Former Sen. Olympia Snowe urges Charlotte audience to fight political gridlock

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe received a standing ovation from about 400 women at a Charlotte summit Friday when she urged them to support candidates for elected office who favor collaboration and compromise instead of political gridlock.

“You need to reward those who are willing to cross the political aisle,” said Snowe, a Maine Republican. “You have the power of social media to create online communities. Use it.

“The forces of division are well organized. …But the majority of Americans want their government to work. It needs to work for all of us.…We have to restore the integrity of the process in Washington.”

Snowe, who after 34 years Congress announced her retirement in 2012, said she was convinced the institution couldn’t be changed from within. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” she said. “…But I just decided to take my fight outside.”

A U.S. senator from 1995-2013 and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979-1995, Snowe was keynote speaker at the 2014 conference of the UNC Charlotte Women + Girls Research Alliance (formerly the UNCC Charlotte-Mecklenburg Women’s Summit). She praised the local organization for its research into issues that affect many women, such as domestic violence, poverty, homelessness and pay disparity.

“Facts matter, as unbelievable as it may sound today. All too often, facts fall prey to idealism and political warfare.…These are moral issues. These are human issues. These are civil rights issues, and they should be addressed as such,” Snowe said to applause.

She also signed copies of her book, “Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress,” which outlines how things worked when she was first elected to Congress, in 1978 at 31, compared to today.

“When I started, it was important to have credible information and data..…It was all about teamwork and collaboration… But in today’s environment, you don’t have that kind of process. They’re not talking about facts. They’re talking about messaging and political talking points.…We’re on the road to nowhere these days.”

To improve things, Snowe suggested having open primaries that would give independent voters a say in choosing candidates for general elections, and allowing independent redistricting commissions, instead of state legislatures, to set boundaries for political districts and avoid the gerrymandering that gives many legislators “safe” less competitive districts.

Snowe recalled working across the aisle with Congressional Democrats to pass laws, including one that prohibits discrimination against patients who get genetic testing and another that requires the National Institutes of Health to include women in research trials. “We had to build alliances and coalitions,” she said. “That’s the way it used to work.”

When she retired, Snowe said Senate Democrats and Republicans even held separate going-away parties. “It was customary at one time that there would be a single dinner,” she said. “It’s not even bipartisan today to say goodbye.”