Olympia Snowe, the only Greek American in the U.S. Senate and one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, announced Tuesday that she will not seek a fourth term in 2012. He departure is a strong loss for the Greek American Community. The 65-year-old, who had also served in the House for eight terms, said she came to the decision in part after reflecting on the increasingly rancorous climate in Washington.
“I am a fighter at heart, and I am well prepared for the electoral battle,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate.”
Snowe becomes the 10th senator to announce plans to retire at the end of the current term, and only the third Republican. Democrats are defending a narrow 53-47 advantage in the 2012 elections. Snowe’s surprising decision potentially gives the majority party a much needed opportunity to pick up a Republican seat.
Last May, during a fundraising event at the Catsimatidis’ residence, Olympia Snowe had predicted a tough primary, expecting a challenge from the Tea Party. Newly published vote ratings from the National Journal put Snowe squarely in the ideological center of the Senate. Only her fellow Maine Republican, Susan Collins, ranked as a more liberal Republican member.
Born Olympia Jean Bouchles in 1947 in Augusta, Maine, the daughter of Georgia Goranites and George John Bouchles, the Greek American Senator had a tough life. Her father immigrated to the United States from Sparta in Greece, while her mother’s root are in the island of Lesvos.
Snowe’s early life had its share of tragedies; her mother died of breast cancer when she was nine, and her father died of heart disease barely a year later. Orphaned, she was moved to Auburn, Maine, to be raised by her aunt and uncle, a textile mill worker and a barber, respectively, along with their five other children. Her brother John was raised separately, by other family members. Within a few years, disease would also claim her uncle’s life.
Following her mother’s death, Snowe was sent to St. Basil’s Academy in Garrison, New York, where she remained from the third grade to the ninth, and she was taught by Athena Hatziemmanuel. Returning to Auburn, she attended Edward Little High School, before entering the University of Maine in Orono, Maine in 1969, where she earned a degree in political science. Shortly after graduation, Bouchles married her fiancé, Republican state legislator Peter Snowe.
Snowe entered politics and rose quickly, winning a seat on the Board of Voter Registration and working for Congressman (later U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of Defense) William Cohen. Tragedy struck Snowe again in 1973, when her husband was killed in an automobile accident. At the urging of family, friends, neighbors and local leaders, Snowe ran for her husband’s Auburn-based seat in the Maine House of Representatives at the age of 26 and won. She was re-elected to the House in 1974, and, in 1976, won election to the Maine Senate, representing Androscoggin County. That same year, she was a delegate to both the state and national Republican conventions.
Snowe was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978, and represented Maine’s 2nd Congressional District from 1979 to 1995. becoming the first Greek American woman in the U.S. Congress. She served as a member of the Budget and International Relations Committees.
Snowe married John “Jock” McKernan, then-Governor of Maine, in February 1989. Tragedy struck Snowe yet again in 1991 when her stepson Peter McKernan died from a heart ailment at the age of 20. Snowe and McKernan had served together in the United States House of Representatives from 1983 to 1986, when McKernan represented the 1st District. While Snowe was First Lady of Maine from 1989 to 1995, she served as a U.S. Representative and was elected and sworn in as a United States Senator.
In 1994, when Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell declined to run for re-election, Snowe immediately declared her candidacy for the seat. The Democratic nominee was her House colleague, 1st District Congressman Tom Andrews. Snowe defeated Andrews 60–36%, carrying every county in the state.