Snowe’s right-hand woman packs up, looks back

On the sixth floor of an office building in Portland’s Canal Plaza, Sen. Olympia Snowe’s staff is cataloging and packing all the mementos she’s accrued over the past 18 years. It’s a daunting task.

“I’m shocked by how many awards she’s had,” said Cheryl Leeman, who’s worked for Snowe since 1994. Then she reconsidered that statement. “Well, not surprised, I guess, given the great job she’s done.”

The moving actually began last summer, when an intern started sorting all the items and documents into three broad categories. Files pertaining to constituent services have to be handled discretely, due to confidentiality requirements. (In other words, it’s time to sharpen up the shredder). Hundreds of newspaper clippings are being organized and preserved. Everything else has to be documented and inventoried. They’re even taking pictures of the pictures on the walls.

Some of Snowe’s effects will be sent to the National Archives. Other stuff is headed to the library at the University of Maine at Orono, Snowe’s alma mater. The General Services Administration will be removing all the furniture, probably by the end of this year.

The mood in Suite 601 during these final days is “mixed,” Leeman said. “It depends what day of the week it is and what we’re packing and what we’re doing.” She added that the Portland office, one of six district offices in the state, has a staff of four and is “still in operational mode, because that’s how [Snowe] wants it.”

Leeman began working for Snowe as her special projects director, handling a wide array of administrative tasks. When Charlie Summers left Snowe’s staff in 1994 to make the first of several unsuccessful runs for federal office, Leeman was promoted to his position.

By that point, Leeman had already served on the Portland City Council for 10 years. Unlike her predecessor, she’s had no inclination to climb the political ladder and has easily won reelection to represent East Deering on the council ever since.

In addition to constituent services, Leeman meets with groups seeking input on federal legislation. The day we spoke, she’d met with representatives from the Maine chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the National Education Association. She then passes along those groups’ opinions and concerns to Snowe’s staff in Washington or, when warranted, Snowe herself.

“So you’re being lobbied?” I asked.

“We call them ‘legislative comments,’” Leeman replied. “It’s not really lobbying, per se.”

One of the groups Leeman has met with most frequently over the years is Peace Action Maine. The activist organization has held numerous sit-ins at the Canal Plaza office over the years, but the protesters always treated the staff with respect. “They can be quite fun,” Leeman said of the sit-ins.

“Was there singing?” I asked.

“Well, they weren’t singing ‘Kumbaya,’” she answered with a laugh.

(It was during this part of our talk that Leeman dropped a political bombshell: The senator’s staff has been accepting special gifts from that radical left-wing group. Peace activist Sally Breen was among the protesters, and Leeman said she and Breen eventually became “very good friends.” Breen “would bring me brownies,” she added. “She made the best brownies ever.” I expect the Tea Party will want to launch a full-scale federal investigation into what made those hippie brownies so delicious).

Leeman said one of her most cherished memories is of the time she and the staff were able to help a veteran suffering from ALS — otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — who had been exposed to toxic chemicals during the Gulf War. “His most important concern was making sure his family was taken care of because he knew he was going to die from this,” Leeman said. Snowe’s office was able to cut through the red tape and get the benefits secured shortly before the veteran died, so he passed away at least with that peace of mind.

Snowe has been “a phenomenal inspiration,” she said, and was “extremely supportive” when Leeman successfully battled breast cancer a few years ago. “We vowed to stay in touch. … She’s been part of my life.”

Leeman is still considering her next move. “I could take early retirement and go play golf, but I don’t play golf,” she joked. A position on independent Angus King’s senatorial staff is also a possibility, she said, noting that the work done in district offices is, for the most part, non-political.

King hasn’t plucked any Snowe staffers for his team yet, but when it’s time to select someone to head the Portland office, he’d be a fool not to put Leeman’s name at the top of the list.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.