SNOWE, Olympia Jean

1947–

Biography

As the first Greek-American woman elected to Congress, Olympia J. Snowe represented Maine for 34 years—16 as a House Member and 18 as a Senator. Representing a politically independent constituency, Snowe worked to balance her personal convictions with the needs of her party and her rural state. Throughout her career, Snowe was often a key swing vote in both the House and Senate. A pragmatic politician, Snowe studied issues, and routinely challenged her own assumptions. “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 Snowe was born Olympia Jean Bouchles 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, located right down the road from the Maine state house, which was always packed with politicians. In 1955, when Snowe was eight, her mother died from breast cancer. Tragedy struck again in November 1956, when her father died of a heart attack. Snowe 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. Traveling back and forth from school alone on the train gave her a sense of independence and confidence. Snowe 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, Snowe earned a BA in political science from the University of Maine at Orono and married state representative Peter Snowe in 1969. In 1970 she worked at the Auburn Board of Voter Registration as a Republican and campaigned for Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s final election to the U.S. Senate. In 1972 Snowe began working as an office manager for newly elected House Republican and future Secretary of Defense, William Sebastian Cohen.4

In April 1973, while returning to Auburn from his Augusta office in a late season snow storm, Peter Snowe was killed instantly when his car flipped over on the icy highway. At the urging of Maine Republican officials, Snowe ran successfully for her late husband’s 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.” She won a full term in 1974 and was elected to an open state senate seat in 1976.5

In 1978, when Cohen vacated his House seat to run for the 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 was the first prisoner of war released from North Vietnam in 1972.6 Snowe used campaign tactics she learned from Cohen, crisscrossing the district—geographically, the 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 as Independents—more than registered Republicans or Democrats—the Maine electorate generally favored moderate politicians.7 On Election Day, Snowe prevailed with 51 percent of the vote to Gartley’s 41 percent.8 With 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.9

Snowe won her next five elections to the House by at least two-thirds of the vote. Her elections in 1990 and 1992, however, 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 vote. In 1992 she beat McGowan with a 49 percent plurality—her victory aided by a late entry from Green Party candidate Jonathan K. Carter, who pulled in some of McGowan’s Democratic base.10

When Snowe took her seat in the 96th Congress (1979–1981), she received seats 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 Small Business, 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.11

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), Snowe also often spilt from her party on economic issues and reproductive rights.12 Snowe routinely broke from the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, voting with their positions only 48 percent of the time.13 On her independence from the party line, Snowe noted, “You know you are right and you believe you are right and you speak out.”14

From her position on the Small Business Committee, Snowe favored trade protection in order to shield textile, shoe, and timber exporters in her district.15 She voted against the United States-Canada free trade agreement in 1988, citing unfair competition from Canadian government-subsidized industries.16 As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Snowe supported a nuclear armaments freeze, aid for Nicaraguan rebels, and sanctions against South Africa to protest that nation’s apartheid system.17

In 1989 Olympia Snowe married Maine Governor John Rettie McKernan Jr., a former U.S. House Member. “What holds our relationship together is the fact that we love politics,” Snowe noted.18 In 1991 Snowe lost her college-aged stepson to a heart condition. Her life, often marked by tragedy, would have “discouraged a lesser person,” a colleague later remarked. “I admire her ability to overcome adversity.”19

In 1994, when the Senate Majority Leader, Democrat George J. Mitchell of Maine, announced his retirement, Snowe declared her candidacy for the vacant seat.20 In the general election, she faced Mitchell’s handpicked candidate, two-term Representative Thomas Hiram 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.21

Snowe’s initial committee assignments in the Senate—Budget; Foreign Relations; Small Business; and Commerce, Science, and Transportation—reflected the expertise she had developed in the House. 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. Snowe was the first woman to chair the Small Business Committee, a position she held 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).22

Fiercely protective of jobs for her Maine constituents, Snowe sought protection for Maine’s fishing industry and military bases. She also sought aid for Bath Iron Works, one of Maine’s largest employers which built ships for the Navy.23

Throughout her career, Snowe supported women’s health issues, including reproductive rights, allying with Democrats against a proposed Republican 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.24 In July 1999, after the Senate rejected a Democratic proposal to strengthen patients’ rights, Snowe built a coalition of support for her measure that gave women who underwent mastectomies the right to longer hospital stays if their doctor deemed it medically necessary.25 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 bill’s passage one of the “major satisfactions of my career.”26

Snowe maintained her political independence in the Senate 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.”27 Snowe proved a critical vote for Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada when it came to seeking cloture—a key parliamentary hurdle for bringing bills to the Senate Floor.28

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.29 She and Independent Senator James Merrill 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.30 In the same Congress, Jeffords, Snowe, and Democratic Senator Ronald Lee Wyden of Oregon teamed up with other centrist Democratic and Republican Senators to write a “tripartisan” agreement to leverage the private market to improve drug coverage for senior citizens under Medicare and to ensure that federal benefits uniformly reached elderly Americans, regardless of social class.31

In 2005, early in the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Snowe helped organize the bipartisan “Gang of 14.” These Senators sought a compromise to prevent Senate Majority Leader William H. 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.32 Later that year, Snowe was one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose President George W. Bush’s attempts to reform Social Security by allowing workers to invest part of their payroll taxes into private accounts.33 Snowe opposed the program out of concern about how it would affect senior citizens who were already receiving 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.”34

After Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, his administration often appealed to Snowe when certain bills faced close votes in the Senate. She was one of only three Republican Senators—along with Susan M. Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—to back Obama’s economic stimulus package in 2009 amid the onset of the Great Recession. After fighting for cost reductions, Snowe agreed to support the scaled-back measure.35 Both Maine Senators claimed it would be beneficial in Maine, where unemployment rates were higher than at any point in nearly two decades.36

Snowe broke with the Republican Party 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 on Capitol Hill. Petitioned by 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.37 Despite Democratic lobbying efforts, including one-on-one visits with President Obama, Snowe refused to support the final version of the bill when it came to a vote on the Senate Floor in December 2009. She opposed insurance requirements the bill placed on small businesses as well as the increases in Medicare payroll taxes.38

In February 2012, Snowe shocked observers when she announced that she would not seek re-election to a fourth Senate term. The partisanship had become too onerous, she said. “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.”39

Following her retirement from the Senate, Snowe founded Olympia’s List, a nonprofit devoted to promoting candidates who supported bipartisan solutions, and the Women’s Leadership Institute to support and cultivate new generations of women leaders.40

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, (New York: William Morrow, 2000): 65–68.

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

4“Olympia Jean Snowe,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, https://bioguide.congress.gov.

5Quotation in “Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 544.

6Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 544.

7Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 545; “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine),” CQ Member Profile, 108th Congress, accessed 31 Mar 2004, http://www.cq.com/members.do?memberCode=S0372; Margot Hornblower, “House Panel Votes to Scrap Maine’s Dickey Dam Project,” 27 July 1979, Washington Post: A6.

8Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present"; “Snowe, Olympia J.,” Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 543–544.

9Richard L. Lyons and Mary Russell, “New House: More Conservative in Tone,” 12 November 1978, New York Times: A2.

10“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Mary Agnes Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe,” 28 December 2002, CQ Weekly: 36.

11Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, 1977–Present.

12Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 545.

13“Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine),” CQ Member Profile, 108th Congress.

14Ana Puga, “In Maine’s Rep. Snowe, GOP Finds a Role Model,” 2 August 1993, Boston Globe: 1.

15Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 546; John E. Yang, “House Upholds Reagan’s Veto of Trade Limits,” 7 August 1986, Wall Street Journal: 5.

16Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 546.

17Douglas C. Waller, Congress and the Nuclear Freeze (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 1987): 116; Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 545; Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Arming Managua,” 16 June 1986, Washington Post: A11.

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

19Thomas Fields-Meyer et al., “Survival Skills,” 18 June 2001, People: 121.

20Leslie Phillips, “Mitchell Leaving Bewilderment in his Wake,” 7 March 1994, USA Today: 4A.

21“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

22Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2011): 956–957; Congressional Directory, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011): 473.

23Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 448–449; Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 433.

24Current Biography Yearbook, 1995: 547.

25Allison Mitchell, “Senate G.O.P. Again Prevails on Health Care Bill,” 15 July 1999, New York Times: A1.

26Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 452; “Discrimination Outlawed,” CQ Almanac 2008, 64th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 9-15–9-16, https://library.cqpress.com.

27Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe”: 35.

28Politics in America, 2010: 452.

29Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe”: 35; Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 447–448; Fields-Meyer et al., “Survival Skills”: 121.

30“Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine),” CQ Member Profile, 108th Congress; Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:” 35.

31Carey, “Sen. Olympia J. Snowe:” 35–36.

32Politics 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,” CQ Almanac 2005, 61st ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2006): 14-8–14-9, https://library.cqpress.com.

33Politics in America, 2008: 448.

34Jill Lawrence, “Social Security ‘Crisis’ Questioned,” 24 January 2005, USA Today: A1.

35Politics in America, 2010: 452.

36Manuel Roig-Franzia and Paul Kane, “Two Moderate GOP Senators Give Big Voice to Little Maine,” 16 February 2009, Washington Post: A1; “Stimulus Bill: As Maine Goes . . . ,” 4 February 2009, Boston Globe: A14.

37Lisa 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.

38Politics in America, 2012: 433.

39Paul Kane, “Citing Partisanship, Maine’s Snowe Plans to Retire from the Senate,” 29 February 2012, Washington Post: A5.

40“Olympia’s List,” accessed 1 October 2014, https://www.olympiaslist.org; “About Us,” Olympia Snowe Women’s Leadership Institute, accessed 31 March 2020, https://www.snoweleadershipinstitute.org/.

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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