the budgetary fiscal cliff.

“It’s governing by deferral, deadlines and deadlocks, which imposes a great hardship on the country,” Snowe said. “It might get there, but it’s a painful process in the interim. And it won’t be done well because we will not do it with the thoroughness and the deliberation that these issues require.”

Several polls in recent years showed Snowe was more popular with Democrats and independents than she was with Republicans in the state, giving rise to speculation that she could face her first major primary challenge in 2012.

A serious contender never emerged, however, despite the tea party’s promised “Snowe removal” campaign. And Snowe was widely believed to be gliding toward another victory when she withdrew from the race. The surprise decision was arguably the first public crack in Republicans’ failed attempt to retake the Senate in 2012 and it opened the door for independent Senator-elect Angus King’s victory.

Ten tumultuous months later, Snowe doesn’t hesitate when asked whether she ever regrets the decision to step down.

“No, but I regret it for the reasons why,” Snowe said. “I wish it were different, that we were pursuing bipartisan solutions. Because then there wouldn’t have been that tug and that nag about the future.”

Champion of women

With her wardrobe of brightly colored suits and her jet-black hair unfailingly pulled back in a ponytail, Snowe has always stood out in the congressional crowd of dark suits on gray-haired men. And she looks much the same, whether in a photograph taken in Maine’s legislative chambers during the 1970s or snapped last week in the hallways of the Capitol building.

Congress has certainly changed around her, however.

Snowe was one of just 17 women in both chambers of Congress when she first took her House seat in 1979, compared to a record 20 women that will serve in the Senate alone next year.

In 1978, the 31-year-old was the youngest Republican woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Snowe’s other list of historical markers include: first woman in U.S. history to serve in both chambers of her state legislature and both chambers of Congress, and the first Republican woman to serve on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Today, Snowe ranks as the third longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Most of the items on Snowe’s personal list of accomplishments were bipartisan. They include working with former House Speaker Tip O’Neil of Massachusetts in 1979 to create the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program,; expanding and making refundable the popular child tax credit; establishment of the federal program ensuring libraries and schools across the country were connected to the Internet; banning insurance companies from dropping clients due to genetic tests; and decades of work on budget and tax issues.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has served longer than any other woman, recently called Snowe “a cherished friend and a crucial partner on so many issues,” particularly women’s health.

With Mikulski and others, Snowe led the efforts to force the National Institutes of Health to include women in federally funded medical research and clinical trials in 1991. Later, the pair again worked with other Democrats and Republicans to establish the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH, which in turn led to groundbreaking research and medical treatment for diseases such as breast cancer.

Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics said Snowe leaves behind a legacy.

“I think she is definitely going to be remembered,” Carroll said. “She really has been a pioneer in the same way Margaret Chase Smith was a pioneer in a different era.”

Snowe’s rise in national politics came despite a number of personal tragedies. She was orphaned by age 9. She entered politics in 1973 after winning the seat left vacant when her first husband, state Rep. Peter Snowe, was killed in a car crash.

After her election to Congress in 1978, Snowe found a personal and political partner in John “Jock” McKernan, Maine’s other U.S. House member and a fellow Republican. The two kept their romance quiet — at least publicly — until after McKernan was elected governor in 1986.

Navy Secretary Mabus, himself a former governor, recalled with a laugh how he was present for the Maine couple’s first public date.

“She and Jock showed up at the governor’s dinner at the White House together and sent everybody’s tongues wagging,” Mabus told the small group gathered in Snowe’s office last week.

At the time of her retirement announcement, Education Management Co., the company formerly headed by McKernan that runs for-profit colleges across the country, was being sued by the Justice Department for allegedly improperly obtaining billions of dollars in federal aid. Snowe has said the controversy did not play a role in her retirement decision.

And in her farewell address to the Senate this month, Snowe thanked her husband and said the couple never regretted their frenzied, sometimes separate lives.

“When Jock was governor while I was serving in the House of Representatives, we used to joke that our idea of quality time together was listening to each other’s speeches,” Snowe said.

More work ahead

Boxes littered Snowe’s office suite in the Russell Senate Office Building last week as staff cleared the shelves, walls and filing cabinets. Seated in her still-decorated personal office, Snowe talked generally about her plan going forward.

One of her first tasks will be to write a book about her political career and the importance of collaboration.

Earlier this year, she transferred $1.2 million from her campaign fund to establish the Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute. Another $800,000 went to Olympia’s List, a political action committee with the stated goal of supporting “consensus-building” political candidates.

Between her book, Olympia’s List and speeches, Snowe said she believes she can continue to contribute to the political discourse as she works from the outside to change the “dysfunction and the gridlock that have overtaken the institutions of government.”

“This is not a side issue,” Snowe said. “It is the issue because, ultimately, you can’t get from here to there, as they say in Maine, unless you are working together.”

In a floor speech earlier this month honoring Snowe, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., seemed to anticipate that he and other political leaders hadn’t heard the last from her.

“We will wish you all the best in the next phase of your life. And as you think of what to put in your memoir, I would only ask one thing: please, go easy on us,” McConnell said.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
kmiller@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC