SOUTH PORTLAND — As Cynthia Dill settled in to teach her government class at Southern Maine Community College, one of her students asked the obvious question: Aren’t you supposed to be at the U.S. Senate candidate debate?

Those watching the first debate among the major candidates vying to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe had the same question. Where was Dill?

After all, Dill, a distant third in the race according to the latest polls, has been struggling to get media attention since the race began. The debate, the first of at least 15 scheduled, would have provided some of the exposure she needs to make a strong showing on Election Day.

However, Dill had a higher priority. The state senator from Cape Elizabeth had missed her twice-a-week class last week to attend committee hearings at the State House. She said she didn’t want to skip class twice in two weeks.

Dill, who will be paid $2,091 to teach at SMCC this semester, said she wanted to attend the debate at Texas Instruments in South Portland. Her campaign had attempted to live-stream the forum so that her class of roughly 30 students could watch their teacher in action. However, she said debate organizers couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, she said, the debate was invitation-only.

“If it had been a public forum, I suppose it would have been a higher priority,” she said.

Dill acknowledged that she would be criticized for her decision.

“I would have been criticized if I had attended the debate and missed my job,” she said.

It’s been an difficult campaign for Dill. The Democratic nominee finds herself carrying the mantle for her party, but she has been unable to garner the party’s moneyed — and in some cases verbal — support. The reason, although never stated publicly, is that party leaders fear that a strong performance by Dill would produce a nightmare scenario in which she and independent candidate Angus King split the progressive vote and hand the election to Republican Charlie Summers.

Initially, Dill struggled with the lack of support from the party. She lashed out at national Democrats who failed to recognize her in an online profile of candidates of state races. Since then, the outspoken civil rights attorney has appeared to focus less on the abandonment and more on her message.

On Wednesday she denounced another round of third-party ads by a Republican group hoping to bolster her candidacy as “cynical” and “deceptive.” The ads, she said, did not speak for her and robbed her of her voice.

Over at Texas Instruments, King and Summers joked about Dill’s absence. Summers joked that he’d answer questions twice.

The quips didn’t seem to bother Dill, who instead focused on her class. The lesson centered on Tuesday’s killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the controversy about the response from the Obama administration and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. She played statements from both sides and then asked the class to break into groups and weigh the responses. The debate was lively. Like Dill, many of the students had strong opinions.

However, before the students reconvened for a class discussion, Dill reminded them to be respectful.

“Politics are sensitive and people have strong beliefs,” she said. “You think everyone agrees with you. They don’t.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.