Shenna Bellows sees new post as Maine’s secretary of state as dream job at a critical time
The former state senator and executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine says her goals include increasing voter participation and protecting privacy.
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
Shenna Bellows (Panama 1999-01) has had a rewarding career defending civil liberties for Maine’s ACLU chapter, managing educational programs for disadvantaged youths at Learning Works in Portland, and educating the public about the value of human rights at the state Holocaust and Human Rights Center.
But all of it was simply preparation for what she calls her new dream job: Maine secretary of state.
A Democratic state senator from Manchester, Bellows said much of her recent work has particular relevance because it often focused on the importance of individual and collective decision making in times of injustice.
“And how important it is,” she added, “to stand up against hatred and bigotry, and how important our democratic institutions and rule of law are to a free society.”
As Maine’s new secretary of state, Bellows, 45, will become the state’s top election official at a time when the integrity of U.S. systems are coming under relentless and unprecedented attacks from a sitting U.S. president.
Bellows, who will succeed long-serving Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, is the first woman to hold the post in Maine’s 200-year history. She’s aware that this is a moment unlike any other.
“We are at an incredibly important time in our nation’s history,” Bellows said during a speech to a nominating convention of Democrats in the Legislature this month. She was among seven lawmakers or former lawmakers vying for the position and won the nomination after five rounds of ranked-choice balloting.
The post is one of three constitutional positions elected by the Maine Legislature, and Bellows said it feels like the job is something she has been preparing for her entire professional career.
A graduate of Middlebury College, Bellows served in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. In addition to her leadership jobs with the ACLU, Learning Works and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, she has served two terms in the Maine Senate and won re-election to a third term in November.
In 2014, she made an unsuccessful bid to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a campaign that featured Bellows walking the length of Maine to greet voters.
As a lawmaker or advocate she has worked on voting rights issues since 2004, is a supporter of the state’s same-day voter registration law and of ranked-choice voting. Although Maine regularly ranks among the top states for voter participation, Bellows said she believes Maine can do even better and proposed a goal of 90 percent voter turnout.
She said the economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking also calls for a more responsive state government, including from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which is within the Department of the Secretary of State.
“Mainers are suffering,” Bellows said. “We need to do everything in our power to make government work for them. We need to make sure our laws and systems aren’t catapulting people from short-term disaster to long-term tragedy.”
Bellows said she would support changes in Maine law that would reduce or end driver’s license suspensions for misdemeanor crimes that are unrelated to driving. Such punishment hits people of color and the poor particularly hard, she said, by cutting off their means of transportation to work and other essential destinations in a rural state.
However, she acknowledged that the Legislature sets policy, and her role would be to administer her department under state law and the Maine Constitution.
“I’m mindful that my role has changed,” Bellows said. “I no longer am a senator, the Legislature sets the policy, the secretary of state can certainly guide the Legislature in these areas of expanding voter participation, protecting privacy, advancing people’s constitutional rights – those are things I’ve spent my career defending – but the secretary of state doesn’t get a vote and the secretary of state doesn’t make the decision about whether to sign or veto a law and so I think it’s really important that the policy conversations happen in the Legislative branch.”
She said she’s always carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution – “a battered copy” – in her purse.
“I take the role of the constitutional officer and the separation of powers very seriously,” she said.
While many will see Bellows as a left-of-center Democrat, she has aligned with conservative and libertarian Republicans on issues important to them, especially privacy rights, and fought alongside them in resisting the implementation of federal Real ID laws in Maine.
She once joined former state Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, in calling on President Trump to work to repeal the federal mandate.
Brakey was the Republican Party’s nominee to replace Dunlap, but with the Legislature in the firm control of Democrats, he was more of a token candidate than a real contender in the race.
As a senator, Bellows joined forces with Dunlap to push through a Read ID carve-out in Maine law that allows residents who are concerned about protecting their privacy and don’t need a federally compliant identification card to obtain an alternative license that is legal for state identification purposes.
“Shenna is a hard progressive,” Brakey said, “but she’s got some of that old school, what the left used to be about – pro-civil liberties, pro-privacy, pro-free speech and those kind of things.”
Along with an ability to find points of common ideology, Bellows’ personality sets her apart and has allowed her to win three elections to the state Senate in a district that leans toward Republicans.
“Shenna Bellows surprised me by being so friendly the first time we met, even though we were members of different parties, and we quickly became friends,” said George Smith, a Republican and well-known outdoor sports columnist who also served as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He and Bellows found themselves on the same side when it came to Real ID as well.
“Her attitude is the best and her desire to help everyone is wonderful,” Smith said. “I actually helped her in her legislative campaigns. I encouraged her to get out and meet her constituents because once you’ve met Shenna, you’re going to like and support her.”
The Senate District 14 seat, which Bellows won for the third time in November, represents 11 central Maine towns. She could not keep the seat and hold the office of Secretary of State, so a special election will be held in January. In her new role, Bellows will be paid $81,910 a year, as approved by the Legislature. Dunlap, who served in the position for 14 years in total, was paid $110,600 in 2019, according to the state’s online salary database, Open Checkbook.
Bellows noted that her work as executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center has also prepared her for the key role the secretary of state plays in taking care of the state archives and preserving Maine’s history.
“It not only prepares me to do good work with the Maine State Archives and thinking about how we tell and keep Maine history alive, but it has also prepared me with a new understanding of how important the nonpartisan, fair and open administration of elections is to a civil society,” Bellows said.