AUGUSTA — When the time came to endorse candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Olympia Snowe, the union that represents 15,000 of the state’s public and private employees had two choices.

The Democrat or no one.

The Maine State Employees Association Local 1989 Service Employees International Union picked Cynthia Dill, a Democratic state legislator from Cape Elizabeth, and Thursday she came to the local’s State Street headquarters to get the nod in person.

Dill, who has been asserting in recent days that her candidacy is gaining momentum even though polls show her in a distant third place, said at a mid-day press conference the union’s endorsement is a significant one.

“It is a sign of confidence in my ability to carry the message of working people,” she said. “It sends a signal about the election that there’s a lot at stake, including the rights of workers.”

Christopher Quint, executive director of MEA-SEIU Local 1989, said the local’s member-driven endorsement process asks candidates for federal office to respond to a questionnaire and be interviewed.

However, neither indenpendent candidate Angus King nor Republican nominee Secretary of State Charlie Summers responded to the questionnaire, making them not eligible for endorsement, he said. That left Dill as the association’s lone choice.

The association previously has declined to endorse candidates. It has also occasionally endorsed Republicans in state races. “Once again, we wish more Republicans would return the questionnaire,” Quint said.

The union is “one of the most liberal-progressive unions going,” said James Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington. “It would have been much more significant news if they didn’t make an endorsement.”

“They may be able to supply some campaign volunteers — SEIU is notably enthusiastic in that regard — but I doubt their national unions are going to throw much support Dill’s way with so many closer races nationwide,” Melcher added.

Recent polls show Dill way behind front-runner King and Summers. According to a MaineToday Media poll released in June, 55 percent of those polled said they supported King, 27 percent favored Summers and 7 percent sided with Dill.

“The polls are a snapshot in time, and the poll I’m focusing on is the one in November,” Dill said before the press conference Thursday.

Quint said the endorsement of such a large statewide organization is valuable to Dill.

“When any candidate receives an endorsement from an organization with a statewide reach, it will give a (him or her) a boost,” Quint said. “We alone can’t win the race.”

He said the association will distribute educational materials “and really encourage members to vote for Cynthia at the polls in November.”

Peggy Rice, a 30-year member of the Maine State Employees Association and chairwoman of the retirees’ steering committee, said Dill’s voting record in the State House was one of the key factors in gaining the local’s backing.

“She voted the way we wanted her to vote on our issues,” Rice said.

Another statewide group, the Maine State Nurses Association, has endorsed Dill, and two national groups have given her the nod as well: the National Women’s Political Caucus and Women’s Action for New Directions.

Scott Austin, vice president of the Maine State Employees Association, who spoke at the press conference, emphasized Dill’s stance on issues important to the organization, favoring health care for all, maintaining current Medicare and Social Security programs, funding infrastructure improvement, making college affordable and accessible to all and enacting a fair tax system.

Jonathan French, who is the union’s board liaison to the political action committee, said Dill “represents our values as an organization.”

But Melcher, the UMF professor, said that if the union support isn’t coming with much money attached, “it isn’t going to solve her name recognition problems.”

“The union endorsements underscore how King, for as much as Republicans have tried to paint him as a Democrat, were never big fans of Angus King overall,” Melcher said. “In a way this helps him against Summers by making him look more like an independent.

“These endorsements will boost morale in Dill’s campaign, but saying they mean a big shift in the momentum — I don’t think so,” he said.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.