SNOWE, Olympia Jean

1947–

Biography

As the first Greek-American woman elected to Congress, Olympia Snowe represented Maine for 34 years—16 as a U.S. House Member and 18 as a U.S. Senator. Representing a politically independent constituency, Snowe balanced her Republican loyalties, personal convictions, and the needs of her rural state. Throughout her career, Snowe was a key independent swing vote in both the House and Senate. A deeply pragmatic politician, “I love facts. I love memos. I am always seeking more information.” She once admitted, “I am always challenging my own views for fear that I am getting it wrong.”1

Olympia Jean Bouchles was born on February 21, 1947, in Augusta, Maine, the daughter of George and Georgia Bouchles. She had one brother, John. The Bouchles operated the State Street Diner, which, located right down the road from the Maine state house, was always packed with politicians. In 1955, when Olympia Bouchles was eight, her mother died from breast cancer. Tragedy struck again in November 1956, when George Bouchles died of a heart attack. Olympia Bouchles was sent to Auburn, Maine, to live with her mother’s brother, James Goranites, a barber, his wife, Mary, a textile mill worker, and their five children. She attended a Greek Orthodox girls’ boarding school in Garrison, New York, and, traveling back and forth from school alone on the train gave her a sense of independence and confidence. Bouchles cited a successful run for dorm president in eighth grade as her first involvement in politics.2 After ninth grade, in 1962, she returned to Maine full time to attend Auburn’s Edward Little High School.3

After graduating in 1965, Bouchles earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Maine at Orono, and married state representative Peter Snowe in 1969. In 1970, Olympia Snowe worked at the Auburn Board of Voter Registration as a Republican member, also campaigning for Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s final election to the United States Senate. In 1972, Olympia Snowe began working as an office manager for the newly-elected Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives and future Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen.

In April 1973, while returning to Auburn from his Augusta office in a late season snow storm, Peter Snowe’s car flipped over on the icy highway, killing him instantly. At the urging of Maine Republican officials, Olympia Snowe ran successfully for her husband’s vacant seat. “I certainly had not contemplated running for public office. I like behind-the-scenes work,” she recalled. “The only reason why I decided I should probably do it was that I had such a strong passion for politics.”4 She won a full term in 1974 and was elected to an open state senate seat in 1976.

In 1978, when Representative Cohen vacated his U.S. House seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Snowe entered the race to succeed him. The district—one of two in Maine—covered the rural northern two-thirds of the state. Snowe’s principal opponent was Democrat Markham Gartley, Maine’s secretary of state who had gained notoriety for being the first prisoner of war released from North Vietnam in 1972.5 Snowe used tactics that Cohen had taught her in her campaign, crisscrossing the geographically largest district east of the Mississippi River by foot in a flannel shirt and hiking boots, attending town meetings along the way. With more than one-third of the state’s population registered to vote as Independents—more than registered Republicans or Democrats—the Maine electorate generally favored moderate politicians.6 Campaigning to this constituency, Snowe prevailed with 51 percent of the vote to Gartley’s 41 percent.7 Upon her victory, Snowe became the youngest Republican woman to serve in the 96th Congress (1979–1981), as well as the first Greek-American woman to be elected.

Snowe won her next five elections to the House by at least two thirds of the vote. However, in 1990 and 1992, her elections to the 102nd and 103rd Congresses (1991–1995) proved difficult. A nationwide recession threatened the many industrial jobs in the district and created backlash against the Republican incumbent. Facing Maine state representative Patrick McGowan in 1990, she won with 51 percent of the total vote. In 1992, she beat McGowan with a 49 percent plurality—her victory aided by a late entry Green Party candidate, Jonathan K. Carter, who pulled in some of McGowan’s Democratic base.8

When Representative Snowe took her seat in the 96th Congress (1979–1981), she received assignments on three committees: Government Operations; Small Business; and the Select Committee on Aging. Two years later she took a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee—where she remained for the balance of her House career. In the 98th Congress (1983–1985), after leaving her Small Business post, Snowe was assigned to the Joint Economic Committee, where she remained until her final House term, when she won a seat on the Budget Committee. Snowe was a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues for her entire career, chairing the caucus during the 98th Congress.

Representative Snowe’s moderation and willingness to compromise won her bipartisan respect. Recognized as a loyal Republican (she was named a GOP deputy whip in 1984) she also demonstrated her independence.9 Particularly on economic issues and reproductive rights, Snowe often broke from the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, voting with the Republican Presidents only 48 percent of the time.10 On her independence from the party line, Snowe noted, “You know you are right and you believe you are right and you speak out.”11

From her position on the Small Business Committee, she favored trade protection in order to shield textile, shoe, and timber exporters in her district.12 She voted against the United States-Canada free trade agreement in 1988, citing unfair foreign competition from Canadian government-subsidized industries.13 As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Snowe supported a nuclear armaments freeze, aid for Nicaraguan rebels, and sanctions against South Africa to protest that nation’s apartheid system.14

In 1989 Olympia Snowe married Maine Governor John McKernan, Jr., a former U.S. House Member. “What holds our relationship together is the fact that we love politics,” Snowe noted of her new husband.15 In 1991, Snowe lost her college-aged stepson to a coronary aliment. Her life, often marked by tragedy, would have “discouraged a lesser person,” a colleague would later remark. “I admire her ability to overcome adversity.”16

In 1994, when Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine announced his retirement, Snowe declared her candidacy for the vacancy.17 In the general election, she faced Mitchell’s handpicked candidate, two-term Representative Thomas Andrews from southeastern Maine. Snowe’s well-organized campaign and House experience helped her prevail with 60 percent of the vote. In 2000, she won re-election with 69 percent and in 2006, she prevailed with 74 percent.18

Senator Snowe’s initial committee assignments—Budget; Foreign Relations; Small Business; and Commerce, Science, and Transportation—reflected her House expertise. She later served on the Armed Services Committee and, in 2000, left the Budget Committee to join the powerful Finance Committee. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Snowe also joined the Select Intelligence Committee. She chaired the Small Business Committee in the 108th and 109th Congresses (2003–2007) and served as chair of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries, and Coast Guard in the 109th Congress (2005–2007).19

Fiercely protective of her Maine constituents, Snowe sought protection for Maine’s fishing industry. During the 2005 round of military base closings, she was able to preserve Portsmouth Naval Shipyard though she was unable to protect Brunswick Naval Air Station from closing. She sought aid for Bath Iron Works, the builder of Navy ships and one of Maine’s largest employers, and heating assistance for low-income families.20

Throughout her career, Olympia Snowe’s supported women’s health issues, including reproductive rights, allying with Democrats against a proposed GOP ban on “partial birth” abortion. She also joined her colleagues across the aisle to support a proposal to cover contraceptives under federal employees’ health insurance plans.21 In July 1999, after Democratic efforts to strengthen patients’ rights were rejected, Snowe was able to pass a measure that gave women who underwent mastectomies the right to longer hospital stays as long as their doctor deemed it medically necessary.22 In 2008, she successfully shepherded legislation that banned job and health insurance discrimination based on genetic testing. Having worked with Democratic Representative Louise Slaughter of New York for more than a decade on this issue, Snowe called the measure one of the “major satisfactions of my career.”23

Senator Snowe’s service was primarily defined by her political independence and she became a key go-between for Senate Democrats and Republicans. “The Democrats talk to me when they want to walk across the political aisle,” she noted in 2001. “We can have our differences here, but we ought to be able to talk with each other without being punished for it.”24 Snowe proved a critical vote for Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid when it came to seeking cloture—a key parliamentary hurdle for bringing bills to the Senate Floor.25

From her position as co-chair of the Senate Centrist Coalition—a bipartisan group of consensus-builders—and her seat on the Finance Committee, she helped write an amendment to major campaign finance reforms, convincing reluctant colleagues to support the legislation.26 She and Independent Senator James Jeffords of Vermont co-wrote an amendment to a campaign finance law in 2001, prohibiting the use of union or corporate money to fund election ads in the weeks before an election or primary and making the law slightly more appealing to the predominantly Republican opposition.27 In the same Congress, Senators Jeffords, Snowe, and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon teamed up with other centrist Democratic and Republican Senators to write a “tripartisan” agreement to look towards the private market to improve drug coverage for senior citizens under Medicare and to also make sure that benefits uniformly reached this group, regardless of social class.28

In 2005, early in the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Snowe helped organize the bi-partisan “Gang of 14.” The group of centrist Senators sought a compromise to prevent Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee from altering Senate Rules to prevent a filibuster on judicial nominees—a strategy known as the “nuclear option”—by lobbying to allow long-delayed nominees a vote on the Senate Floor.29 Later that year, Snowe was one of only a handful of Republicans to disagree with President George W. Bush’s attempts to reform Social Security by allowing workers to invest part of their payroll taxes into private accounts.30 Snowe opposed the program out of concern about how it would affect senior citizens who were already drawing social security benefits. Citing a system that kept seniors out of poverty for more than 70 years, she observed, “I don't think we want to erode the principles of that system.”31

After Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, his White House often courted Snowe's vote in close Senate contests on his agenda. She was one of only three GOP Senators—along with Collins and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—to back President Obama’s economic stimulus package in 2009. Snowe agreed to support the measure after the cost was scaled back to less than $800 billion.32 Both Maine Senators claimed it would be beneficial in Maine, where unemployment rates were the highest in nearly two decades.33

Snowe broke with GOP ranks once again when she voted in favor of the Finance Committee’s version of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, becoming the only Republican Senator to support the legislation at any level. Courted heavily by President Obama and Senate Democrats for her vote, she claimed she “went back and forth” on her decision right up until the committee met on October 13, 2009. Though she decried the tight deadlines for passage set by Democratic leadership, Maine’s explosive insurance rates were a deciding factor for her support.34 However, despite Democratic lobbying including one-on-one visits with President Obama, she refused to support the final version of the bill when it came to a vote on the Senate Floor in December 2009. With large portion of Mainers working for small businesses, she opposed the mandates the bill placed on employers and increases in Medicare payroll taxes.35

In February 2012, Snowe shocked observers when she announced her intention not to run for re-election to a fourth Senate term. She cited weariness with congressional partisanship for her decision to retire. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of the recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,” she noted. “So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate.”36 Snowe continues to work for a non-profit dedicated to supporting centrist politicians.37

Footnotes

1Martha Sherrill, “The Sisters of Maine,” 6 May 2011, Washington Post: C1.

2Barbara Mikulski, et al., Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate, 1st ed. (New York: William Morrow, 2000): 65–68.

3“Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1995): 544.

4Quoted in “Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 544.

5Ibid.

6Ibid., 545; Congressional Quarterly, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine),” CQ Member Profile, 108th Congress, http://www.cq.com/members.do?memberCode=S0372 (accessed 31 Mar 2004; site discontinued); Margot Hornblower, “House Panel Votes to Scrap Maine’s Dickey Dam Project,” Washington Post, 27 July 1979: A6.

7"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present"; “Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 543–544.

8Mary Agnes Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe,” 28 December 2002, CQ Weekly: 36.

9“Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 545.

10Congressional Quarterly, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine).”

11Ana Puga, “In Maine’s Rep. Snowe, GOP Finds a Role Model,” 2 August 1993, Boston Globe: 1.

12“Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 546; John E. Yang, “House Upholds Reagan’s Veto of Trade Limits,” 7 August 1986, Wall Street Journal: 5.

13“Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 546.

14Douglas C. Waller, Congress and the Nuclear Freeze (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 1987): 116; “Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 545; Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Arming Managua,” 16 June 1986, Washington Post: A11.

15“Love of Politics Brings More,” 20 February 1989, New York Times: A12.

16Thomas Fields-Meyer, et al., “Survival Skills,” 18 June 2001, People: 121.

17Leslie Phillips, “Mitchell Leaving Bewilderment in his Wake,” 7 March 1994, USA Today: 4A.

18“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

19Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart, III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011): 956–957; Congressional Directory, 112th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011): 473.

20Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 448–449; Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2011): 433.

21“Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 547.

22Allison Mitchell, “Senate G.O.P. Again Prevails on Health Care Bill,” 15 July 1999, New York Times: A1.

23Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 452; “Discrimination Outlawed,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 9-15–9-16.

24Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:” 35.

25Politics in America, 2010: 452.

26Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:” 35; Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 447–448; Fields-Meyer, et al., “Survival Skills:" 121.

27Congressional Quarterly, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine);” Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:" 35.

28Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:” 35–36.

29Politics in America, 2008: 448; Gail Russell Chaddock, “Senate Pact Shapes High-Court Fight,” 5 July 2005, Christian Science Monitor: 1; “’Gang of 14’ Showdown Averts Judicial Shutdown,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 2005 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2006): 14-8–14-9.

30Politics in America, 2008: 448.

31Jill Lawrence, “Social Security ‘Crisis’ Questioned,” 24 January 2005, USA Today: A1.

32Politics in America, 2010: 452.

33Manuel Roig-Franzia and Paul Kane, “Two Moderate GOP Senators Give Big Voice to Little Maine,” 16 February 2009, Washington Post: A1; n.a., “Stimulus Bill: As Maine Goes. . .,” 4 February 2009, Boston Globe: A14.

34Lisa Wangsness and Susan Milligan, “Snowe Went 'Back and Forth ‘Till the End,” 14 October 2009, Boston Globe: A8; Mark Z. Barabak, “The Most Watched Woman in Washington,” 9 October 2009, Los Angeles Times: A1.

35Politics in America, 2012: 433.

36Paul Kane, “Citing Partisanship, Maine's Snowe Plans to Retire from the Senate,” 29 February 2012, Washington Post: A5.

37Olympia’s List, available http://www.olympiaslist.org (accessed 1 October 2014).

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Maine
Fogler Library Special Collections

Orono, ME
Papers: Congressional papers.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Olympia Snowe," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Snowe, Olympia. Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress. New York: Weinstein Books, 2013.

Snowe, Olympia, et al., Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate. New York: William Morrow, 2000.

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Olympia J. Snowe, United States Congresswoman, 1979-1995, United States Senator, 1995-2013. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2014.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • Joint Committee - Joint Economic Committee
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