Kathleen Meil smiles with her entire face — actually, her entire body. Her affable personality fills a room and immediately puts you at ease. Her kind blue-green eyes encourage thoughtful conversation. When she’s engaged in such an exchange, she is a marvelous storyteller.
Refreshing traits in a politician, eh?
Although she’s in the throes of her campaign for the Maine State Legislature in House District 94 (that’s Camden, Rockport and Islesboro), Meil took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with me. We met in her husband’s office, housed in a gorgeous brick building overlooking Rockport Harbor. I was born here, yet these stunning views of the bay can still render me breathless. Meil, too, sighs: she didn’t grow up here, so I suspect the marveling at Maine’s wild wonders has yet to cease for her.
Instead, she grew up in Arlington, Virginia — just outside of Washington D.C. Although she came of age a stone’s throw from our nation’s political epicenter, she didn’t have dreams of being president one day.
“I always joke now that I had to move to midcoast Maine to find my passion for politics,” she explains with a good-natured laugh, “In Arlington, local politics wasn’t a thing; national politics was a thing. When I was growing up, whenever there was a new president half my friend’s parents got jobs and the other half lost jobs. When we took a field trip to the capital, we went to the nation’s capital not the state capitol.”
Even still, it was actually state government that brought Meil’s parents from the midwest to the east coast; her grandfather John P. McCormally, was elected to Kansas state legislature in 1946 — 70 years ago this year. He had served in WWII and earned a Purple Heart. When he got out, he tried to decide whether he wanted to enter politics or journalism — two fields he was equally passionate about.
“He had to choose between his twin loves,” Meil says, “Was he going to be the person making the policies — or the person writing about them?”
He elected to become a journalist, which proved an excellent choice: he and his editorial staff at The Hutchinson News won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1965.
Another relative, an uncle, was working on a congressional campaign in Iowa when Meil’s parents were young. He moved to D.C. after the win, Meil’s parents followed so her father could attend Georgetown Law School, and the East Coast branch of the family took root. Of the seven siblings, four raised their families in the DC area.
That’s how Meil grew up with midwest sensibilities transplanted into our nation’s capitol.
Meil was a self-described perfectionist who worked hard in school and thoroughly enjoyed her studies. When it was time for her to go off to college, she, not unlike her grandfather before her, tried to choose between her two passions: writing and science. As it turned out, she didn’t have to choose. At least not yet. She doubled-majored in English and Molecular Biology at Kenyon College in Ohio, with the goal of becoming either a practicing physician and/or a research scientist.
“I’m an avid reader, and I have a long history of writing in my family,” Meil begins — by way of explanation, “But I also won first place in the state science fair when I was a freshman in high school,” she laughs. She also cites several aunts and uncles who are family practice doctors.
Out of my own curiosity and love of science, naturally I enquire as to what her award-winning science fair project of yore was about.
“It was about manipulating the genome of the fruit fly,” Meil recalls with a grin — and one can immediately see her as an ambitious fifteen year old.
As her college days progressed, something shifted. She was exposed to the realities that many women pursuing STEM careers face: most fatally, a lack of support. The coursework toward her pre-med studies was rigorous, and while Meil fared perfectly fine, she began to doubt herself.
“I started reading obsessively about women in science, women in academia — and about where things started to go off the rails,” Meil says, admitting that she changed her mind on medicine but never stopped thinking about how to encourage women in STEM fields, “You have to figure out how to change the system so that the people who have the aptitude and the passion don’t go off the rails.”
The inspiration for a new career path came from her grandmother, who had been a teacher. Meil decided to pursue a Master’s in Education, and became a 5th Grade teacher. A job that she immediately fell in love with.
At Kenyon, she’d also fallen in love with something — or someone — else. Her husband, Ari (who is now diligently working away in the next room while we talk).
They moved to Boston where Ari attended Emerson College and began making occasional trips to Maine, since Ari had vacationed there as a child. Together they shared small house, but Boston’s rent was becoming increasingly more out of their reach as two young professionals. More importantly, though, their landlord wouldn’t let them get a puppy.
“He’d just put down new floors,” Meil laughs, “So I understood. . .but we really wanted a puppy.” So, they packed up and moved to Portland — where they had a more affordable house, good jobs — and a dog named Sadie.
They soon had two children: Tessa who is 11 and Calder, 8. “Both of their names come from literature. Ari really wanted Tessa’s full name to be Tesseract, from A Wrinkle in Time. I was like, “No — but Tessa.”
(Of course, when Tessa found this out she was suitably bummed — and insisted on writing “Tesseract” on her papers at school anyway, at least for a few years.)
“There’s a young adult author named Blue Balliett and she had a series of history mysteries — the first one was called Chasing Vermeer — and the boy’s name is Calder. He was named after Alexander Calder. Our Calder is named for both.” (Calder’s middle name — Mac — honors his great-grandfather. This is clearly a literary and political family.)”
The Meil’s moved to the midcoast on January 1st, 2010 — in the middle of a snowstorm, which might have been the worst idea in history. As anyone who has lived through a few Maine winters knows, they can be overwhelmingly isolating. Particularly so for a young family that had yet to put down any roots or make any friends.
Just when Kathleen thought she might be losing her mind, a friendly neighbor who had kids about Tessa and Calder’s ages invited them to accompany her on a midwinter sojourn to the Rockport Library.
The tiny building housed a respectable collection of books and a charming room for children. The Meil’s, already a family of readers, were smitten.
“I feel like we walked into this huge hug,” Kathleen recalls, a glint of affection in her eye. Little did she know it was that building that would propel her into a bonafide political career.
Kathleen and her family became passionately involved in the library and it gave them a place to belong in their new community. When a sudden vacancy came up on the board, she was approached to fill it.
“All of the things you read about women in politics is like — women have to be asked, they don’t think like, “Oh, I’ll run for office,” she muses aloud. It was because she was so passionate about the library —and the community it served — that she didn’t hesitate to accept when asked to chair the board.
She couldn’t have known that the library would become the center of a polarizing debate that actually began to tear her community apart.
“Surprise! The public library is the most contentious and important issue in our town. And it has been a wild ride,” Meil says, referring to the ongoing debate about the location of said-library.
For years it’s been in the center of Rockport’s downtown (which you aren’t likely to encounter unless you wander of Route 1 — one of its many charms, if you ask me).
When the old building was deemed unfit for books and humans (as many old Maine buildings are; asbestos, mold and mildew are ongoing problems for the community hubs of many towns) the resulting debate about whether to build on the same tiny plot of land or go elsewhere to construct a larger library created a chasm in the community. One that, as chair, Meil found herself having to traverse.
In spite of it’s diminutive size, Rockport’s public library is one of many that contributes to Maine’s nationally recognized circulation rates per capita. To say that the space is well-used and well-loved is a vast understatement. Meil recognized this and began to read between the lines, as it was, into the community’s concerns.
“There were really valid points on all sides,” Meil says, but she admits that throughout the ongoing debate —which involved outside consultants who came to town specifically to help work through the option —emotions tended to run high.
“It could not have been better training — because that’s what politics is like. The most important issues that we face, whether at a town, or state, or national level are the things we care a lot about.”
It was the library debate that brought Meil’s intelligence and compassion to light for the midcoast community, “A lot of people said to me, y’know, if you can do this, you should be in Augusta,” Meil recalls. It was then that she began to legitimately consider a career in politics.
She started by connecting with Emerge Maine. The program aims to recruit, train and support women for politic careers. Meil and many women who currently serve at local and state levels in Maine are graduates of the six month long training. It was originally started by a group of progressive women in San Francisco who realized that there were no women on their city council. It now exists in seventeen states.
When asked about the nitty-gritty of her political ideology, she doesn’t balk; Without hesitation, Meil states her top priorities: clean, renewable energy, information access and family-friendly workplace policies.
After her son was born, Meil rejoined the workforce in marketing for a smart energy company called Evergreen Home Performance. It was here that she began to learn in earnest about the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency — and the state’s resistance toward creating sustainable solutions.
More to the point, data over the course the last few years shows that we’ve seen record high and record low oil prices. The volatility of the price has impacted the industry and consumers alike.
Meil became well aware of the policies at a state-level, but also began to realize that job creation comes with investing in smart energy and renewable resources. And not just any jobs, she says — but cool jobs.
“Jobs that people actually want to have,” she adds, segueing into the challenges of recruiting smart, young, talented people to the state — something that continues to stump many a Maine politician.
“Information access goes right along with that in terms of attracting business and attracting people to work in those businesses,” Meil says, referring to the so-called digital divide. Internet access is a disparity that probably goes unnoticed by many, but there are plenty of places in the state of Maine where people either still have dial-up access — or no internet access at all.
“We are not serving our population if we’re not addressing that need,” Meil believes, “Information access is not something that is a bonus. It is an absolute essential for being a part of this world — but especially this business world or this educational world. We have to be thinking about our whole state. And it’s not just about Portland, it’s not just about places where there’s already a population center. It’s about getting reliable internet access to the whole state.”
Meil also points out that Maine offers an ideal lifestyle for those who want to work from home or be employed remotely by companies — and information access / reliable internet is often the piece that isn’t there.
“Everybody wants to live in Maine! That was my story,” she laughs — and might sound hyperbolic but it’s really not. Anyone who was lucky enough to grow up here only to bring up Maine in conversation elsewhere (with anyone from all walks of life) knows that it has a mythical power to draw people in. The challenge now is making it possible for them to stay.
The trouble is, in a world that’s moving faster and faster into a profound digital age, some of Maine’s back-to-the-earth vibes are creating stress rather than alleviating it. Striking a balance between the two facets of life is something that Meil would like to see achieved.
The midcoast especially falls trap to this: more or more young people graduate from the community, go to college, and may well intend to return — but they can’t find adequate employment. So, they go to Portland. In part because it has at least a semblance of a nightlife—something which Meil thinks is actually completely justified.
If young people go spend a few years there, like she and Ari did, that’s fantastic — but wouldn’t it be nice if they had something to come back to in the midcoast when and if they wanted to?
On a state level, both of these priorities are addressed by the same committee. “I would love to be on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee next year,” Meil adds.
Her third priority might seem obvious since she’s a working mom, but she doesn’t see family-friendly workplace policies as strictly a women’s-only issue. Her husband, Ari, owns his own business and this grants him enough flexibility to be able to be home when it counts — something that’s become increasingly complicated for Meil as her campaign enters its summer-push toward the June 14th primary.
“I’m a working mom, I had the privilege to be a stay-at-home mom for a little bit too — both are really hard. I’ve made decisions about my career based on the availability and affordability of childcare. And I’ve been lucky to have a decision that I could make. They are a lot of people who don’t have that.”
“We know that paid family leave and paid sick days makes a huge difference for the physical, mental and financial health of our communities. So I think that if we develop really strong policies around that in the state of Maine and we have the information access to support it — then a young family in Boston would be crazy not to move to Maine! And we want that. We have an aging population. We’ve recorded more deaths than births in the last year.”
Perhaps even more stark than the age disparity is the economic disparity, which plagues many towns but is structurally visible in the midcoast. Maine has not experienced the economic recovery that other states have and it impacts everyone —especially our kids.
Camden Hills Regional High School serves a community that is among the wealthiest in the state — but somehow, a quarter of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
It’s just that those kids — and their families — aren’t as visible within the community. A lot of this has to do with the fact that low income housing, mobile home parks and other lower income areas are somewhat hidden away — at least in part by zoning ordinances.
“Where I grew up, everybody looked really different from each other but we were all in the same socioeconomic world,” Meil remembers, reflecting on her childhood outside of D.C., “That is not the experience that my kids are having. Everybody looks the same in their classrooms, but there are kids who only eat when they’re at school, and there are kids who go somewhere new and exotic on every school vacation.”
She recently spoke to a group of first-time voters, and these seventeen-to-eighteen year olds had some pretty compelling insight: “[They said] our parents like to pretend like there isn’t this divide, because they can,” speaking to the economic reality of the midcoast. In public school education, though, everyone is thrown together and those socioeconomic realities are very real, and they cause tensions. Tensions that the young are well-aware of — but their parents seem to consciously reject. Contentious issues like publicly funded programs such as food stamps are a derisive talking point for many people in Augusta. Meil, however, is quite clear on where she stands.
“Public programs that are using public money should be accountable and they should be working — they should also exist. When we demonize our neighbors who rely on those programs, it makes it really easy to cut those programs. But eliminating the services doesn’t eliminate the needs.”
She and Calder are off to Islesboro for the afternoon; Meil is in the throes of door-knocking, and now she’s got signage for people’s lawns, making her quest for state representative all the more immediate. She’s excited to visit the island because she openly admits she doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of what life’s like for those who live away from the mainland. As ever, she’s truly eager to learn.
Her philosophy throughout these early days of her campaign has been relatively simple, but effective: “I don’t know what it’s like to be you,” she tells voters, “So teach me.”
For Meil, becoming a politician has been less about learning how to talk to people and more about listening to what they have to say — something that seems about as unique in a politician as her full-faced grin.
Up until this point in our chat, I’ve hesitated to ask her a question which I feel gets pelted at female politicians too frequently — while it’s hardly ever posed to the men: Does she feel it’s been a challenge to balance work and parenthood? Does she anticipate sacrifices?
They’ve already started, she says (she missed her daughter’s chorus concert last night because it coincided with a meeting she had to present at) and she is prepared — mostly because she feels like a lot of what she’s doing now, the example she’s setting, goes right back to her original plan in college: to empower the next generation.
“The chorus concert is really important —and I wish I’d been there last night. But when push comes to shove, I’d rather miss every concert and be able to take my daughter to the state house with me. I think she will carry that forward.”