CAMDEN, Maine — As she sat at the right hand of President Trump at the White House this week, US Senator Susan Collins’s prominent position on a white-hot national stage could hardly have been more conspicuous.
And to hundreds of Mainers who want New England’s only Senate Republican to more forcefully wield her blend of quirky independence as a bipartisan beacon, the seating chart in the executive mansion could not have been more hopeful.
“Trump has just crossed a line,’’ said Richard Anderson, 76, a Republican and former Boston textbook developer. “Not only is he not reasoned and rational, it verges on whether he’s sane or not. You wonder what’s in his head.’’
Jim Nelson, a registered independent who with Anderson is leading a new effort to encourage Collins to more fully embrace Maine’s political legacy for principled bipartisanship, sits across his living room table from Anderson and slowly nods his head.
“This is throwing 22 million people out of health care at a time when we have serious income inequality,” said Nelson, 75, a retired chief executive and corporate consultant who once taught business courses at Babson College in Wellesley. “In a bipartisan environment, we wouldn’t even be talking about a bill like this.’’
But now, of course, it’s all anyone is talking about.
The Senate’s Republican leadership, reading ominous political tea leaves, has put off a vote until after the July Fourth holiday, fiercely trying to cobble together support for the measure in the face of rebellion.
The bipartisan group led by Anderson and Nelson began this week taking out newspaper ads in Maine publications, starting with a full page ad in Tuesday’s Bangor Daily News. When they asked for supporters via e-mail, more than 350 raised their hands. And opened their checkbooks.
“We didn’t even break a sweat getting these names,’’ Nelson said. “If we had really put on a full-court press, I think even in a small state like this we could have gotten 10,000 names.’’
Collins, they said, has yet to respond to their request for a face-to-face meeting. But the woman from Caribou, whose mother and father both served as mayor there, is embracing — as she frequently has — the central tenets of the open-letter campaign, which underlines positions of integrity that helped define her political forebears.
“History will record where each member of Congress stood in this time of testing,’’ read the ad, which also appeared in the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday. “Senators Margaret Chase Smith in the era of McCarthyism and Bill Cohen in the Watergate era set a standard of principled leadership creating a legacy for Maine’s senators. Please affirm the heritage and trust that citizens of Maine have bestowed upon you.’’
Collins, reacting to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, has said she would vote against advancing the Senate’s version of the health care bill. She said she wants to work with Democrats to overhaul the bill, not just tinker with it.
And she sent out a tweet that signatories to this week’s open letter could easily have penned themselves.
“I want to work w/ my GOP & Dem colleagues to fix the flaws in the ACA (Affordable Care Act),’’ she wrote. “CBO analysis shows Senate bill won’t do it. I will vote no. . . . CBO says 22 million people lose insurance; Medicaid cuts hurt most vulnerable Americans; access to healthcare in rural areas threatened.’’
I want to work w/ my GOP & Dem colleagues to fix the flaws in ACA. CBO analysis shows Senate bill won't do it. I will vote no on mtp. 1/3— Sen. Susan Collins (@SenatorCollins) June 26, 2017
The roots of her opposition are found along Maine’s craggy coastline and, more severely, in its poorer, pine-studded interior.
Some 265,000 people in Maine rely on Medicaid, which here is known as MaineCare. Most of those — some three-quarters — are children, seniors, or disabled people. Simply put, opponents say, lives are at risk.
And livelihoods, too.
Stacey McClure knows how that feels. With her two teenaged children, she lives in a Rockland mobile home park, a gone-to-seed place where I found her walking her dog Tuesday evening.
She works for the catering department at a nearby resort hotel and was recently told she makes just a tad too much to qualify for MaineCare.
“I don’t have health insurance anymore,’’ she said. “It weighs on my mind. Things are very broken.’’
Yes, they are.
Thomas Judge has seen it up close. And, he said, if voices like that of Susan Collins are drowned out in this poisonous political debate, the American tradition of caring for its mostvulnerable will be its ignominious victim.
Judge is executive director of LifeFlight Maine, a nonprofit consortium of health care systems that serves all of Maine with its fleet of three helicopters, one airplane, and a staff of about 100.
He is a registered independent. He does not always agree with Collins. But Judge said he’s never doubted her integrity, her principles, or her commitment to Maine.
Obamacare wasn’t perfect, he said, but it was working.
“It was beginning to make a difference,’’ Judge said. “And to go back to where people are living in fear of getting sick, living in fear that they’re going to be left out and not taken care of is a big mistake for one of the world’s greatest countries.
“We forget that Medicaid came from some place. We forget that Medicare came from somewhere and Social Security came from somewhere. It came from a place where a huge amount of the population translated its political will and said, ‘We will not have our elderly without health care.’ Now, we’re in a place in society where we’re saying, ‘Maybe that’s OK.’ ’’
Susan Crimmins lived in the rural town of Minot, a place of about 2,500 in Androscoggin County, until moving to Portland three years ago after a workplace shoulder injury forced her into a job change and 20 months of physical therapy.
She credits Obamacare with her ability to obtain health insurance she needs for chronic vision problems.
Crimmins has read every paragraph of the Senate health care bill. And it scares her.
“We’re a really rural state, and we’re really old,’’ Crimmins said. “This country should not decide that people’s health and welfare are more important than tax cuts.’’
Crimmins wants Collins to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Chase Smith, a woman Collins once spent two hours with in 1971 while on a high school trip to Washington.
“Collins is very cagey,’’ Crimmins said. “She’s committed in public against the motion to proceed. That’s allowed me to sleep for the first time in months. What concerns me is what happens if the bill is tweaked. Maine has always been independent, and we’re just asking her to assert her independence.’’
That’s what Jim Nelson and Rich Anderson want, too.
And they will be watching and hoping to sit next to Collins to encourage her to remain resolute even if out-of-state money begins to pour in, threatening to weaken a strong spine.
“Maine is a very special place right now,’’ Nelson said. “I mean, two votes can swing the Senate. We have an independent senator [Angus King] who is of very high quality. And we’ve got Susan Collins, who is probably most likely to depart from her party purity. Maine can have a lot to do with what happens in this country. It’s a source of pride for us, and it’s also a source of energy to do this work.’’
It’s difficult to argue with people who are fed up with the nightly cable-news echo chamber of high-volume bile, the electronic version of political discourse that now embarrasses the United States across the world.
What people like Nelson and Anderson are calling for is so simple that it’s simply profound.
Can’t we govern with civility, with genuine respect for positions of conscience?
Can’t we agree that a plan that denies 22 million people basic health insurance is governmental cruelty?
They’d like to have a rational and reasoned and polite debate about that this summer.
Maybe it’s a fool’s errand. If it is, that’s a national shame.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.