On the third day of the Policy Leaders Academy bus tour, one of the stops was the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, where the group ate lunch and heard several panel presentations. The library is in Margaret Chase Smith’s former home, on a knoll overlooking the Kennebec River, with downtown Skowhegan just downstream.
The two large buses pulled up to the small white house and 75 Maine legislators entered a space filled with pictures, news articles, political cartoons, and memorabilia, all highlighting Margaret Chase Smith’s remarkable life. MCS (as she is familiarly referred to in many of the exhibits), was the first woman elected to both the US House and Senate, and had her name placed in nomination for US President by the Republican party in 1964.
She was born over two decades before women even had the right to vote.
And of all of her notable accomplishments, the one that resonated with me most clearly that day was MCS’s “declaration of conscience,” which put her reputation and political career at risk by opposing the tactics of McCarthyism.
She was a bit of a renegade. She didn’t tolerate nonsense. Pretty typical for someone from Maine.
During lunch, several legislators talked about how they could take a longer-term approach to complicated issues in our state. One idea was to think differently about legislative fiscal notes so that decisions about education, health care, economic development and other crucial state-supported activities are driven by fiscal understanding that looks five or ten years into the future rather than only one or two.
After lunch, the group heard about innovative for-profit and non-profit partnerships that are revitalizing MCS’s hometown of Skowhegan. An old county jail has been transformed into a gristmill that is grinding grain from local farms and from as far away as Aroostook County. The local farmer’s market and collective community supported agriculture (CSA) outlet has created new markets for local growers and producers of fruits and vegetables, meats, and cheeses. Area businesses are now including shares from the CSA as a health benefit for their employees. And people in their 20's and 30's who moved away from their childhood community are coming back – to buy their parents’ farms, open new businesses, and raise their families in this vital and growing region.
So how does this all tie back to the declaration of conscience? Margaret Chase Smith bucked the status quo and brought focus and truth to a critical issue of her time. I suspect if she were alive today, she would be boldly calling for all of us to think across sectors and across political affiliations to come up with solutions to the challenges of our day: burgeoning costs for health care, the need to have engaged and committed young adults involved in leading our communities, and figuring out how best to use Maine’s own natural and social resources to bring us into a successful future. And Maine’s elected officials – local, state, and federal – play a critical role in helping to make this happen.
As I think back to the events at the library that day, I can’t help but think that Margaret’s spirit was somehow watching - and cheering.
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