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CMP's Sizable Campaign To Influence Maine Voters Has Become Part Of The National Conversation On Corporate Spending

Hydropower Transmission Projects
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
A sign in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor is displayed along Rte. 201 near The Forks, Maine, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

Note: The Pulse newsletter will not be published next week — reporter Steve Mistler will be on vacation.

The debate over Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project has raged for more than three years, long enough to make the arguments for and against it seem repetitive and stale.

However, the battle remains eminently consequential — and not just for the energy companies that stand to profit or lose money because of it.

Those companies, including CMP, have combined to spend more than $32 million attempting to shape Mainers’ views of the 145-mile corridor in advance of a November referendum. That includes $7 million in just the past three months, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

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Those figures don’t even capture the totality of the spending, because some of it occurred before last year’s law-court-scuttled referendum was authorized by the secretary of state, and also because campaign finance spending is separate from legislative and federal lobbying efforts, which have also been significant.

Nevertheless, that spending is under the microscope because there are some who believe they’ve found a way to stop it, or at least minimize its impact on the November referendum, and more broadly, in future elections.

They include Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and Free Speech for People, a national nonprofit that was launched amid the backlash stemming from the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which unleashed unprecedented corporate spending in federal and state elections. Neither group has a position in the corridor campaign, but both have piggybacked on corridor opponents’ attempts to sideline Hydro-Quebec from the wildly expensive influence campaign.

The groups’ focus is on foreign influence in U.S. elections. Hydro-Quebec, which is wholly owned by the provincial government of Quebec, is an easy target.

But Free Speech for People isn’t just concerned about Hydro-Quebec. It’s also arguing that energy players on both sides of the referendum should be barred from electioneering because all of them have significant investments by foreign governments, corporations or pension funds.

“Our position is that the (referendum) decision should be made by the people of Maine and that funding for the ballot measure campaign should be predominantly from the people of Maine, and not from the foreign-influenced corporations on both sides of the funding of the ballot measure campaign right now," Free Speech for People legal director Ron Fein told Maine Public this week.

Fein’s group also sees an opportunity to advance a larger cause. If it can convince Maine lawmakers to prohibit corporations with a certain percentage of foreign investment or ownership, it might be able to significantly limit the corporate election spending that has swamped domestic politics since Citizens United became the law of the land.

"This type of legislation would take a large bite of Citizens United," he said. "It would undo a substantial amount of the damage that Citizens United caused."

That’s why Fein’s group has supported local ordinances and legislation in other states that would limit election participation depending on a group’s level of foreign investment or ownership. It backed an ordinance recently passed by the Seattle City Council after Amazon, which has foreign investors, spent more than $1.5 million attempting to stack the council with pro-business candidates. It’s advocating for state legislation in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota. It’s also backing legislation in Congress.

The potential limiting of corporate electioneering — and the inevitable backlash that it would cause among corporations that have become accustomed to boundless voter persuasion possibilities — will no doubt complicate Maine lawmakers’ deliberations on the three foreign influence bills they’re now considering.

When the corridor debate began it was difficult to imagine that it would potentially spin off another conflict over campaign finance regulation and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling affecting corporations’ spending on elections. However, it’s a debate weighty enough to spin off several more.

Shah questions length of J&J pause

Federal regulators’ decision to pause administering the COVID vaccine by Johnson & Johnson has prompted a lot of questions about its effect on mass vaccination efforts and whether the suspension will harm public confidence in the vaccine itself.

That’s true in Maine, where the state CDC has used the one-shot J&J vaccine to reach rural populations and to vaccinate those who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Prior to the pause, 54,000 Mainers had received the J&J shot. Future shipments from the federal government had figured prominently in the state’s mass vaccination effort.

All of that is on hold while regulators study possible links between the vaccine and rare but severe blood clots. Maine CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah has said the delay won’t slow the state’s vaccination effort, but he expressed some frustration to federal regulators when the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, declined to lift the pause on Wednesday.

“Any extension of the pause will invariably result in the fact that the most vulnerable individuals in the United States, who were prime candidates for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, will remain vulnerable,” Shah said in a public comment submitted to the ACIP panel.

Shah’s comment drew praise from some who are arguing that regulators are being too deliberative while evaluating a clotting issue that has been known to have occurred in six people among the nearly 7 million who have received the J&J vaccine. It’s unclear whether Shah shares that view, but in subsequent tweets, he did say that regulators should specify what their safety threshold is for J&J.

“When you pause something, you should have a concept of the conditions under which you will resume,” he tweeted.

Shah isn’t the only one concerned about the duration of the J&J pause. Harvard physician and researcher Dr. Ashish Jha tweeted Wednesday that the ACIP should soon restart J&J shots and potentially exclude women age 18-49, who might be at higher risk for blood clots.

Nonetheless, Shah told reporters Thursday that Maine’s vaccination plan will proceed, even if not as originally planned.

“We’re not waiting around,” he said.

Golden backs Biden Afghanistan withdrawal

Last year Democratic 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden supported former President Donald Trump’s plan to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan after a 20-year conflict.Now he supports President Joe Biden’s plan to do the same.

Golden, a former U.S. Marine who served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, used an Op-Ed in Newsweek to back Biden’s plan to begin withdrawing the approximately 2,500 remaining troops on the ground beginning May 1 and ending by Sept. 11.

Biden argued that the U.S. can no longer justify stationing troops in a 20-year conflict initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.Golden agreed.

“We've been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years now,” he wrote. “We killed (Osama) bin Laden almost a decade ago. It's well past time for American servicemembers to leave the country.”

He added, “The terrorist threat to the United States certainly remains, and we should continue to take necessary action to deter and defend against terrorist attacks. America will fight when necessary to protect our homeland and keep our citizens safe. But we cannot continue decades-long, indefinite troop deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq or in every country where a terrorist organization exists.”

Critics of the withdrawal argue that it will embolden the Taliban, the rebel force American troops have been fighting since 2001.

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