AUGUSTA — Shenna Bellows, the twice-elected Democratic state senator who grew up in Hancock, was elected by the Legislature Dec. 2 to be Maine’s next secretary of state. She defeated Republican Eric Brakey of Auburn, a former state senator and primary candidate for the 2nd Congressional District.
In January, Bellows, who now resides in Manchester, will take over for current Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Dunlap, a Democrat from Old Town, has termed out. Bellows will be the first woman to hold the job.
Bellows was re-elected in November to her second term as state senator representing District 14 but had to decline the role to assume the position of secretary of state. A special election will be held to fill her seat.
“I am incredibly honored to be the first female secretary of state in Maine’s 200-year history and am aware that I stand on the shoulders of amazing women and men before me, who paved the way for this to happen,” Bellows said in an interview with The American on Friday.
As secretary of state, she will oversee a department whose major role is to conduct state elections at a time when public confidence in our election processes continues to be tested.
While President Trump continues to make unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, Attorney General Bill Barr recently told the Associated Press that, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
Meanwhile, secretaries of state are under a much brighter spotlight. Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has been under intense scrutiny amid his state’s recount and certification of the Nov. 3 election.
“We’re in a time of national importance, it’s such an important moment in our nation’s history,” Bellows said. “We need to do everything in our power to ensure integrity of our elections and increase public confidence in elections and democracy.”
How does she think Maine is faring in these times?
“Maine is better off than most states when it comes to the strength of our democracy,” Bellows said.
“I think Mainers feel really good and trust their local town clerks and election workers and Office of the Secretary of State to do a good job.”
To maintain (and in some cases, restore) confidence in our elections, Bellows said, “my goal will be to work in coalition with our town clerks and their amazing staff to think through ‘what’s working well and what can be improved.’”
She noted that one technique will be to perform post-election audits that will act as a survey to see what policies are and are not working.
In addition, she said she will work to increase voter turnout and expand voter participation, while protecting the security of our elections.
What are some of the challenges that await her?
“Our politics are so polarized,” Bellows said. “What I learned growing up in Hancock County, when times are tough, you come together…it doesn’t matter what party you are.”
“I want to listen to all sides and make sure everyone feels included and represented at the table,” she added.
She said she supports transparency, a tenet of Dunlap’s work with the department.
“He has done an extraordinary job in modeling fairness and nonpartisanship,” Bellows said of Dunlap, another Hancock County native, who was born and raised in Bar Harbor. Dunlap now has his eye on becoming state auditor.
Bellows moved to Hancock with her parents when she was 2 years old and lived in a house without running water or electricity until she was in the fifth grade.
Despite these hardships, Bellows credits her community of teachers, mentors, coaches and her parents for instilling a “deep sense of the importance of public service and making a difference in the world.”
“Mrs. Johnson was my kindergarten teacher,” Bellows remembered with a laugh, adding that without the speech therapy she received as a young student at Hancock Grammar School, “I wouldn’t be in politics today.”
“I feel a debt of gratitude and appreciation for everyone who helped me, supported me, educated me along the way,” she added.
She watched her father, now a retired carpenter, serve on the Hancock Board of Selectmen for 20 years. Her mother ran for the town’s planning board in the 1980s to help save a local eagle’s nest.
So, what will Bellows bring to her new role?
“I always had this fascination with the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” Bellows said. She kept a copy of the Bill of Rights tacked to her bedroom wall growing up.
Through her graduation from Ellsworth High School, Middlebury College in Vermont and work with the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, this fascination followed Bellows and influenced her work with voting rights.
“I’ve been working on voting rights for over a decade and I’m passionate about defending the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” Bellows said, noting the importance that every person participates in our democracy.
In 2004, she began working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which aims to be “the nation’s premier defender of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution,” according to its website.
While with the organization, Bellows worked on the Voting Rights Act reauthorization bill, which eventually passed in 2006.
She became the executive director of the Maine ACLU in 2005, spending her first day on the job meeting with the Voting Rights Coalition.
In 2014, she made a run for U.S. senator, losing to Republican incumbent Susan Collins.
Her current work as the executive director of The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta will end after this month as she prepares to assume her new role in January.
Bellows said the work and “learning from Holocaust survivors and their allies has been one of the greatest honors of my life…it has prepared me for the importance of this role [and] making sure everyone feels included and represented in this democracy.”
In addition to her work with maintaining elections, Bellows will oversee the Bureau of Corporation, state archives and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
“The Bureau of Motor Vehicles touches the lives of every adult Mainer,” Bellows said. From getting a license to securing a vehicle title, the bureau “handles the business that is so fundamental to Mainers’ ability to participate in our economy,” she said.
She said with a laugh that she did not expect to oversee this work back when she was driving her 1977 Chevy Nova to work at Tidal Falls Lobster Pound in Hancock.
But now, she said she plans to “work with incredible state workers” and invest in technology that will make it easier for Mainers “to access these basic services.”
Bellows said she is committed to working for the state’s residents.
“Mainers are really suffering right now,” she said. “We need to do everything in our power to make sure government is working for them. That is incredibly important to me.”