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How the Maine CDC’s ill-fated stand against ‘advocacy journalists’ backfired

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at a news conference Monday, March 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

In this week’s newsletter: Maine CDC bars, unbars advocacy orgs from briefings; NH governor stumps for LePage; spending in the corridor fight; a temporary deal in the debt debate.

The Maine Center for Disease Control this week walked back a ban on “advocacy journalists” attending its news briefings, but not before touching off a debate over what exactly an advocacy journalist is.

The dust-up highlighted the ongoing proliferation of partisan media, which some argue is eroding trust in traditional news, deepening political divisions, and filling the void left by ever-shrinking traditional news organizations.

Those discussions mostly took a backseat amid news that the CDC was no longer allowing employees of The Maine Wire and The Maine Beacon to attend the news briefings that have fluctuated in frequency since the beginning of the pandemic. The Wire and the Beacon are operated by the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group, and the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal advocacy group, respectively.

The Wire’s parent organization took its grievance to Twitter, sharing an email from CDC spokesman Robert Long in which he informed the organization that the agency would no longer “accommodate advocacy journalists” during the briefings. Long provided no definition of advocacy journalists, nor did CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah or Department of Health and Human Services chief Jeanne Lambrew when they were asked about the issue during Wednesday’s call with reporters.

A definition would have been problematic even if they had one. That’s because journalists generally don’t like government officials and political appointees unilaterally and arbitrarily determining which reporters or news organizations deserve the free press and speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment.

Not that government officials or politicians don’t try anyway.

In 2013, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage attempted to gag state agencies from speaking to the Portland Press Herald and its affiliate publications after the newspaper — dubbed “the opposition” by his spokeswoman — published a series of stories critical of the administration's DEP chief. (Disclosure: I worked for the PPH at the time).

The gag order was relatively short-lived, but that was mostly because LePage and his officials increasingly refrained from saying much of anything to the press, while also increasingly ignoring public records requests through the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

Several news organizations voiced support for the paper, but notably not The Maine Wire. The self-described news service instead posted a story framing the ban as a justified response to coverage from “Democrat-owned media.” (Philanthropist and liberal mega donor Donald Sussman owned the PPH at the time).

The Wire and its parent organization had a sharply different outlook this week as it attempted to rally Maine reporters to its cause.

The Maine Policy Institute, formerly the Maine Heritage Policy Center, has also shown a similar tendency with the state’s public records law. In 2009, the organization won the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition’s Sunshine Award for obtaining public records during the administration of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Its interest in FOAA, however, waned during the LePage years, including in state agencies where the Institute’s former employees were appointed to positions of power.

DHHS, which oversees the Maine CDC, was one such agency.

In 2017, DHHS, led by the LePage administration, fired its public records coordinator for providing a public record to the Bangor Daily News.

These days the Maine Policy Institute is on the outside of state government. Its interest in the CDC briefings aligns with the issues the organization has been promoting, which include a markedly different approach to the pandemic than the one the Mills administration took.

In April, it emceed a State House rally in which Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, called for the end of pandemic restrictions. (Sampson, who recently drew condemnation for comparing Mills to Nazi doctors, has also contributed commentary and articles to The Maine Wire). Anti-vaccination activist Naomi Wolf was also a featured speaker, and she unsuccessfully attempted to enter the governor’s office with a camera crew. The organization has also promoted anti-vaccine mandate protests by health care workers and immunity from COVID-19 from “natural infection.”

Officials at the CDC have not acknowledged that such events and views influenced its initial decision to bar The Maine Wire from asking questions during the weekly news briefings. Even if it did, it wouldn’t explain barring the liberal Maine Beacon — unless, perhaps, the administration hoped the equivalency in restricting access to both advocacy organizations would preempt criticism that it was targeting only conservative critics.

If that was indeed the strategy, it didn’t work.

Several reporters joined the criticism of the CDC on Twitter.

From their perspective, the government shouldn’t define advocacy journalists and the fight for press access isn’t circumstantial, regardless of whether it is for one of the groups they stuck up for.

NH Gov. Sununu stumps for LePage

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu will headline a fundraiser in Kennebunkport for former Maine Gov. Paul LePage on Oct. 20.

The event is designed to raise money for LePage’s bid to unseat Gov. Janet Mills next year.

Sununu, a prospective U.S. Senate candidate, has often partnered with Mills and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, also a Republican, to align their pandemic travel policies, and collectively, the trio implemented many of the same restrictions on business operations during the first year of the pandemic. (Vermont arguably had the toughest restrictions in New England).

Sununu has also favored mask mandates, a position that drew armed protestors to his residence and forced him to cancel an outdoor inauguration ceremony.

LePage, of course, participated in anti-restriction rallies at the State House in 2020 and he made an oblique reference to Mills’ pandemic policies benefiting the powerful and hurting the weak during his campaign kickoff last month.

In that sense, Sununu would seem like an odd fit to stump for LePage.

Nevertheless, Sununu has remained relatively popular with voters in the Granite State. 57% of voters there approved of how he’s doing his job, according to a September poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

That’s actually down 5 percentage points from August, and Sununu’s 37% disapproval rate last month matched the highest it has been since he took office. The poll was taken shortly after Sununu blasted President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more employees.

ICYMI (And how could you?)

Spending in the referendum battle over Central Maine Power's transmission corridor has exceeded $60 million so far this year.

That’s a big number, especially in context.

In 2016, Maine voters were confronted with six ballot initiatives, all of them consequential and most of them hotly debated. They included overhauling Maine’s election system to include ranked-choice voting, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, raising taxes on high earners to increase school funding, increasing the minimum wage and gun control.

The spending topped more than $23 million — for all six of them.

This year Question 1 would yank the lease for the 145-mile transmission project that’s part of a deal between CMP and the state of Massachusetts. The Bay State sees the project as satisfying its renewable energy mandates. CMP views it as a boon to its bottom line, which might explain why the company’s shareholders — not ratepayers, according to a CMP spokeswoman — have shelled out nearly $20 million to defeat Question 1. CMP’s spending included $8.6 million over the past three months.

Hydro-Quebec, the energy supplier for the project, dumped another $4.9 million into its campaign. Its spending came in the months after Gov. Mills vetoed a bill that would have barred electioneering by companies owned by foreign governments. Hydro-Quebec is owned by the government of Quebec.

The anti-corridor spending is led by Mainers for Local Power, which is funded by out-of-state energy companies Calpine and NextEra, although both have energy assets here and in the region.

That group spent $7 million in three months, a significant increase over the rest of the year and an indication that it’s spending a lot more money late in the campaign than it did early. CMP and its allies have generally been more steady, and that might be because the company has had to dig out of a deep hole in terms of public opinion. A recent poll commissioned by Spectrum News suggests they’re still not out of that hole.

Additionally, CMP ballot committees have pivoted from highlighting the purported benefits of the corridor to the dangers of “retroactive laws,” a change in messaging that argues that Question 1 doesn't just affect the corridor, but future energy projects. The claim is disputed by opponents of the project, but it was amplified this week in an opinion column in the Washington Post written by former EPA administrator William Reilly, who argued that Question 1 would usurp the authority of state and federal environmental and energy permitting agencies — the “expert agencies” — and replace them with the whims of politicians.

Debt deal

As the Pulse was in production Thursday, Democrats and Republicans in Congress were closing a deal that would end the increasingly dire stalemate over raising the federal debt limit.

At least temporarily.

The deal would extend the debt limit by $480 billion, an extension that would allow the federal government to continue borrowing into December before Congress fights over it again.

The agreement was ratified by the Senate Thursday with a vote in the House expected Friday.

The dispute centered on GOP Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell vowing to use the Senate filibuster to block a simple majority vote to raise the debt limit so that the federal government doesn't default on its obligations.

McConnell reasoned that Democrats who control Congress should raise the debt limit when using a process known as reconciliation to pass President Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Plan, a lengthy effort already bogged down by negotiations among Democrats themselves.

His position was backed by the entire Republican Senate conference, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Collins made headlines this week when she suggested that the stalemate might end if Democrats, who control Congress, simply abandon Build Back Better, which contains a good chunk of the president’s domestic policy agenda.

Her statement was widely criticized by Democrats, who viewed the stalemate as evidence that the GOP was willing to drive the economy off a cliff just to defeat Biden’s agenda and even though Republicans had played a part in ballooning the debt by $8 trillion when they controlled Congress and Donald Trump was president.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King took a similar view, although not specifically of Collins.

Speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by the campaign finance reformist group American Promise, King said McConnell and the GOP were playing a dangerous game.

"I can discern no political purpose for this other than just to squeeze the Democrats," he said. "That's all this is about — so the Republicans can go home and say, 'We voted against more spending,' which is not true, by the way. They voted for most of the spending that we're talking about. And it's just pure, unadulterated, 'Can this help us win the next election?'"

King also expressed some willingness to modify the filibuster rules so that current and future debt limit increases can pass with 50 votes.

The filibuster change turned out to be unnecessary, at least for now.

Collins and King were among the 61 senators who voted for the temporary extension on Thursday.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.