AUGUSTA — For state Treasurer Dale McCormick, inspiration often comes by way of a song.
“Lyrics are poetry — condensed wisdom,” said McCormick, who likes to use a well-turned phrase to drive home a point.
“Tuppence prudently frugally invested in the fidelity, fiduciary bank,” she told the Legislature in 1996 during her candidate’s speech for treasurer.
The colorful expression, from a song in the movie “Mary Poppins,” perfectly illustrated her promise to be a “cautious treasurer who would keep an eye on the bottom line.”
McCormick, 50, who last fall received the University of Maine’s Maryann Hartman Award for helping to create opportunities for women, was reflecting upon that honor recently, when the conversation turned toward her penchant for quoting lyrics.
“I always have music in my head,” said McCormick, who loves lines from Broadway musicals and Gilbert and Sullivan operas because “they’re very quotable.” She’s also been known to allude to songs by Cyndi Lauper and Simon and Garfunkel.
McCormick, who played the cello and saxophone in high school and college, came by her love of music early on. Her mother was a devotee of opera and her father, an editor-in-chief of Doubleday Publishing, an aspiring classical pianist.
Referring to lyrics helps establish a commonality among people, according to McCormick.
“You can bridge generations with them, and unite generations with them,” said the former three-term state senator from Hallowell who often invoked a quotation from Bob Dylan’s “You Gotta Serve Somebody” as a prayer before the Legislature.
McCormick, a genial woman with a ready smile that lit up her eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, was dressed this day in a blazer, slacks and turtleneck. With her hair a smooth, brown cap, she was the picture of a polished, professional woman at ease with herself and her position.
Her job is both rewarding and challenging, McCormick said.
“Being treasurer enables me to continue serving,” she pointed out. “If I can maximize the amount of money through good investing or prudent managing of funds, then there’s more money for legislators and the governor to put to good use for the people in Maine. And there’s less money needed from taxpayers.”
The first woman elected state treasurer and the first lesbian elected to a state Senate in 1990, McCormick was also the first woman to be admitted to the Carpenters Apprenticeship in 1979. After owning her own construction company in Iowa, she moved to Maine in 1980 to become a teacher at Cornerstone, a house-building school in Brunswick.
McCormick created the Maine Gay-Lesbian Political Alliance in 1984 to push for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation, and founded Women Unlimited in 1988 to train women on welfare for trade and technical occupations.
McCormick was a natural choice for the Hartman Award, said Sue Estler, the associate professor of education at UM who nominated her.
Estler, former director of equal opportunity at the school, called McCormick “a leader and spokesperson for the rights of people who have otherwise been excluded,” and hailed her for “her personal integrity, her concern about accessible health care and the immense amount she has contributed to Maine culture and Maine society.”
But more than that, said Estler, McCormick touched her personally with the carpentry manual she wrote for women, “Against the Grain.”
“The book empowered me,” said Estler, who used it to help her design and construct an outhouse for her summer home. “It was written in a language I could understand. It explained every detail in principle so I could apply that principle to my own project. She discussed what tool you use for what, how to carry a sheet of plywood — simple things you might be embarrassed to ask about.”
McCormick, who remains a member of Local 1996 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters union, said the immediate goals associated with carpentry present a welcome change from legislative and treasury department projects, which often take years to complete.
“There’s nothing like being able to raise the walls of a house within a week,” said McCormick. “It’s very satisfying to see something materialize right before your very eyes.”
One Augusta homeowner for whom McCormick helped build an addition 15 years ago recalled the project as “a fabulous experience.”
With her all-female crew, McCormick made sure the project “started on time and ended on time, and that everything was done right,” said Mary Dionne.
“Seeing women in a nontraditional role was such a good experience for my children,” Dionne said. “They would tell their friends, `this is a room built by women.”‘
Today, McCormick remains hopeful that Women Unlimited will enable more and more women to choose nontraditional jobs.
“My goal is for the work force to look like the surrounding geographical area,” she said. “If [the population] is 48 percent women, there should be 48 percent women in every job category. If we don’t have a level playing field, then all types of people can’t, through their own efforts, succeed in the economy.”
Women Unlimited put Karen Dresser, 35, of Old Town on the road to self-sufficiency.
Four years ago, Dresser was receiving welfare and working part time as a baker. Then she participated in a 14-week Women Unlimited program at Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor, where she learned refrigeration, soldering, drafting and truck driving.
Now she does materials testing at construction sites for the Department of Transportation, a job that “pays well, with wonderful benefits.”
“Women Unlimited changed my life,” Dresser said.
At first, McCormick was tempted to explain away her accomplishments. Her mother was an alcoholic, and as a result she became an “overachiever who tried to prove my worth to my parents and myself.” And, since feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had already established inroads, it was a matter of “batting cleanup.”
“Ours was the first generation of young women who stepped through doors that [Friedan and Steinem] opened or unlocked,” she said. “It’s a part of being on the cusp, of being a beneficiary of the change in notion that women could do more than they thought.”
Still, McCormick admitted, even if she had lived a century ago, she likely would have been on the front lines.
“I probably would have been involved in the temperance movement, taking a hatchet to barrels of wine and beer with Carrie Nation,” she said, laughing.
McCormick is no stranger to adversity. She was excluded from addressing Madison High School students during tolerance day in 1985 because of her sexual preference, and she was subjected to gay bashing and death threats when she ran for the Senate in 1990.
During her apprenticeship program in Iowa, she was forced to file a sexual harassment suit when three co-workers continued to put suggestive objects in her lunchbox.
The trick to her survival, she said, has been her ability to look on the bright side.
“It’s true, I’m a Pollyanna,” Mccormick admitted. “I look at the glass half full and I always did. It made me happier.”
McCormick recalled “the wonderful support system” of friends, family and volunteers who bolstered her during her contentious Senate campaign. The Tolerance Day debacle ultimately turned positive, because it “served as a catalyst to discuss tolerance and diversity and what kind of society and community we want to have.”
As for her male co-workers, “it was complicated for them, too.”
McCormick recalled one laborer telling her, “My wife said to me, `How come you’re tired when you get home when a woman can do your work?”‘
“His tone was, `you’re causing me problems — if you weren’t here, I wouldn’t be getting flak,”‘ McCormick said.
When things got bad for McCormick, she resorted to the denial she learned growing up in an alcoholic home.
“Although denial can be bad, it can also be channeled for the good, by only letting in a certain daily allocation of bad stuff like criticism and harassment, and bringing to the fore the good stuff,” she said.
“With my powers of denial, I can ignore most of the negative stuff and not even allow it to penetrate,” she continued. “To some extent, if you don’t see it or acknowledge it — if it doesn’t fit inside you and worry you — then it isn’t happening.”
Today, McCormick’s life is on an even keel. She shares an 1870s Federal-style home in Hallowell with her partner, Betsy Sweet, and their 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Paley, named after Grace Paley, renowned short-story writer and peace activist. Coincidentally, both women individually knew and admired their daughter’s namesake, who lives in Vermont.
Sweet, 41, a lobbyist who owns a consulting firm and teaches businesspeople and students how to prevent sexual harassment and deal with diversity, noticed McCormick at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She had been a delegate for Walter Mondale and McCormick a representative for Gary Hart.
“I was impressed with her,” recalled Sweet. “She was skillful and funny and very nice.”
En route to pick up Paley from day care, Sweet spoke candidly from her car phone about her relationship with McCormick.
“We are a fabulous team,” she said. “I think the best thing — the reason we’re together so long — is that we share a passion for politics and we enjoy the same kind of fun things — travel, music, theater, movies. Also, we complement each other. I’m a big-picture caretaker person, she is a get-details-done person.”
Sweet said she and McCormick constitute “a very typical, boring family, trying to make ends meet and raise a responsible, happy child.” Weekends mean pancake breakfasts, gymnastics lessons for Paley, hiking, watching movies and swimming at the YMCA.
McCormick puts her unique talents to work raising Paley, Sweet said.
“When Paley wants a technical question answered — how to fix something, or how something works — she goes to Dale,” Sweet said. “Dale is quite a phenomenal teacher. She’s made opera come alive for me and Paley. And she’s very patient. Last night she taught Paley how to use a snorkel mask in the bathtub. I tried for a week and couldn’t do it.”
Together, the women are striving to instill kindness and compassion in their child.
“We make sure she has all sorts of different friends and people who care about her,” said McCormick. “When situations come up in the news, we try to give messages of understanding and tolerance.”
McCormick recalled lines from “Sheila Rae The Brave,” a preschool book she has read to Paley in which the heroine pronounces herself fearless and brave.
“I love the notion of Paley growing up thinking she can be fearless and brave,” said McCormick.
Having a child yields immeasurable rewards, according to McCormick.
“It gives you such a long-term perspective of being part of the circle of life,” she said. “And I like the things kids give you an excuse to do — be playful, take walks, go to movies and to wonderful kids’ events. But the thing I love most is their magical, creative use of the English language. As children learn English, they come up with unique phrases that are so fresh.”
McCormick recalled one of Paley’s remarks as being particularly astute.
“The three of us had been on a night walk and Betsy and I were watching Paley in her new snow pants slid down a little hill. Right out of nowhere, she came out with, `Isn’t living better than dying?’
“I’m sure she must have been trying to grapple with what death is,” said McCormick, who was so moved by the child’s observation that she quoted her during a celebration lauding Portland area businesspeople who had banned smoking in their workplaces.
Inevitably, the conversation turned to the referendum to repeal the gay rights law, scheduled for February.
“I’m worried,” McCormick admitted. “It’s taken 20 years of trying to educate everybody including legislators and the governor to the point where a majority would agree that discrimination against gay and lesbian people in housing and employment is wrong. And now the political and religious right has called yet another referendum. But if those who believe that discrimination is wrong vote no, then we will win.”
For McCormick, the future beckons invitingly. Some day she hopes to write an historical novel, learn to sing, take painting lessons. She plans to run again for treasurer.
She has weathered life’s vicissitudes the only way she knows how. “I’m not a quitter,” McCormick said. “I don’t run from things. It doesn’t pay. It’s best to just turn and face them.
“I’ve always chosen different paths,” she continued. “I’m used to the feeling of being different. But that doesn’t mean it’s easier. I’ve often felt very vulnerable inside, like being naked in front of a parade.”
And yet, in the end, McCormick wouldn’t change a thing.
Suddenly, words from a song by Edith Piaf, the husky-voiced 1930s French chanteuse, came to mind.
“`Je ne regret rien,”‘ McCormick said. “I regret nothing.”