Home / Champion-women / Article




June 24 2019

Senator Susan Collins

by Charlotte Hays

When besieged in airports by furious foes of her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice, Senator Susan Collins, Republican from Maine, did what came naturally to the methodical Phi Beta Kappa: she laid out her arguments, engaged in debate, and attempted to convince, point by point.

This is the Susan Collins we recognize from her spellbinding yet meticulously reasoned speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate one Friday last October, the speech the New York Times described as Collins “standing alone.” Even the Times, no friend of the Kavanaugh nomination, had to call Collins’ presentation a “reasoned, carefully researched, 45-minute point-by-point defense of her support for Judge Kavanaugh.”

“My husband said, finally one day after witnessing an encounter at the airport, ‘Will you just please thank them for their views and not try to convince them that you were right?’ And I think, unfortunately, that he’s right. But boy, isn’t that a commentary on where we are today? If we can’t hold a civil discussion of an issue that is controversial, that’s really sad.”

Collins was standing alone because her frequent moderate Republican ally, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, had broken with the Republicans and announced her opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Collins’ vote was thus pivotal, historical, and enormously risky. For the entire 45 minutes, Susan Collins held the nation in the palm of her hand. You might even remember where you were when you heard her logic unfold and build to its history-making climax.  

But her eloquence did not mollify her sometimes abusive airport critics. Some were really getting in her face.

Collins finally took the advice of Tom Daffron, a Washington political expert, who hired Collins at age 22 for her first Capitol Hill job, a position in the office of then-Congressman Bill Cohen from Maine. Daffron ultimately became more than a best friend and political adviser: Collins, who had not been married before, tied the knot with Daffron in 2012, at the age of 59.  “My husband said, finally one day after witnessing an encounter at the airport, ‘Will you just please thank them for their views and not try to convince them that you were right?’ And I think, unfortunately, that he’s right. But boy, isn’t that a commentary on where we are today? If we can’t hold a civil discussion of an issue that is controversial, that’s really sad.”

Was the Kavanaugh vote a life-changing act?   

“In some ways I would have to say yes,” Collins replies. “It was. This past year was the most difficult year, professionally, that I have ever had.  It was difficult because the abuse of my staff, my family, and me was so extreme and the threats of violence so serious that there have been two arrests, and one person who pled guilty to death threats against Senator Grassley (chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh hearings) and me.  

“I don’t mean to give the impression at all that I’ve lived my life in fear, because you just can’t do that. But the threats were serious enough that the threat assessment division of the Capitol Police decided that I needed police protection at one point.  And I have never had that kind of situation in all the years that I have been honored to serve. So, it was extremely difficult, and it’s taken some getting used to. I’ve always felt very fortunate in the State of Maine that people come up to me all the time to talk about issues, whether I’m at church, or the grocery store, or doing official events. And I want that, but the vehemence, the contentiousness of this issue, has been unlike anything I have ever experienced. What I will never understand is why people would think that tactics like that would cause me to change my vote.  I would never give in to those kinds of threats and abuse.”

When Collins says that this year has been a standout, it means something: this is somebody who has been involved in politics and public service her entire life. Her parents were active in public service, including elective office. “My mother always became the head of any board or council that

she was either elected to or appointed to.  She always became the leader. And she was chairman of the school board when I was a senior in high school, and actually signed my diploma – she was mayor of the town in which I grew up.  She was the first woman to serve as the chair of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. She was the head of the Catholic Charities Board in the State of Maine. She was, and is, an extraordinary leader. My father was a state senator and also served as mayor, as well as leading many civic and business organizations. I remember sitting around the dinner table when I was growing up, and my parents both told me that you had no right to complain if you weren’t willing to get involved.  That it was important to get off the sidelines, to get involved in your community, and to work to make your community, your state, and your country a better place. And their example was inspiring to me. And seeing a strong woman at home who was able to raise six children; be so active in civic, education, and religious organizations; and work as the religious education director of our local Catholic church, that was amazing. I don’t know how she did it all.”

Collins grew up in Caribou, Maine, where her great-great grandfather, Samuel W. Collins, founded a lumber business in 1844. Her uncle, Samuel W. Collins Jr., sat on the Maine Supreme Court and previously served in the state Senate with her father, Donald Collins. The future U.S. Senator graduated from Caribou High School in 1971. It was while in high school that Collins made her first trip to Washington, D.C., selected as a member of the U.S. Senate Youth Program. On the trip, Collins met Maine’s first woman Senator, the venerable Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, and the Senator and future Senator engaged in an intense, two-hour conversation together. It is Margaret Chase Smith’s former seat that Collins now holds.

Collins went on to St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where she earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious academic honors society, and earned a B. A. in government. She graduated magna cum laude.  

In 1975, Tom Daffron, chief of staff for then-Congressman Cohen — another moderate Republican from Maine — hired Collins to serve as a legislative assistant. Collins remained a member of Cohen’s staff when he was elected to the Senate in 1978.  She became staff director of the Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, remaining part of Cohen’s staff until 1987. She left Washington to join the cabinet of Maine Governor John R. McKernan, Jr. and was later appointed as the director of the Small Business Administration’s regional office in Boston by President George H.W. Bush.  In 1994, she ran for governor. After losing the governorship to Angus King, now Maine’s junior U.S. Senator, Collins went on to found the Center for Family Business at Husson University. She served as executive director until 1996, when William Cohen announced that he was stepping down from his Senate seat to become Secretary of Defense. Collins ran for and won Cohen’s former seat. She has served in the Senate since 1997.

  “. . . but the vehemence, the contentiousness of this issue, has been unlike anything I have ever experienced. What I will never understand is why people would think that tactics like that would cause me to change my vote.  I would never give in to those kinds of threats and abuse.”

In the Senate, Collins has carried on the tradition of the moderate Republican, which some claim is a vanishing breed. Collins believes that the Republican Party would suffer if this happened. “I’ve always believed that the Republican Party is most successful when it’s a big tent party,” she says. “And as Ronald Reagan once said – and I’m paraphrasing – someone who agrees with you 85% of the time is your friend and ally, not your enemy.  And I think it is really important that we Republicans remember that there’s room for differing views on issues and that we are united by core Republican principles. On some issues, we are simply going to disagree, but it doesn’t mean that we are not all good Republicans.”

“The Republican Party is not going to be successful if it becomes strictly a regional party.  And I worry about that happening because I am now the last-standing Republican in all of New England who is serving in Congress. When I was first elected, there were approximately a dozen of us from nearly every New England state, even Vermont. So, I worry that it’s not good for our country to have regions that are represented by just one party.”

“I want to make sure that the concerns of New Englanders are heard in both caucuses. And I think that is very important, and frankly it also is important for our ability to elect a president that we have strength throughout the country.  So, I don’t think we should be writing off any area of the country.”

Of course, Collins doesn’t just stand out as the lone Republican representing New England in the Senate.  She is also one of the Senate’s eight Republican women, compared to seventeen Democratic women currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

Collins believes that it is a little harder for women, at least at first. “It is harder,” she tells IWF.  “I wish I didn’t have to say that. What I have noticed in the Senate is when a male gets elected, it’s assumed that he belongs there.  When a woman, especially a Republican woman, gets elected to the Senate, there’s another barrier we have to surmount. Now once we do that, we are a member of the club and fully accepted.  But there’s a testing period that I don’t think men go through. I also believe that we women need to have more confidence in ourselves and we need to be more supportive of other women.”

“The Republican Party is not going to be successful if it becomes strictly a regional party.  And I worry about that happening because I am now the last-standing Republican in all of New England who is serving in Congress. When I was first elected, there were approximately a dozen of us from nearly every New England state, even Vermont. So, I worry that it’s not good for our country to have regions that are represented by just one party.”

“When I’m not up for re-election myself, I have always campaigned for my Republican colleagues. I’ve also helped recruit Republican women to run for office, and Republican men as well. And over the years, over and over again, when I would call Republican women and ask them to consider running for the Senate, I would hear these words: I just don’t feel that I’m quite ready. I’m just not prepared enough.  I’ll tell you – I have never once had a potential male candidate say that to me. Never once.”

“So, I think we need to have more confidence in ourselves and be more willing to take the risk that we may not prevail the first time, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up, and it doesn’t mean that we are not qualified. The good news is that a growing number of women are writing checks and volunteering and helping other women. It was not like that when I first started out. It was really hard to get women activated.  A lot of women who were running felt they didn’t have the kinds of networks that they could call upon for financial support.”

“I remember one woman giving me the advice on my very first race for Governor of Maine, where I won an eight-way Republican primary but lost the general election.  I told her that I did not know how to raise money. She said that the first thing you should do is write to your Christmas card list. Well, it was a good, practical first step; I mean, not sufficient, but a start. So, I think it is different for women – and for Republican women in particular. I was really saddened by the loss of House seats that we saw this past fall, including some very talented Republican women and some who have decided to retire. But on the other hand, in the Senate, we have more Republican women than we have ever had with Cindy Hyde-Smith and Martha McSally joining our ranks.”

One of Collins’ most recent undertakings is to help reduce the cost of prescription drugs, while at the same time not cutting into the budget pharmaceutical companies must have to research and develop new drugs.  

“This is an issue that is so important to me,” Collins tells IWF.  “I represent a state with the oldest median age in the country, and 90% of seniors take at least one prescription drug.  We’ve seen over the past decade some inexplicable spikes in pricing, and what I have found is that the system is incredibly opaque. I can’t think of anything else that we purchase where the pricing is more complicated, less transparent, and more obscure than prescription drugs.”   

“Clinical trials fail and billions of dollars can be lost. So, I don’t underestimate that cost [of developing new drugs], and I don’t want to dampen that investment.  By the same token, it isn’t right that there are roadblocks to lower cost generics or biosimilars coming into the market when a patent has expired. And that is what my bill addresses. It’s intended to protect that period of exclusivity, but ensure that once that expires, there isn’t a gaming of the patent system where the pharmaceutical company files a bunch of last-minute patents to try to entangle the competitor in litigation that will delay the more affordable drug from coming to the market.  So, I am trying to use marketplace forces to fix a real problem. It’s also wrong when a brand-named pharmaceutical company pays a generic competitor not to bring the lower cost generic to market. And that happens as well.”

Collins was one of two Republicans to vote with Democrats against a $15 billion rescission package proposed by the Trump Administration, arguing that the responsibility belonged to Congress.  The question of whether she would support the GOP tax reform bill generated numerous headlines. In the end, she voted for it and explained the vote in an op-ed in a Maine newspaper: "I supported this legislation because it will help lower-income and middle-income families keep more of their hard-earned money, boost the economy and encourage businesses, both small and large, to grow and create jobs here in Maine and around the country," she wrote.   

She did get some changes made to the tax bill that came out of the Senate Finance Committee: a higher deduction for state and local taxes, important in higher tax states such as Maine, and retention of the deduction for medical expenses, which has been shown to be most used by those earning $50,000 or less. She also was responsible for reversing language that would have made it impossible for school teachers, clergy, firefighters, police officers and employees of nonprofits to make catch-up contributions to their retirement plans. “There is one other aspect of the tax plan that I want to mention since it hasn’t gotten attention that it deserves,” she adds. “And that is that the child tax credit was doubled and made refundable for the first time. And that means that a single mom earning $35,000 a year with a child is no longer paying taxes because of the nature of that tax credit.  So, it helps make her life a lot easier.”

She may not have made her own life any easier by voting to support Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but she stuck to her principles of conducting serious analysis and assessing the facts.

So how did she reach the decision to support the nomination? “Well, I really divided my consideration of Justice Kavanaugh into two parts,” she told IWF.  “At first, what I did is assemble a very large team of talented attorneys from the Congressional Research Service, former staffers of mine, and current staffers to help me go through the judge’s twelve years on the bench as a circuit court judge – because he had an extensive record.  It wasn’t as if it were a blank slate. So that was the first stage. That stage culminated with the very lengthy personal interview that I did of him that lasted two hours and 15 minutes. I was very impressed after that interview. I asked him a wide range of very tough questions and he seemed to enjoy the exchange. He was not evasive in any way. He was straightforward and brilliant in his answers. I remember asking him a question about whether precedent had roots in the Constitution and I don’t think anyone had ever asked him that before, but it was something that he thought deeply about. He seemed delighted to have a discussion about it. So, that was part one.”   

One of Collins’ most recent undertakings is to help reduce the cost of prescription drugs, while at the same time not cutting into the resources available for research and development of new drugs. “I represent a state with the oldest median age in the country, and 90% of seniors take at least one prescription drug. … I can’t think of anything else that we purchase where the pricing is more complicated, less transparent, and more obscure than prescription drugs.”   

“I was pretty sure that I would vote for him,” Collins recalls. “But then came part two, when everything was upended by the allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford. And I will never forget receiving the call from the Judiciary Committee telling me that there was a redacted letter that I should come see. This was in September. And when I went to read the letter, the first thing I noticed was that it was dated in late July. So, I wondered why it hadn’t been turned over to the FBI and to the committee investigators immediately.  But that was the beginning of stage two. And the very next day, I interviewed the judge for another hour and asked him about the letter. And he categorically denied the allegations. I asked him if he had any idea who could have sent the letter. He did not, and then, over the weekend, Christine Blasey Ford’s identity was revealed in a Washington Postarticle. So, that was the beginning of the second stage where I felt that I had to start again my consideration of the nominee.

“In that stage, when you ask me was there something that tipped the scales, it was reading the individual FBI interviews. I was one who urged that we reopen the FBI investigation for a reasonable but limited period of time, for a week, and have the FBI interview the people who Christine Blasey Ford said could vouch for her rendition of what had happened to her. And when I read the FBI reports – and I read each one of the reports personally, I did not just rely on the staff briefing – not only did I not find corroboration, but rather I found contradiction.  I’m convinced that something terrible happened to Christine Blasey Ford at some point in her life and that she was traumatized, but there was no evidence that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her.”

“So that would be the second stage. I became increasingly concerned that the whole confirmation process had gone from being an exalted constitutional duty of the Senate to a dysfunctional circus and that we were on the precipice as a country of abandoning fundamental principles like due process, fairness, and the presumption of innocence. I was extremely concerned about that.”

Currently, Senator Collins’ vote to confirm Justice Kavanugh may be at the top of the public’s mind, but that’s not what Senator Susan Collins wants to be remembered for. “I would most like to be remembered for my integrity,” she replies. “Regardless of whether someone agrees with a position I take, or a vote I cast, I want people to know that I always did what I thought was right.  And there were times when it would have been a lot easier for me if I had cast integrity overboard, but I just can’t do that. That’s not who I am. And I know at times that’s annoyed people of my own party. Other times, it’s annoyed Democrats, sometimes independents…but I study issues hard, and I do what I think is in the best interest of our country and my state. And I revere our Constitution.”   

When some elected officials talk about integrity, it’s easy to tune it out as standard, boilerplate politics. But when Susan Collins, who took one of the hardest votes in recent memory, speaks of integrity, it’s clear she means it.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
Follow us