EASTON, Mass. — For as long as anybody can remember, Tom Andrews was a young man in a hurry.
Then one day, at age 16, he crashed into a brick wall called cancer. Andrews, who is running to succeed Majority Leader George J. Mitchell in the U.S. Senate, said the close brush with death shook the “foundations” of his existence.
“Suddenly, everything that had been very important to me … the football team, who I was going to take to the school dance, being class president, did not seem all that important,” Andrews recalled.
In a year when national Democrats are decrying the influence of religion in American politics, Andrews confessed, “I asked the good Lord to allow me to live.” Given a second chance, the 16-year-old promised from his hospital bed that he would make his life “worthwhile.”
Twenty-five years later, that same sense of urgency colors Tom Andrews’ political style. Cancer claimed Andrews’ leg, but God gave him the rest of his life. The Democrat rushes through each day like a man intent on keeping his bargain with the Almighty. He takes controversial political stands, with little regard for the consequences. On the campaign trail, Andrews shouts, sweats and pounds the lectern like a Baptist preacher. He never admits he’s wrong — even for the first controversial vote he cast in the U.S. House of Representatives three years ago to block George Bush from unleashing the Desert Storm military expedition against Saddam Hussein.
Before winning election to Congress, Andrews played a role in grass-roots crusades advocating the closing of Maine Yankee, the state’s only nuclear power plant; against a federal proposal to build a nuclear dump in Maine; and for the rights of the handicapped. His tactics were often unconventional. During a 1982 hearing on proposed changes in disability legislation, the Democrat led 150 demonstrators, chanting through a megaphone, “Let our children go.” At another disability event in Washington, he orchestrated a walkout to protest Reagan administration policies.
To the progressive wing of the Democratic party that propelled Andrews to his come-from-behind victory in Maine’s 1990 congressional election and landslide re-election in 1992, the Portland congressman is the only honest man in Washington’s cesspool of poll-taking, PAC-money-addicted professional politicians.
Andrews campaigns like an outsider, promising to reform Capitol Hill’s corrupt “go along to get along” pork system. He boasts of making the tough fiscal decisions, like closing obsolete military facilities, even though those moves could affect Maine.
Andrews supported the 1991 decision by the Base Realignment and Closing Commission to shut down Loring Air Force Base, and has said he would back the panel in 1995 should its members decide to close the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Those stands have won Andrews praise from Jack Anderson and other national columnists, and a possible profile on the CBS TV program, “60 Minutes.” Often left unsaid during Andrews’ anti-establishment posturing is the fact that his party is the Capitol Hill “establishment.” It has ruled the House of Representatives for 40 years, and now controls both branches of Congress and the White House.
Even those who are cynical about Andrews’ campaign style concede he is a formidable politician. In just four years, Andrews almost single-handedly moved Maine politics to the left on the question of gun control, a red-button issue in a state with more gun owners per capita than any place but Alaska. Before the Portland lawmaker took up the cause of the Brady handgun control law in his 1990 congressional campaign, all of the significant figures in Maine’s Republican and Democratic parties walked the National Rifle Association line, believing that gun control was the political equivalent of AIDS. Most observers thought Andrews was delivering his own campaign obituary when he pushed state Democrats to adopt the Brady Bill as a plank in their election platform that year.
They were wrong. Mainstream southern Maine didn’t bury Andrews. It inched toward him. Mitchell was the first to turn away from the NRA. After opposing the Brady Bill, he brokered a compromise through the Senate. This year, Republicans Olympia Snowe and William Cohen ended up voting for a crime bill that bans many types of assault weapons, ignoring vocal NRA opposition.
Andrews’ sermonettes often seem to Republicans more reminiscent of fiction than actual fact.
The Senate candidate’s campaign commercials portray him as an “independent” voice pushing for change, who “won’t let Washington change (him),” even if that means bucking his own party leaders. And they show him as a figure who has worked hard in Washington to slash wasteful government spending, advance the cause of women, help small businesses, and strengthen the state’s two largest defense contractors, Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Far from being an independent voice, Congressional Quarterly reported that Andrews followed the Democratic party line in 97 percent of the 391 House recorded votes last year. He also supported legislation submitted by the Clinton administration on 76 percent of House votes dealing with White House issues. Andrews’ legislative record is relatively meager. According to Congress’ legislative tracking office, the Portland Democrat introduced just 14 bills during his four years in the House. Six have been enacted. Most of those were House versions of Senate bills written by Mitchell and Cohen. One Andrews bill dealt with a women’s issue.
Nonpartisan fiscal watchdog groups ranging from Ross Perot’s United We Stand America to the Concord Coalition, founded by Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas and former Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman, give Andrews poor grades on his attempts to rein in the federal deficit.
Some delegation figures and their aides have complained privately that Andrews’ eagerness to generate headlines came close to producing a disaster for Bath Iron Works, Maine’s largest industrial employer. Last year when Andrews moved to block a $1.2 billion supplemental defense appropriation requested by Rep. John Murtha, the powerful Democratic House subcommittee chairman threatened to terminate funding for BIW’s DDG-51 destroyer program. According to delegation aides, Mitchell and Cohen were forced to expend precious political capital behind the scenes in the Senate to defeat Murtha’s proposed cuts. The Murtha incident is cited in Andrews’ television ads, with no mention of the potential ramifications to BIW. Duane D. “Buzzy” Fitzgerald, president of BIW, said the danger from Murtha was not as great as portrayed in the media. And BIW’s unions eventually endorsed Andrews.
An early brush with mortality
Seventy-nine-year-old Berniece Andrews of Easton, Mass., said she knew her son, Tom, was going to turn out to be somebody “quite special.” She had no idea he would become a politician.
Easton is a city of about 20,000 tucked away in the southeast corner of Massachusetts. Once a factory town, it’s now a bedroom community to Boston. The closest city is Brockton, home of deceased heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Easton’s most famous “local hero” is Jim Craig, the goalie on America’s championship hockey team that upset the Russians at the Lake Placid Olympics.
Tom Andrews’ father, Robert Andrews, died nine years ago. He operated a 35-acre farm that sold hatchlings to other poultry farmers, including many in Maine. As the town of Easton became more urbanized, the elder Andrews sold off his farm acreage to residential developers and became a home-builder.
Today brother Bob and his wife, Julie, and sister Donna, a former schoolteacher, operate the Andrews Farm And Bakery next door to an Oriental restaurant in the Marketplace shopping mall on Route 138.
Duncan Oliver, the principal of Oliver Ames High School, remembers Andrews as a “super kid.” He was elected president of his class four years in a row, played basketball, and was named starting linebacker and co-captain of the school’s football team in his sophomore year. Two years earlier, Oliver Ames went undefeated and won the Massachusetts state championship. Older brother Bob was a pulling guard on that squad.
Lou Nissenbaum, a close family friend who moved to Easton from Dover, Maine, in the early 1950s, said he liked to spend time on the Andrews farm because it reminded him of Maine. Berniece Andrews said her son never seems to slow down.
“I have to call him every day very early in the morning, before 8 a.m., to ask him what he’s going to do today,” she said. Even before the bout with cancer, she said, Andrews displayed a heightened sensitivity toward the disadvantaged and others with problems.
“He had to have his own telephone line. Kids who got in trouble were always calling him, and Tom would go out and help them,” she said.
Andrews has fond memories of the farm.
“I loved sports. I remember going out with the other kids to play baseball in the field with the cows. You needed extra skills to keep your eye on fly balls and not bump into the cows,” he recalled. Andrews and his dad put up a basketball backboard and floodlights on the wall of the henhouse loading ramp.
“After chores were done during the summer, kids from all around came over to play ball well into the night,” he said. His best sport, Andrews said, was basketball, although he loved baseball more.
The best memories the Andrews children have of their dad is the sense of responsibility he gave them.
“My allowance was 25 chicks from the henhouse and enough grain for one year,” said Andrews. Robert Andrews made the same offer to his other children.
“The deal was, if we took care of the chicks, they would lay eggs. Dad would buy the eggs. We’d have pocket money,” Andrews said. The arrangement did much more than put a few dollars into the children’s pockets.
“You learn about responsibility,” Andrews said. “You have to take care of your animals every day. You learn about hard work, and things like diversification and capital investment.”
Young Tom Andrews quickly discovered he could make more money selling his eggs to customers at school for retail prices, than for wholesale to his father. He carried the eggs to school each day on the school bus, billing the product as “Tom’s strictly fresh eggs.” The profits from his egg sales enabled Andrews to expand into dairy products.
“I automated and bought a milk machine,” he said. “I always had something going on in those days,” Andrews recalled. “In addition to my own businesses, I had a paper route and worked for a local farmer.”
In 1969, at the age of 16, Andrews confronted his own mortality. A bruise on his knee thought to be a lingering football injury turned out to be cancer.
“I remember it vividly,” said Donna Andrews, his sister. “We were told there was a malignancy, and Tom’s immune system did not appear strong enough (to handle therapy).”
The news jolted Andrews, who said “I’d really never been sick a day in my life.
“I did a lot of growing up fast,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, and how fragile life was … and I asked myself whether what I had done with my life until then was really worthwhile,” Andrews said. Radiation therapy initially slowed the disease. It returned in 1975, and forced the amputation of his leg.
Andrews finished out his final two years at Oliver Ames High School with a new focus.
“He became more introspective,” Nissenbaum remembered. “He was a changed person … wiser and older.”
Those were years of social upheaval. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. The Vietnam War divided the country. Andrews, who as a youngster marched up and down the dirt road in front of his house with a Lyndon Johnson sign, sought other heroes. Bill Woodworth, a paralyzed polio victim, led him to Democratic politics and social issues.
Andrews formed a group that held walks and social events to benefit charities. Believing the high school newspaper was too boring, he started his own publication. It included stories on subjects such as poor black kids in Boston, Andrews remembered. The Oliver Ames administration wouldn’t let him distribute the newsletter on school grounds, so Andrews and his friends passed it out to students near the parking lot. The hint of rebellion showed up in his high school yearbook.
“In with the out crowd” was the inscription under his senior photo.
Ed Lyons, a former columnist for the Brockton Enterprise, wrote in 1971 that high school senior Tom Andrews “was a young guy with the hang-up … one we’d be proud to have.” Lyons, now a community college employee, said Andrews’ final two years in high school were a whirlwind of charity walks to buy food for the elderly and events to raise money for projects such as a new hospital in Peru.
Oliver said he has become distressed in later years by reporters, and persons claiming to be reporters, trying to turn up “dirt” on Andrews’ high school years.
“They’re always asking what he did against society, not what he did for society,” the high school principal complained.
“That kid did so much for this school and community. If they’re trying to do in Tom Andrews with something from this town, they won’t find anything here. If they do him in, it will have to be on his politics, and what he’s done in Washington,” Oliver said.
A young man in a hurry
It was Oliver, a Bowdoin College graduate, who steered Andrews to his alma mater and Maine. Christian Potholm, head of the college’s political science department, remembers Andrews as “a very bright guy, who thought a lot about policy for somebody his age.” His major was religion and philosophy.
In 1974 Andrews decided to take a year off from college to work with disabled persons in his home state. It was then that the cancer returned and leg amputation became necessary. He continued to work with disabled persons until he entered politics. In 1979, he took a job as head of a Portland neighborhood planning council. Two years later, he became the executive director of the Maine Association of Handicapped Persons. He won election to the Maine House of Representatives in 1982, and moved up to the Maine Senate two years later.
Barry Hobbins, a former Maine Democratic Party chairman, served with Andrews in the state Senate.
“It was obvious he was a young man in a hurry. Taking the long view, he focused on a few specific issues and followed through on them.”
When Andrews ran for Congress in 1990, former Attorney General James Tierney was the big favorite in the Democratic primary. Andrews beat Tierney and went on to defeat former Rep. David Emery in the general election. Shortly after the election he married Debra Johnson, a woman who worked with him at the Maine Studies Center, a University of Maine think tank.
“I’m running for the U.S. Senate because I think this state, and this country deserve leaders who are willing to stand up and challenge politics as usual in Washington,” Andrews said. He believes he’s been effective in Congress at focusing on the problems of working Americans, in addition to raising a little hell with the establishment.
“Yes, there are times when powerful special interests are defending that status quo, when you need a fiery speech. But I’ve done more than just that. I’ve rolled up my sleeves and worked successfully to organize for change,” Andrews said.
His childhood friend Lou Nissenbaum confessed he worries sometimes about Andrews’ take-no- prisoners political persona.
“I was concerned that all of the stuff about the (Loring) base closing would ruin his career. I had a lengthy conversation with him about that,” Nissenbaum said. He added, “I remember thinking at the time, he came into politics naked (of dishonesty), and will probably choose to leave politics the same way.”
One of the first things you notice about Andrews is the absence of doubt. When former President George Bush criticized Andrews for voting against Desert Storm, he dismissed the remarks as a GOP fund-raising tactic. Asked if he had ever second-guessed one of his own political decisions, or apologized to an opponent for ill-founded criticism, Andrews responded:
“When Kevin Hale retired from the Celtics last year he said he never committed a foul. Of course, that wasn’t true,” Andrews joked. “But I can think of no instances (where he’d been wrong).
“I try to be fair in my criticism, and reserve criticism for those instances when it is deserved,” he explained. “My criticism is not meant to be malicious, but is meant to change a direction.”
Andrews is just as certain that he will win Maine’s Senate election, despite current polls showing Republican Olympia J. Snowe holding a lead.
“I’ve come from behind in all my elections. I was 28 points behind with three weeks to go in 1990,” he said. “We are on track with our strategy with this race. I am right where I want to be in terms of our strategy.”
Berniece Andrews thinks there’s a higher force than political strategy guiding her son’s fate.
“If it’s the Lord’s will, he will make it. If not, he won’t.”
Should he lose, sister Donna said, “he’ll make his life count in other ways, and will continue to make a difference.”
PERSONAL: Married to Debra Johnson. The couple has no children.
EDUCATION: 1976 graduate of Bowdoin College, with a double major in religion and philosophy.
EXPERIENCE: Director, Maine Association of Handicapped Persons; elected the Maine House of Representatives, 1982; elected to the Maine State Senate, 1984; elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, 1990; re-elected in 1992.
OFFICE SOUGHT: Congressman for U.S. Senate. His opponent is Rep. Olympia J. Snowe, Republican; and Plato Truman, independent.