Having grown up in rural Maine, served in the military and three branches of the federal government, and with family across the state, I have a few reflections on Sen. Susan Collins — now up for re-election — that may be worth notice.

Since everyone’s politics are central to how we hear them, my loyalty is America first, Maine second, party allegiance third. I served as assistant secretary of state under Colin Powell, 10 years in Naval Intelligence, and am a registered Republican.

That settled, here is what many are missing about Collins. Maine is a rural, aging, largely married, predominantly Christian, increasingly educated, but economically challenged state.

On the numbers, 1,345,790 people now live in the state, just under half over age 50. More than half the population is married, and 88 percent of Maine’s homeowners are married. On going to college, and gaining associate degrees, BAs, and graduate degrees, women outpace men, although an overwhelming majority of Mainers graduate high school.

The average Mainer makes $36,303, but 40% of islanders live below poverty level. Although Maine’s average poverty level is 12.5%, in sync with national numbers, unmarried women face a staggering 35% poverty rate.

Ten percent of Maine’s population is veterans, almost half from Vietnam. More than 5,000 World War II veterans live in the state. More than twice the number of Maine vets are over 35 than under, with more than 56,000 over 54, making VA benefits important. More than a third of Maine vets are either disabled or live below the poverty line.

What does this data mean? It means Mainers should value leadership on “close to home” issues — the economy, education, aging, health and veterans’ benefits, and employment opportunities, rural access to income, fisheries, agriculture and island life to tourism.

Putting aside “tail wags dog” national issues, from impeachment and appointments to foreign policy and national security, is Susan Collins focused on what really matters? When all is quiet — if you can find a quiet spot — here is what may be worth knowing: Maine’s senior senator is not just independent, she is focused — and has always been — on what matters to Mainers.

Now very senior in D.C., Collins was raised in rural Maine, became a trusted protégé of Maine’s respected former senator and America’s secretary of defense, Bill Cohen. Veteran friends describe her leadership as pathbreaking on veterans’ issues that matter, from VA reform to PTSD benefits.

Veterans matter to Collins, politics aside. One young Mainer, missing an arm at the elbow, quietly told me how Collins came to Walter Reed to see him. He wanted to show a slide deck of time in Iraq. No chair in the room, she sat down on the floor — and proceeded to listen, watch, ask questions, and care for nearly an hour. Who does that in political Washington these days? She does.

In support of Maine’s aging population, she is a vicar. She chairs the Senate Aging Committee, as Cohen did before her, advocating effectively for attention, benefits and critical protections. She recently alerted Mainers early of Social Security scams roiling the nation, and consistently uses her seniority to press essential benefits into the appropriations bills.

One perk of seniority in the Senate, especially when part of the majority, is assignment to powerful committees. Collins has not missed a beat, somehow getting on Appropriations, including subcommittees advancing agriculture, rural development, commerce, health, energy, veterans, housing and defense.

If that was not enough, she also sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and the subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. To that, add a seat on the Select Committee on Intelligence. To those who argue, as Stephen King recently did, that seniority is a liability — that is not so. While Collins has served long enough to be senior, her credibility inures greatly to Maine’s benefit.

Finally, independence and integrity-based leadership is uncommon in Washington today. It was uncommon already when I served with Colin Powell; he personally personified it. Collins personifies it too.

She has broken repeatedly from Senate leadership, just as often from expectations on the left, centering herself around what she felt was right each time. Mainers should be proud of that. Is that not what we should ask of each other, and of our senators? If not that, then what? On the numbers, CQ Roll Call reports Collins sided with Obama 75.9% of the time, one of only two Republicans with him 70 percent of the time; she backed Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. By comparison, she has sided with Trump 66% of the time. In short, she is the real thing; she is her own person, something most Mainers respect.

Three other Maine senators, with whom I once talked politics, independence, courage and integrity — the late Margaret Chase Smith, late Edmund Muskie, and former Sen. Cohen, all were cut from that cloth. Or perhaps better said, Collins is cut from theirs.

Smith delivered her famous “Declaration of Conscience” in 1950, stirring as much ire as respect. Muskie served as secretary of state, laboring to get America’s hostages home, steering into the wind — to no avail but with honor. Cohen led the Defense Department when asked by a president not of his party.

Mainers are distinguished by many traits, some of which show in data — many of which do not. One is being proudly independent, stubbornly so, determined to reach decisions by turning inward not bowing to pressure. When we get a senator who does that, who raises as much ire as awe, who frustrates the mob, disabuses national parties on both sides of their view that she will be weak, we should be happy.

That is what Collins offers, if we pause to lay down our swords — leadership worth noticing.

Robert Charles grew up in Wayne, and served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses, as a naval intelligence officer, and as assistant secretary of state to Colin Powell. He is often in Maine.


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