Andrew Henry: Why did you decide to get into politics?
Chellie Pingree: I was in high school during the Vietnam War, and I was engaged in the anti-war protests of my own generation, but I ended up looking to Maine and kind of stopped being quite so involved in politics. I ended up studying organic farming in college, but I got very interested in environmental issues like food security, farming, toxins and those kinds of things. I didn’t really get into politics again until 1992, when I ran for state legislature, and I was lucky enough to get elected in a kind of longshot election. I served eight years in the legislature, and I’ve been involved ever since.
AH: So what are some of the big ticket objectives that you would like to accomplish in your next term?
CP: I came into office really interested in the issues around health care, and my guess is that we’ll still take up a fair amount of health care issues depending on what happens with the Affordable Care Act. I served on the Agriculture Committee, and one of my primary interests is the Farm Bill. I wrote a title to the Farm Bill about local food and farming, and the bill hasn’t completely passed yet, so I’m getting my colleagues to support that.
AH: What parts of the health care reform act passed in Congress this year do you support, and what do you think could be improved for citizens of Maine?
CP: I was actually a supporter of single-payer health care, and if I was writing the bill I would’ve put in a public option or just had a single-payer plan. There’s already a lot of good stuff, you know, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re 26, and that’s a big change, insurance companies can’t deny you because of a pre-existing condition, and they can’t charge more for women because women’s health care costs more. But I think what’s really going to change is we’re building these health care exchanges, which is kind of like being able to go on the internet and search for a competitive plan.
AH: Your campaign website states that you support clean, affordable energy. What is your stance on green energy sources such as windmills, which have become a divisive issue among voters.
CP: There are obviously some places where they’re going to be a useful thing to do, and part of my goal is that we look at all the alternative energy sources. We could do a lot more with solar power than we do in Maine. I happen to live on the island of Northaven, and we have three 1.5 megawatt windtowers that have been a huge change for our community, making it possible to be more energy independent and bring down the cost of energy and kind of disconnect us from the grid. I don’t think we should ignore the concerns of people about noise or other potential issues, but I’m not ready to give them up just because some people don’t like looking at them. I mean, I look at them every day, and I think they look fantastic, and I’d rather see that then a coal-fire powerplant or deal with high mercury toxicity because we’re not willing to deal with renewable sources.
AH: Have you had any conversations with constituents about their experiences at USM?
CP: I talk to students a lot, and I have to say that a lot of the students I talk to are worried about their school loans and the cost of education. I think today more and more kids are saying things like, “I can’t even afford to go to school. Will I have a job when I get out? What can we do to bring down the cost of student loans?” I do feel like we don’t fund education at a high enough level, so that puts institutions in a position where they have to charge more, which makes it even worse. There are a lot of problems in the system, some of which we’ve tried to change. Things like getting rid of some of the privatized loans that weren’t fair to students and getting more government loan systems so that we can control interest rates and even put some forgiveness in there. There’s still a lot of reform needed in the system.
AH: So does that involve some of your plan in Congress to aid public universities?
CP: Absolutely. I vote in favor of anything that gives more aid to education or to reform the student loan system.
AH: My generation could potentially be paying off the national debt for the rest of our lives. How can Congress ensure that we won’t be saddled with a lifetime of paying down the federal deficit, while simultaneously paying student loans?
CP: Sometimes we think about the federal debt as if it’s this big meteor that just dropped on us and that we’ll be under for the rest of our lives. You have to look historically and remember that during the Clinton administration we ended up, by a combination of cutting spending and raising taxes in 2000 when he left, not having a debt in this country. One of the reasons we built [the current debt] up was due to wars that didn’t have any way to pay for them and getting rid of the tax cuts for the richest people in this country. We built it up quickly, and we can get rid of it, too. Congress has a bill in front of us that requires us to cut 1.2 trillion dollars from the debt, and that would be gone overnight if we just got rid of the tax breaks for millionaires. It can be fixed, it just requires the will to fix it, and we have to do more things to encourage growth in the economy.
AH: Would you say that reducing the debt for college students is your most important issue?
CP: Oh absolutely, I think it’s one of the most important ones. I mean, I’m really worried about a whole generation of kids who say “I guess I can’t go to college,” so now we’re trying to be a nation that can lead in economic growth and all of a sudden we don’t have well-educated, well-trained people who want to start businesses and be innovative and be engineers. It’s just going to make us fall behind, and I think education is one of the most important investments. We fall behind most of the Western nations, and if you grow up and you do well in school then college isn’t your cost to bear. It’s like public high school – we just assume it’s part of something that we should all be in favor of. The fact that we decide that you really need four more years of education but we stop paying for it after twelfth grade – it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
AH: Exactly. What encouraging advice would you give to future college graduates like myself who are about to enter the workforce in this challenging economy?
CP: I think you have to have several options, you can’t just come out thinking “There’s only one thing I wanna do and it’s very specific, and if I can’t find a pathway to it then I don’t have any other course of action.” I still truly believe that in the long run you have to pick a few things you totally love to do and find a way to pursue them. Sometimes it’s not easy to get to what you want to do, but in the long run if you really like something you might end up starting your own business around it, or finding a way to get involved in it. I also think that young people when they get out of college should get involved in politics. It is your future, and whether it’s getting involved in a political campaign or thinking about running for an office yourself, there’s all kinds of good ways to get involved, and it’s a really good thing to do.
This was taken from an interview with Chellie Pingree on Oct. 27th, 2012.