October 14, 2012

Cynthia Dill likes to fight for underdogs

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH -- Ask Cynthia Dill about her elementary school days, and the first thing she recalls is a fistfight.

click image to enlarge

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Dill has spent much of her life challenging bullies and others in power for what she sees as the rights of the common person.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The bully was a bigger, older boy and had been relentlessly taunting a severely disabled girl, who used a wheelchair, on the playground of her Barrington, R.I., elementary school. Dill, a fifth-grader at the time, says she told him to stop. He wouldn't, and when pushes turned to punches, she stood her ground.

"She was being tortured by him," Dill recalls today. "I was always the kid to stand up for the kid who was being bullied."

In the decades since, Dill has continued standing up to the big kids, from the bar owner she sued in college for demoting her on account of her gender to the major corporations she took to court as a young attorney, to going head to head with Maine's governor as a freshman state senator.

Now she's running for U.S. Senate, taking on the sitting secretary of state and a popular and wealthy two-term governor. Those who have known her through the years say if elected, she'd remain the person she's been since grade school: fearless, outspoken, ambitious and not one to pull her punches in defense of principle. Her detractors wonder whether her stridency -- which has propelled her in just six years from being a freshman town councilor in a small, affluent suburb to the Democratic nominee to one of the most prominent and powerful lawmaking bodies on the planet -- has doomed her party's chances of winning the three-way race.

A respected family

Her story starts in Carmel, N.Y., a leafy town of 30,000 just over the border from Westchester County and near the far end of the commuter rail lines to Grand Central Station. She was born there Jan. 6, 1965, the fourth of five children of the scion of a successful family business and an Italian-American nurse from Rhode Island.

The Dills were a respected and influential family in Carmel. Cynthia's grandfather, Fred Dill Sr., had come to the area as a penniless young man at the height of the Great Depression and built a thriving regional chain of lumber and home improvement stores. As she was growing up, Fred Dill was founding community organizations and a local bank and chairing the local chapter of the United Way. There is a nature preserve named after him; it incorporated land he had donated to the town for that purpose.

"He got all the different organizations in the community to get together and work together and help one another," says Alfonso Lotrecchiano, a close friend of the family patriarch who serves as historian of the local Rotary Club. "He didn't look for accolades, but he loved to see people succeed and helped a lot of people, unbeknownst to the public.

"He never got involved politically, but he had a lot of clout; and if he said something, people listened," Lotrecchiano adds.

The Dills -- including Cynthia's father, Fred Dill Jr., who managed the business with his brother -- were Republicans of the old Yankee sort, Cynthia says, and their experiences as small-business owners and community leaders shaped her worldview.

"I didn't grow up with the idea that government was the enemy. I was brought up with 'you serve your community, you work hard, and you give back through public service' -- and to me, that's what government is," she says.

Cynthia's parents divorced when she was 9, and she moved to her mother's hometown, Barrington, a comfortable suburb of Providence. She and her siblings continued to spend weekends, holidays and a chunk of their summer vacation in Carmel with their father and stepmother. "He remarried Carol Brady and she had four kids, complete with Peter Brady, so we became a mixed family of nine, a Brady Bunch," she recalls.

(Continued on page 2)

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