Newsmakers 2011: William Schneider
THE ANNUAL NEWSMAKERS SERIES profiles local individuals whose circumstances reflect major stories of the year. In January, William Schneider became Maine’s first Republican attorney general of the 21st century. Since taking office, he has waded into the controversy over the legality of the Affordable Health Care Act, coped with a constricted state budget and overseen law enforcement’s response to the “bath salts” outbreak.
AUGUSTA — Maine Attorney General William Schneider said it was the morning after the 2010 election when Joe Bruno, former Republican leader of the House of Representatives, called him live during a radio show to ask if he would run for attorney general.
“I said, ‘Oh sure,’” Schneider recalled during a recent interview. It was an exciting prospect for the Durham man, who opined “some of the best lawyers in Maine” work in his office. On Jan. 6, 2011, Schneider was sworn in as Maine’s 56th attorney general.
“People come in all day long everyday to keep me up to date of what’s going on in their areas, and for decisions on the difficult questions,” Schneider said. “I do a lot of outreach. I figure that I’m a good person to be the face of the office, too. I interface a lot with the Legislature, with the governor, with the court system particularly,” as well as the public, attending speaking engagements or dinners.
“People love to hear about what’s going on in the office” with the more interesting cases, Schneider said. There are 13 divisions with more than 100 attorneys. “Some of the most important work that we do is the child protection work and the child support work,” he said.
For the former drug prosecutor, “The use of illegal drugs is certainly one of my priority areas to work on,” Schneider said. “But Maine has developed an awful problem with prescription drug abuse, and that’s one my very top priorities. I actually sponsored a summit in October and we got 150 decision-makers in the area of prescription drugs together.”
As a result, a task force will look at making the state’s prescription monitoring program (PMP) more helpful to doctors and pharmacists; developing a good disposal system for unwanted, unnecessary prescription drugs; letting doctors and pharmacists know who has been arrested for drug violations; and creating an education program targeting the general public and health care professionals.
A second accomplishment he pointed to is Maine becoming the 26th state to join the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, at almost no cost to taxpayers, arguing against the constitutionality of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the spring and possibly have a decision he hopes in June or July.
“I believe that a key part of the law is unconstitutional, and that’s the part that requires every American to buy health insurance that meets a certain set of specifications that Congress has come up with,” said Schneider, who has carried a pocket sized copy of the Constitution since law school. “Never before has Congress required every American to enter into commerce.”
Schneider, now 52, grew up outside of Buffalo, N.Y. After high school he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because, at age 9, that’s where he decided he was going to go after he visited the academy with his parents.
His first tour with the Army was in Korea where he was a mechanized infantry leader.
“We were up on the DMZ between North and South Korea for 10 weeks and I got to command a guard post that was actually 15 feet from North Korea, which was really exciting. And that’s as a 23-year-old guy,” Schneider said.
Next, he went to school to be a Ranger, but never served with a Ranger unit before entering special forces: “We are the guys who get dropped behind enemy lines to raze a guerrilla army or something like that.”
He was a Green Beret from 1983 up until he was involved in a car crash in 1986 as he drove to an airport in Massachusetts while on duty. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 26.
“I can absolutely appreciate the irony. Of all the dangerous stuff we were doing running around the world jumping out of planes and jumping off of fast boats, and it’s a car accident that gets me,” said Schneider. “But I was very fortunate not to be killed.
“It was definitely a 90-degree turn in my life, but I’m pretty accepting that stuff happens,” Schneider continued. “First, I was able to focus on kind of putting myself back together and getting myself out of the hospital. ... And I really stayed focused on moving forward, rather than worrying about what was left behind.”
Someone who rolls with the punches, “ Ninety percent of the things that I was able to do before, I’m able to do now.”
After a successful business venture and a job with a security engineering company, he enrolled at the University of Maine School of Law in 1990 at age 31 and bought a farm in Durham to be within commuting distance. He discovered he liked criminal law and the idea of prosecuting and worked his last year as an intern at the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office. He went on to spend five years in the Maine Attorney General’s Office prosecuting drug traffickers.
“ It felt good. It’s one of those important things where you can go home at the end of the day and realize that you made the world a little bit better, and it sounds corny but that’s important to me,” he said.
In 1998, he found a different way to serve and ran for and was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served two consecutive terms representing Durham and parts of Lisbon and Brunswick.
When he’s not working or volunteering his time, you can likely find Schneider working at home on his alpaca farm, where he lives with wife Barbara and his 16-year old daughter.
When he bought the farm 21 years ago, he researched various livestock, “and I really just fell in love with alpacas. They’re charming animals. They’re a nice size,” at about 150 pounds full grown, “so I can usually win a wrestling match with an alpaca.”
A year into the job, Schneider said he’d be satisfied retiring as Maine attorney general. Public service is important to him, so he hopes to get the full eight years in, and “when this gig is done, I think I’ll find some way to serve.”