This week I spoke with U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe about a variety of topics pertaining to the lives of Bowdoin students.

When elected in 1994, Snowe became the second woman ever to represent the state of Maine in the Senate, after the late Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Snowe previously represented Maine's second congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years.

At the age of 31, Snowe was first elected to Congress in 1978 as the youngest Republican woman?and the first Greek-American woman?ever elected to Congress. She is also the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress. Snowe has won more federal elections in Maine than any other person since World War II.

Now Maine's senior senator, Snowe is currently finishing up her second term and will be up for re-election next November. She has earned a reputation as a centrist senator and often seeks consensus-based approaches to policymaking. Snowe serves as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business, and is a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the Finance Committee.

Born in Augusta, Snowe was raised in Auburn and attended the University of Maine at Orono. Her father immigrated to America from Mytilene, Greece, and her mother's parents emigrated from Sparta. She is married to former Maine Governor John R. McKernan Jr.

The following includes excerpts of the interview.

Evan S. Kohn: Senator, my first question has to do with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Issues of discrimination in the state have been discussed on campus a lot recently. You supported an amendment in 1996 that was ultimately defeated, which would have banned discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Do you think this type of legislation should be brought up again on the federal level?

Senator Olympia J. Snowe: Well, it certainly could. Obviously, these issues have been best addressed by the state...I don't know whether this legislation will be introduced again on that question, but it is possible. That was my position, but I think this is best left to the states to determine and in particular for protecting those rights.

ESK: My next question has to do with the Supreme Court. In what ways might changes to the court, with now Chief Justice John Roberts and possibly soon-to-be Associate Justice Samuel Alito, in the end affect college students' lives and higher education? Are there any issues up for grabs that you think would be particularly salient with college students?

SOJS: That's a good question. It's hard to calculate...what you would expect is for judges to be open-minded, fair, predictable, pragmatic and understanding of the real-life implications of decisions that are made for the average American...So those would be the attributes and qualities that I'm looking for in a justice. You can never predict with certainty how they might rule on a certain question. What you do expect and hope for is that they provide open and fair consideration to every [side] of an issue.

Obviously, I think the chief justice is conservative, and I think the same is true for Judge Alito. But that is not really the issue. The issue is how they are going to apply their philosophy when it comes to ruling on important issues. That's what you really have to calibrate as a senator and in the process of this's possible to be surprised by the rulings they make or might render, as we've heard about Justice Souter and Justice Kennedy, for example. So you never really know. What you do is look for those qualities. In the case of Judge Alito, obviously we're still exploring his record, and seeing what his questionnaire will tell, and [we'll hear about this more] in the confirmation Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. So, good question, and I'll be evaluating [those parts] of his record.

ESK: Moving onto financial aid, I know you've been a supporter of Pell Grants, having voted for an amendment in late October that was defeated, but would have increased the total possible amount of Pell Grants awarded. There has been concern that recent legislation might hurt the state of financial aid. What are your thoughts on this? Is there anything in particular on your agenda in regards to financial aid?

SOJS: The wrong direction would be to cut financial aid to the students who depend upon it. Since the days when I went to the University of Maine, [I have] understood its value. That is why I will continue to champion not only support of student aid and the Pell Grant program, but also enhancing and expanding it. I obviously don't need to tell you what the costs are for higher education...

One of the first acts I undertook [occurred] when I was a freshman senator during my first year in the United States Senate when I served as a member of the Budget Committee. There were cuts in the Pell Grants program. I wasn't successful on the committee, so I took my initiative to the floor...Then I teamed up with the late Paul Simon, the senator from Illinois?an outstanding individual and great advocate for higher education. He and I collaborated on an amendment, and actually were able to save more money under that amendment than the one that I initially offered...As a result we were able to salvage student aid and the Pell Grant program...that was a major turning point because up to that point in time, there was a thought that we could cut programs like student aid and once we were successful it really wasn't attempted because of significant accomplishments and being able to restore the cuts that had occurred in the Budget Committee. That was a transformational moment for higher education and for the Pell Grant program, recognizing that this program should remain untouchable because it is of such value to...students across this country.

It really does bridge the income gap in America in many ways, because without the opportunity to access higher education, many people would be left behind in America...I think we have an obligation at the federal level to ensure that the goal [of access to higher education] is preserved and embraced and enhanced. So, I am a strong advocate and will continue to be a voice of support for higher education programs and to help working families and low-income families so they can have the opportunity for economic independence and security.

My father was from Greece, and for my family there was no way to have access [to higher education]. He died when I was really young, but the point was that they aspired to come to this country so I could have the benefit of educational programs. They came to this country to seek opportunity and they recognized that education was key to that opportunity...the only way we could have benefited from a college education was to have access to student aid....It really does make the difference for so many young people to access the American dream.

ESK: I'd like to ask about the Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS). Since its announced closing, there has been a lot of talk about different redevelopment plans. In a recent interview with the Orient, Speaker of the Maine State House John Richardson said he thought some land ought to be considered for transfer to Bowdoin. How do you envision the air station in 10 years?

SOJS: Hopefully it will be a decision by the community itself. I know that this is a very significant and ongoing discussion, as it should be. It is a monumental transformation to the community, and it will be important to determine what path will accomplish [the community's] goals and what they anticipate the future benefits to both communities, both Brunswick and Topsham, and the Mid-coast region [could be]. I think it will be a center of economic revitalization. It has exceptional attributes such as the runways, and obviously it could support new infrastructure and new housing. New businesses will have an incentive to locate there.

There is so much potential for a redevelopment plan....I know that they've already had many offers from different types of companies...the local redevelopment authority [has many contacts]...there is a wide-ranging opportunity that that facility affords. There is not only much land area, but infrastructure. I could see the Defense Department continuing to have a role...I could foresee [the BNAS site becoming] a major centerpiece for the Mid-coast region, without question. It may take some time, but it will happen. I have no doubts about that. It really has extraordinary value...the infrastructure is all in top-notch condition. So there's prime real estate and prime infrastructure.

ESK: Well it will be interesting to see how the process evolves.

SOJS: It will be. After you graduate, you can come back and remember how it was. Hopefully, you will see a major change. It takes a considerable amount of planning and resources and collaboration between the local, state, and federal [levels] to make it possible. That's why I think the Local Redevelopment Authority is so central to this revitalization and to the development of the property...It is so important to move in a direction that is supported by the community itself...In the final analysis, I think there will be multiple opportunities to maximize the benefits of the naval air station to its fullest.

ESK: The last issue I would like to discuss is energy. In a Commerce Committee hearing two weeks ago, you questioned big oil company executives about their recent record-breaking profits. Do you think the hearing made it clear why energy prices have been so high? Bowdoin has predicted it will need to go $1 million over budget this winter for energy costs. What do you think the prospects are for energy prices in Maine?

SOJS: That's one of my major concerns. It remains to be unknown exactly how much energy increases will cost over the course of the all measures and standards they have been devastating to Maine families and to anyone who lives in cold weather. So, I'm concerned about it. I've been leaving no stone unturned along with other members of the delegation...[When] I hear oil executives attempting to explain why this hasn't been price gouging?that's something I do not accept.

Frankly, one step I did take in the tax bill was to repeal one tax benefit that [oil companies] currently get in the tax code, because they indicated that they don't need the tax break. So, in that case we ought to repeal it...They are registering record profits not only for their own industry, but also in corporate America's history because of the amount of revenue that they have generated. This is very unusual. In my view, [this] is highly questionable and suspect that [it has happened] during a very difficult time in our nation's history from the devastation of the hurricanes in the Gulf region. What we saw was a monumental [increase] in energy I've [attempted] to repeal this tax break, [and to not repeal it] would be regrettable. The executives themselves acknowledged that they do not need this incentive, and I thought well they certainly don't need it with the prices this high...

In any event, I'm very much concerned about this winter...we have to be prepared, and I want a state like Maine to have the ability to purchase oil...We want to put more money in the hands of the state. I regret that we haven't been able to accomplish that at this point. I hope by the end of this session, when we return in December, that additional money will be [in] the appropriations bill.

ESK: I know you voted for an amendment a few weeks ago that would work to prevent price gouging. Will you push for this more?

SOJS: Yes, I am. We need to [look more] at what happened.

ESK: So will you be running for re-election to the Senate next November? I've heard rumors that you might run for governor.

SOJS: No that's not true (laughter). I'm running for reelection [to the Senate], but not for governor. I think that's where I could best serve the people of Maine in my role on the Finance Committee, and the years that I've gotten in my seniority [will] help me to play a pivotal role on behalf of my constituents. We need to develop a consensus-based approach to many of the policy initiatives that will attempt to solve the problems of this country. Unfortunately, it's been a much more polarizing, partisan environment in Washington...My upbringing is reflected in the way in which I approach the issues in the United States Senate. I think we need to continue that consensus-based approach.

ESK: Last question. There is a Bowdoin-Colby hockey game coming up. Who might you be rooting for?

SOJS: Oh my gosh (laughter). Is it okay if I remain on the sidelines for that one?

ESK: Fair enough. Thank you for taking the time to do an interview, Senator.

SOJS: I'm glad we could, thank you.

Look for another Evan Kohn interview with one of Maine's political leaders in the near future.