Chellie Pingree never anticipated a life in politics. Living on the offshore island of North Haven, Maine, she raised her kids and ran a small business. She served on the school board and as the local tax assessor, a job no one else in town wanted. But in 1991, when she was approached about running for State Senate, she jumped at the chance.
She scored a remarkable upset, defeating a popular Republican, and went on to serve four terms in the Maine Senate. But throughout her political career, from Augusta to Washington and beyond, the lessons she learned on North Haven have always been her guide: Be accountable to your neighbors, and always use your common sense.
Chellie Johnson (she has legally changed her name from “Rochelle”) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1955, the youngest of four children. Her father, Harry, worked in advertising and her mother, Dorothy, was a nurse. Chellie moved to Maine as a teenager, attended the University of Southern Maine, and graduated from the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor. After college, she moved to North Haven, an island town of 350 people twelve miles off the coast of Rockland, to raise her family and make a living.
Chellie on the farmChellie has worked hard throughout her life – as a mother, as a farmer, as a small business owner, and in politics. She knows how difficult it can be to meet payroll and run a business in a small, rural community. Right after college, Chellie and her husband, Charlie, spent several years running a small farm and selling produce locally. In 1981, she started North Island Yarn, a cottage industry of local knitters, with a retail store on the island. The business expanded quickly, becoming North Island Designs, and employed as many as ten local workers in peak seasons. The business sold knitting kits and pattern books nationwide through 500 retail stores and 100,000 mail order catalogues. She sold the business in 1993.Today, in addition to her political life, Chellie co-owns and helps manage Nebo Lodge, a bed & breakfast and restaurant on North Haven, which she started with several partners in 2006.
Chellie was elected to the Maine State Senate in 1992, representing Knox County. In 1996, Chellie was chosen by her peers to be the Maine Senate Majority Leader. She helped lead the Senate for four more years, until leaving office due to term limits. As a Senator, she fought for economic and social justice, taking on powerful adversaries – most notably the pharmaceutical lobby. In her last session, Pingree sponsored one of the nation’s first prescription drug pricing bills, MaineRX. After a legal fight that led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the bill became law, and has since been a model for states around the country working to lower prescription drug prices.
Chellie also sponsored the successful “Parents as Scholars” program, a national model for welfare reform, which continues to help working Maine parents gain access to education to help them achieve a better life for their families. She led successful efforts to protect Maine’s environment, for corporate accountability, to protect workers, to promote a women’s right to choose, and in support of Maine’s small businesses. As a state Senator, Chellie was also a founding member of the Maine Economic Growth Council.Pingree’s leadership in Maine politics led to numerous international appointments. She traveled to Hungary as an Eisenhower Exchange Fellow, served as a member of the White House delegation to observe elections in Bosnia, and was a member of a U.S. delegation to Northern Ireland, working with women political leaders there.
After being term-limited from the Maine Senate in 2000, Pingree challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Susan Collins in 2002. As one of the few outspoken opponents of the Iraq War running for U.S. Senate, Chellie mounted a strong, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign.
From 2003 to 2007, Chellie served as the National President and CEO of Common Cause, a non-partisan citizen activist group with nearly 300,000 members and 35 state chapters. Common Cause’s mission is to help citizens make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Under Chellie’s leadership, Common Cause increased its membership and diversified its agenda to include limiting media concentration and consolidation, promoting Net Neutrality, and election reform, while continuing to pursue its traditional goals of campaign finance reform and oversight of government ethics and accountability.
In 2008 Chellie was elected to Congress from Maine’s 1st Congressional District—the first woman elected to Congress from that District. It also marks the first time in American history that women make up the majority of a state’s Congressional Delegation.
Chellie has three grown children. Her eldest, Hannah, is former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, is married to filmmaker Jason Mann, and is mother to Chellie’s granddaughter, Elsie, and grandson, Oscar. Her daughter Cecily, another filmmaker, is currently working with Penobscot Bay East Resource Center on a film about Maine’s fishing industry. And her son, Asa, is a small business owner and proud father of Chellie’s first grandson, Smith.