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An Interview With Shenna Bellows

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At the Netroots Nation conference this past weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Maine senate candidate Shenna Bellows. We didn't have a lot of time to chat, but I definitely had enough time to find out that she has a great and diverse background, and is an incredibly thoughtful person. Here's a recap of my interview.

CC: They say women need to be asked three times to run. Was that the case with you?

SB: "No, not exactly. I joined Emerge Main in 2010 because I was interested in the possibility of running for office some day. Emerge America is a training program for Democratic women who are interested in considering what running for office might look like. It's an excellent training. It goes through the nuts and bolts of campaign planning, fundraising, public speaking, media. It was an amazing program that really empowered me to think that this was possible. And I'm the first Emerge America alumna in the country to be running for U.S. Senate."

CC: What issues are at the forefront of your campaign?

SB: "My top three are civil rights and civil liberties, the economy, and climate change. I have also been active in women's rights for over a decade. I started out as an organizer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C., and there I got involved in organizing with the March for Women's Lives on behalf of the ACLU."

CC: What are the issues that are driving Mainers to the polls?

SB: "I think jobs and the economy are number one. But a key demographic in this race are Democratic women and liberal-leaning independent women. Women have often voted for Democrats up and down the ticket with the exception of Susan Collins, and prior to Susan, Olympia Snowe, because of the desire to see women in leadership. We need more women in leadership, that is true. We also need women who will stand up on women's rights and reproductive freedoms. And these are some of the key contrasts between me and my opponent Republican, Susan Collins. Just this spring, she voted against equal pay for equal work. During the fight over funding for Planned Parenthood, she voted for HR 1, to defund Planned Parenthood. It is not moderate to vote to defund Planned Parenthood. She has also been a strong opponent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and while the ACA falls short of true universal healthcare coverage, it's an important step in the process, and I think it would be irresponsible to repeal the ACA, without an option for universal access."

CC: I see that you've served in the Peace Corps and as an AmeriCorps*VISTA. How did these volunteer experiences impact you?

"The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps were extraordinary. I learned in the Peace Corps that I was an organizer. And in the AmeriCorps I learned about organizing in diverse communities."

CC: The Peace Corps just changed their application to make it shorter, and it's now online.

"Yes, to make it more accessible to diverse applicants. I think that's really important because the Peace Corps has a lot to offer people who are interested in service, who are interested in making a difference. It's important that we make sure that we're inclusive in these programs to make sure that people of all backgrounds can participate."

CC: Were there are any specific stories or experiences that really stuck out for you?

"In the Peace Corps I got involved in women's development. I was president of a group called Women in Development/Gender And Development and we organized a scholarship program for girls because secondary school education is prohibitively expensive for poor families, and because of machismo, sometimes girls were not encouraged to go on to school and get an education. So we started a program to make that financially possible for girls across the country. We also brought women together for leadership conferences on issues ranging from family planning, to small business development, to education, and worked on strengthening partnerships between NGOs that served women and communities in need. It was a really wonderful experience."

CC: I think in the States there's so much that we need to do in terms of women's issues, but it's not until you go abroad that you see how much more there is to work on, and how it's different.

SB: I organized a micro-lending project in my community. In so many places around the world, women are often heads of household and if women are empowered economically to provide for their families, then you see positive outcomes in many different areas, in health and education. I think lifting up women's economic status in communities, internationally but also here at home, is a really important part of strengthening communities.

CC: You and your husband decided not to get married until marriage was legal for everyone in Maine, an issue that you have worked on. Why was that personal stance important to you?

SB: "I have a lot of friends and family members who are gay and lesbian. It made no sense to me that friends of our family who have been together for decades in long-term, committed, loving relationships did not have the freedom to marry. So it was important to me personally not to participate in such a visibly discriminatory institution until it was available to all."

CC: Where does Maine stand on the issues of abortion access and access to full-spectrum reproductive health care?

SB: "Maine is a fundamentally pro-choice state. When you poll Mainers on a variety of women's health issues, including contraception and abortion, there is overwhelmingly positive support for access and we have a longstanding tradition of bipartisan support for our family planning organizations in Maine, including Planned Parenthood but also the independent organizations in Maine. That's another reason why it's so important that Maine be represented by a senator who will never vote against women's reproductive freedoms. This is an issue that I have spent a decade working to advance and I think it's so important to restore these basic rights. It's absurd that we're discussing contraception in 2014. Absolutely absurd. Well over 95% of women will use contraception in her lifetime."

CC: As you know, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, but not the reality for a lot of women, especially low-income women and women in rural areas. As a senator what would you do make Roe a reality for every woman regardless of her income, where she lives, or her color?

SB: "I think we need to expand Medicaid coverage for abortion so that there are public funding streams for access to contraception and abortion."

CC: Would you repeal the Hyde Amendment?

SB: "I would repeal the Hyde Amendment. Absolutely. I also think that we need a nationwide law to prohibit some of these state and local ordinances which are so restrictive and infringe on women's constitutional rights to equal health care. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, but it is not equal protection under the law to limit women's health care options while men have no arbitrary limits placed on theirs."

CC: As a former Executive Director for the ACLU of Maine and as a supporter of abortion access, how do you reconcile the right to free speech with a woman's right to reproductive health care, for example clinic protests?

SB: The ACLU has been very thoughtful in this area. Where free speech is extraordinarily important and the First Amendment protects it, you do not have a free speech right to infringe on someone else's constitutional right to access health care. Buffer zones need to be narrowly tailored, and specific, to ensure that the free speech rights of protesters are not infringed upon, but at the same time the Supreme Court decision goes too far in opening up the ability of protesters to physically block women from accessing the health care they need."

CC: You come from a working class background. As you know a lot of Senators don't really struggle financially, so how do you think that your background and coming from the working class has impacted you? And how do you think you will be able to carry that into the senate where you'll be surrounded by millionaires?

SB: "Having a working class background helps me understand what it's like for so many Americans who are really struggling right now to make ends meet in this economy. Coming from this background and having a sense of gratitude for all the help that I get along the way also gives me a strong commitment to increasing public education and expanding pathways of opportunity to ensure that other people have the same opportunities that I have. In this country it should be that anyone can run for the United States Senate. Instead we have a system that really favors millionaires, and people like me don't run very often and that's why we have a Congress of millionaires instead of a Congress that's truly representative."

CC: You've said that it took you 10 years to pay off your student loans. This is a problem many young people are facing today, and one that is keeping many from purchasing homes, and even starting families. What can we do to fix the crisis?

SB: "We need to lower the student loan interest rates. Government should not be lending money to students at a higher percentage rate than they do to the big banks. We need to allow students to refinance their debt. We need to lower the cost of higher education by strong investments in higher education from the federal government to lower public school tuitions. We should explore free tuition in some of our public universities.

CC: It wasn't that long ago that it was free, and much more affordable.

SB: We're mortgaging our young people's future with the student loan crisis. And having graduated from college with student loans myself, I very much understand what that means."

CC: What's your elevator pitch for Maine?

SB: "Mainers deserve stronger working class representation in the United States Senate. I will stand up on civil rights and civil liberties, on economic fairness, and environmental protection, and I will stand up for Mainers."

As we were getting ready to leave, she mentioned that she had read my post on the 5th anniversary of Dr. Tiller's death, which got us talking about reproductive rights again, so I've included that here as well.

SB: I thought your Dr. Tiller post was really heartfelt and expressed how I felt. You know, I think the Supreme Court got this one wrong (the recent case involving buffer zones at abortion clinics, McCullen v. Coakley). I think in Massachusetts, there was a clear pattern of violence and intimidation and the reasons for the buffer zone and how the Massachusetts statute was constructed fell in line with the constitution, and you see there are fewer and fewer abortion providers who are willing to be public about their service like Dr. Tiller, because of our culture of intimidation.

CC: There's a stigma in this country that doesn't match how people feel. And as a senator you may get to vote for the next Justice, which is maybe one of the more important duties of a senator. Which is another reason why elections matter.

SB: "Our main challenge in this election is to help voters understand the stakes. The stakes for women in this country have never been higher and control of the United States Senate is at the nexus of that fight, and at the end of the day, even when Republican Susan Collins votes for women's health, she will vote first for Mitch McConnell and then for justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts, who she voted for, who brought us opinions like Hobby Lobby."

CC: She voted for Alito and Roberts*?

SB: "She voted for Alito, who authored the Hobby Lobby decision. So her vote for extremists on the Supreme Court has led to consequences that are not moderate in the least."

*Collins also voted for Roberts.

For more on Shenna Bellows be sure to check out her website.