The baby boomers had John F. Kennedy—young, charismatic, and TV ready.
Forty years later, Barack Obama was supposed to herald in a new generation, one globalized and beyond the narrow box-checking racial and ethnic categories, and, as he put it, beyond the cultural-war campus debates from the ’60s.
Now those hashtag lovin’, meme generatin’, self-obsessin’ millennials may have found a political candidate of their own.
Shenna Bellows is 39. “I just look 18,” she says. She spent the last eight years as executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and, prior to that, ran up a résumé familiar to many community-minded millennials: Middlebury College, Peace Corps in Panama, Vista Corps in a housing project in Nashville.
After a time as a field director at the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, D.C., Bellows returned to Maine. Leading the state office, she helped defeat a national ID-card requirement in the Maine legislature, setting off a wave of such defeats around the country; twice spearheaded a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage (losing once before winning in 2012); and successfully organized a bill that would require a warrant for law enforcement to access private cellphone communication.
And now her uphill battle against incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins is generating the kind of buzz that Democrats need in what is supposed to be a difficult midterm-election year, and political analysts are wondering if her pitch points a way forward toward a politics of the future.
“I was honored to be called the Elizabeth Warren of civil liberties,” said Bellows in an interview in New York, where she had come for a fundraiser and a series of interviews. “I think it is really important that we stand up for civil liberties. Civil liberties is core to who we are as Americans. It is what unites us across background, across ideology. These core values in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are something that we all share and we need to get back to these fundamental freedoms.”
It is a pitch designed to not just attract a coalition of left and right, but to bring on board young people, who have a tendency to tune out politics, especially, in a non-presidential year.
Bellows is sounding all the Warrenesque Democratic populist notes on economic fairness, talking up student-loan debt, and her own backstory—growing up in a house without indoor plumbing or electricity to a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was a home health aide and working herself as “Subway Sandwich Artist” to help pay her way through college. She talks a lot about climate change, too.
But the thrust of her pitch is about a government that is doing too much, or that is at least doing the wrong things. Not repairing roads and bridges so much as spying on its citizens and collecting their data. She is calling for a full repeal of the Patriot Act and massive curbs on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. She wants marijuana legalized—not just decriminalized or used for medical purposes—and calls for full marriage equality in every state.
“What is new, what politicians haven’t done in the past is campaigned on marijuana legalization and stopping NSA spying,” she says, tugging awkwardly at the hem of her blue skirt suit. “And certainly I have highlighted my leadership on the same-sex marriage fight in Maine because I think that is an important part of my experience.”
This can be a complicated pitch. The NSA spying program especially was at least presided over by a Democratic administration, and there are certainly many Democrats who have been cool to marijuana legalization. At times, Bellows can sound like a spokesperson for the Ron Paul Army.
“I do think we need to limit government intrusion into people’s lives, absolutely. Whether it is the NSA or limitations on the freedom to love and marry the person that you want or intrusion into a women’s health-care choices.”
The marijuana piece of her platform, she says, comes not so much from a libertarian angle but from the side of justice and fairness.
“Look, I have never smoked marijuana. I am asthmatic, and I was always a straight-arrow kid in high school,” she said, karate chopping her nose to denote straight-arrowness. She once told this to a local prosecutor as she was lobbying him for reduced offenses for those arrested on drug crimes, and Bellows had to confess that she did not really know how much an ounce of pot was.
“And he laughed, and said, ‘Oh yeah, I used to smoke up all the time.’ But what struck me about this situation is here you have this prosecutor who is charged with incarcerating this activity that he himself has engaged in. It is an example of an unjust law that needs to change.”
To be clear, Bellows is not a millennial, but rather half a generation older. But no matter. Kennedy wasn’t a baby boomer either; rather, he was the way in which millions of them found their way into politics.
“The fact that she is making civil liberties a part of who she is to me is a signal to the millennial generation that she may not be one of them, but that she is one of them in spirit,” said John Della Volpe, the director of Polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where he regularly polls and focus groups millennials on their politics. “For a candidate to be successful, they need to develop a rapport with their constituents over a shared value system, and only once that happens can you have a discussion about politics and policy.”
But Bellows may have picked the wrong race. Collins is consistently known as one of the most moderate members of the Senate, frequently crossing party lines to vote Democratic. And she crushed her last two competitors, both of whom were better known than Bellows. In 2008, in a year in which Democrats swept the map, she beat a serious competitor by nearly 25 points.
Bellows is counting on the fact that Maine is the only state that Obama carried in 2012 that has a Republican senator up for reelection, and is trying to paint Collins as someone who’s gradually shifting to the right and has been in Washington far too long. And although many candidates have a tendency to be timid early as they wait to see how the contours of a race shake out, Bellows is pressing her case aggressively from the start, delaying her interview with The Daily Beast so she could slam Collins for dragging her feet on raising the minimum wage and the release of a CIA torture report. (“It’s time we have a leader in Washington who does the right thing not because they are pushed or have cover, but because it’s the right thing to do.”)
“Susan Collins was elected 18 years ago, when I was graduating from college,” Bellows told The Daily Beast. “And in those 18 years we have experienced an economic crisis and an environmental crisis and a constitutional crisis that threatens our country’s future. We are at an important point in our country’s history. We have some serious challenges that we can’t expect to overcome by staying with the status quo.”
Maine political observers say it is a smart pitch. It ties in Collins’ work with the Senate Intelligence Committee and plays into Bellows’ background with the Maine branch of the ACLU. And highlighting her support for same-sex marriage contrasts with Collins’ moderate reputation. Bellows says that she tried to get Collins to join their coalition during the 2012 referendum fight, but that the senator refused to say where she stood on the issue.
Even Republican lawmakers in Maine had good things to say about Bellows’ tenure with the Maine ACLU. She was able, they say, to organize around key issues like the national ID card by reaching out to key members on both sides of the aisle, which took some of the partisan sting out of the issues. And she is pressing an aggressive campaign against Collins, trying to raise money from every town in the state (and outpacing her on fundraising in the last cycle, even if she trails in the money race overall) and speaking to groups that haven’t traditionally voted Democratic, like rural snowmobiling clubs, which she says, are greatly concerned about Washington overreach on spying.
Republicans are going to try to paint Bellows as a knee-jerk Democrat who just uses the civil-liberties argument when convenient. They point out that the Maine ACLU defended the right of panhandlers to aggressively ask for money on the streets of Portland, while working against the rights of abortion clinic protesters to block entrances of clinics.
“She has a long career ahead of her, but Susan Collins is as popular in Maine as any politician in the country is in their home state,” said one Republican operative in the state. “She’s right that people are hungry for something different, but this is a very tough hill to climb.”
Another Maine operative, a Democrat who has worked with Bellows agreed.
“She has picked her moment perfectly—coming out of the ACLU with all this NSA stuff going on,” he said. “She is smart and savvy and aggressive, but I just don’t think people are going to believe that Susan Collins is somehow a creature of the right.”
But win or lose, Bellows probably does have a future ahead of her—as the first pol to properly give voice to a rising generation.
“I think the politics of the next generation will be a politics about principle rather than label. I am really excited to work on issues of civil liberties with Republicans like Rand Paul and Justin Amash.
“We need to build coalitions to advance positive social change.”