As Darlene Curley makes her way through an Augusta pizza restaurant in early October, it’s as if she is swimming upstream, hearing one complaint about President Bush after another from the lunch crowd.
There are complaints about the deficit, about the Iraq War, about oil and gas prices, and tax breaks for the rich. The 51-year-old Republican candidate for Maine’s 1st District seat, now held by Democrat Tom Allen, doesn’t defend the president, and in fact takes pains to delineate her views from those of the Bush administration.
For Curley, a nurse and teacher who has served two terms in the Maine Legislature representing part of Scarborough, being a Republican means standing on two key principles: a limited government and limited spending.
And she pledges to bring a nonpartisan approach to Congress, if elected.
The nonpartisan pledge may seem like the safe, political thing to say these days, but Curley insists it is a part of who she is. In fact, watching Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats for the Hurricane Katrina debacle inspired her to run.
As a nurse, seeing “babies in America with no food and water” after that disaster, spurred her to action.
“We need a stronger Congress than ever,” she said, one which, even if controlled by the GOP, should be “delineating themselves from the administration.”
Curley likens herself to U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and John McCain, whom she describes as nonpartisan moderates. Like them, she is pro-choice on the matter of abortion. If elected, she would form an “America First” group of such centrist-type representatives.
“I don’t work for the Republicans,” she said, but rather for her constituents. Nearly 40 percent of 1st District voters are not enrolled in either the Democratic or Republican parties, she points out, and those people should be as well represented in Congress as party members.
“I’ve been so disappointed in the lack of progress on anything,” she said of the present Congress.
When elected to the Maine Legislature, Curley said she made it her goal to contact each member of the House of Representatives – whether of her party or not.
Chatting with the lunch crowd at Damon’s Pizza on this particular day, Curley used an opening question to engage voters. “I’m elected, and it’s the night of Election Day, and I call you to ask you what I should do. What would you say is the most important thing I should focus on?”
The restaurant’s founder, David Wheelock, told Curley he voted for Bush, but that he thinks federal spending must be cut.
Curley agreed, saying she would support a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She also favors eliminating all federal jobs that are presently vacant as a cost-cutting measure.
Wheelock also believes the U.S. should have exited Iraq two years after the invasion.
Curley stated her position on the war, which is that “the intelligence was so poor,” that keeping the peace “was much more difficult than anyone thought,” and that a two-year timetable for exiting should be established now.
“At the end of two years, we should have peacekeeping forces moving in and our troops coming home,” she said. “To have it open-ended isn’t right. To say, ‘Stay the course,’ no one knows what that means.”
Later, Curley argued for working to fight anti-American terrorism by building long-term coalitions with other nations.
A state employee who described himself as “not a big Bush fan” told Curley that if “Bush was not in the oil business we wouldn’t be paying what we’re paying [for gasoline.]” That prompted her to explain her view on energy policies.
“There’s no reason why we can’t be energy independent in 10 years,” Curley claimed, arguing that investing in biodiesel production would reinvigorate farming and manufacturing while also creating a domestic source of clean-burning fuel.
A real estate agent with three young children told Curley that his family cannot afford health insurance.
“I think everyone should have health insurance,” she said. To achieve that, Curley believes Mainers should be able to purchase insurance from other states to encourage competitive pricing, which is currently not permitted by law. Allen has opposed changing the law, she said.
Contacted later, Allen said he opposes a change because buying insurance from other states would undermine regulations that set standards in each state for what an insurer must cover.
“Tom Allen has been ineffective in the minority,” Curley said. She does not accept Allen’s response that it is difficult to pass bills as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Congress.
“Saying you’re in the minority is an excuse,” she said, and points to her own success in passing bills as a Republican in the Democratic-controlled Maine House of Representatives.
At a later stop at an Augusta fire station, some of the firefighters railed about the abuses of welfare recipients. Curley listened sympathetically, but did not join in.
“I’m a nurse. I know you can take care of people and [reduce] taxes,” she said later.
Her daughter, one of her and her husbands’ three college-aged children, has suggested a campaign bumper sticker tailored to Curley’s approach: “Heal America, send a nurse to Washington.”