The Common Touch

Washington activist Pingree fights to keep Big Media honest and local voices strong
Publish date:
Updated on

Chellie Pingree is a veteran of the media-ownership wars. As majority leader in the Maine Senate, she rallied behind communities that feared several state newspapers would be engulfed by a corporate giant. Now, as president and CEO of venerable activist group Common Cause, she has rejoined the fight with a vengeance.

"People's ability to access a wide variety of information is essential to a functioning democracy," she says.

While Common Cause fights for citizens' participation in the process, joining crusades on everything from combating government secrecy to eliminating voting obstacles, Big Media is a big deal to Pingree. In fact, the organization plunged into the media-ownership fight just in time to provide fellow D.C. activists, such as Media Access Project and the Center for Digital Democracy, with a nationwide, grassroots base to battle the FCC when the agency, complying with a court order, rewrites its rules next year.

Because Pingree held office, she understands the compromises necessary to pass legislation. That skill gained her a credibility with Washington lawmakers that few other activists can claim, says Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. "She brings stature and real-world political savvy to our side."

Reared in North Haven, an island of 350 people 12 miles off the coast of Maine, Pingree earned her degree in human ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. After graduation, she purchased a 2-acre farm. Eventually, her plot grew to 90 acres and housed sheep, cows, chickens and vegetables. "When I graduated, there was a movement in Maine to get back to the land," she says. "I just turned my farm into a bigger operation than most."

By 1981, she had decided on a dual career—farmer and entrepreneur—and opened North Island Designs, a mail-order business and retail store that sold knitting supplies and handmade wool sweaters. Clients included L.L. Bean, Land's End and more than 1,200 retail outlets. In North Haven, she served first as a tax assessor, then on the planning board.

But her bucolic life ended when Democrats asked her to run for a state Senate seat in a largely Republican district. "I ended up winning, to everyone's surprise," she says. The time demands forced her to sell the farm and the knitting business. Despite her love of public policy, she recalls her former career wistfully: "It's hard not to think about raising carrots when you're trying to solve tricky issues in Washington."

Pingree became Maine Senate Majority Leader in 1998. Term limits forced her to quit the legislature, and she lost her 2002 bid for the U.S. Senate against GOP incumbent Susan Collins. But defeat turned into victory when Common Cause came calling.

She got her first taste of the media-ownership fight in 1998 with the state newspapers, but the debate raged two years later when Clear Channel bought the first of 19 Maine radio stations. Clear Channel confirmed local activists' fears when it consolidated station operations and cut on-air staff. "Now the programming comes in by computer," sighs Pingree. "There's no local feeling or local weather anymore." Plus, she notes, increasing corporate hold over media is squeezing out local political dialogue. "As a politician, I know how important it was to go on talk shows and get my message out."

Ever the activist, she traces her determination to refocus media outlets on local needs to her value system. "I'm a Luddite in my own way," she says. "I believe there are good models we shouldn't throw away."