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Politics

Pulse Newsletter: As CMP Expands Political Operation, Supporters Are Making Conspicuous Decisions

Central Maine Power
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal, Maine.

In this week’s newsletter: Pro-corridor group hires LePage’s former spox while CMP expands its political operation; Sen. Angus King a key figure in ATF nominee withdrawal; the latest developments in the 2022 gubernatorial race.

Central Maine Power is expanding and intensifying efforts to beat back threats to its $1 billion transmission project, as well as a potential referendum next year that could result in the seizure of the utility’s assets.

Some of the moves by the political organizations working on the company’s behalf might seem peculiar or potentially controversial. That includes the hiring of Adrienne Bennett, a former spokesperson for former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and a former congressional candidate, by CMP’s new ballot question committee, Mainers for Fair Laws.

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Meanwhile, the company this week opened a new front to defeat the public takeover of it and Versant Power’s assets. It was announced by an organization called Maine Affordable Energy, a group originally created to receive undisclosed donations through the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, but that’s now operating independently of the chamber. Maine Affordable Energy announced this week that it’s launching a referendum bid that would require voters to approve the costs of completing the utility takeover.

Taken together, the moves illustrate how the state’s largest utility is broadening its political operations, while also revealing some of the tactics it’s using to overcome opposition to a transmission project that’s neither exclusively partisan nor regional.

Hints of such tactics appear in campaign finance reports filed by CMP’s Clean Energy Matters, a ballot question committee that has spent more than $25 million advocating for the transmission project, including $11 million this year opposing Question 1, which could scuttle it if approved by voters in November. In July, Maine Public reported that Clean Energy Matters has spent nearly as much on political consultants ($4 million) as it has on television ads ($5 million) this year.

The report also highlighted how the committee is hiring different consultants to influence different voting constituencies. For example, in addition to paying Democratic lobbyist James Mitchell for “strategy services,” it also hired several Republican consultants. Among them is Joe Turcotte, the campaign manager for LePage’s third gubernatorial bid. Turcotte’s name doesn’t appear in the finance reports, but Clean Energy Matters confirmed to Maine Public in July that he runs Saddleback Strategies, a limited liability corporation with no ownership info listed with the Maine Secretary of State’s office, or physical office space (its address is a mailing center in Augusta).

Jon Breed, who leads Clean Energy Matters and the newly formed Mainers for Fair Laws ballot question committee, said this week that the diverse hires by the pro-corridor campaign reflect that the issue isn’t partisan, yet also that his group needs to get its message into “partisan bubbles” to be successful at the ballot box.

“We are diverse because we have to be diverse,” he said.

Breed didn’t explicitly frame the hiring of Bennett as a spokesperson for Mainers for Fair Laws that way. Instead, he said her opposition to Question 1 as a previous skeptic of the project could be beneficial to the campaign.

“Adrienne Bennett has been in the public eye for a number of years,” he said. “I also think it's no secret she's had issues with the corridor in the past. The value that I think she brings is her view over the impact of ballot Question 1 and the broad impact and unintended consequences it will have on the state, businesses, and potentially individuals.”

As a spokesperson for LePage, Bennett often had an adversarial relationship with many reporters in the Maine media, taking to her Facebook page to rail against stories and reporters — a tactic that turned some of the governor’s supporters into fans of hers.

Bennett had hoped to channel that support into her GOP primary bid last year for the 2nd Congressional District, but LePage instead endorsed the eventual winner, former state Rep. Dale Crafts. During the primary campaign she dove headlong into a controversy over an event involving right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin, who described Lewiston as a “refugee dumping ground” on Twitter.

Malkin’s previous statements about immigrants, support for white nationalist figures like Nick Fuentes and anticipated protests prompted three venues to cancel her appearance in Maine, but she ultimately spoke to a standing room crowd in Sabattus. Bennett, who publicly supported Malkin’s efforts to gain an audience, introduced her at the event.

Asked about Bennett’s background, Breed said he didn’t want to “get into too much about her previous work.”

“As you know, she was a congressional candidate that raised issues around the project itself, but I think the question is about the true impact of Question 1 and what it could do to our state,” he said, adding that she would soon be available to answer media inquiries.

Catharine Hartnett, a spokesperson for CMP, would not say how much money the company planned to invest in the competing ballot measure.

The Sun Journal in Lewiston on Thursday published an opinion letter by Bennett, in which she described the looming referendum as a “political power grab.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much money CMP will put into the effort to create a ballot measure to compete with the one circulated by supporters of a public takeover of its assets. The competing measure advanced by Maine Affordable Energy has been described by the group as an effort to give voters the final say in authorizing the debt required to buyout CMP and Versant utility assets.

“The people pushing this plan are trying to low-ball the cost, but realistically it would cost over $13 billion — and that’s debt we would owe to banks and would spend decades paying off through our electric bills,” said Maine Affordable Energy’s Willy Ritch in a statement. “This is a very simple proposal — it just asks voters if they want to approve a debt of $1 billion or more before any quasi-government entity, including ‘a consumer-owned transmission and distribution utility’ incurs that debt.”

Our Power, the group trying to put the utility takeover on the 2022 ballot, called the competing measure a stunt financed by ratepayers.

"CMP's thieves will pay millions of dollars to dupe Maine people while they're stealing billions from us, and Versant is along for the ride," said Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, in a statement from Our Power.

Grohoski was a co-sponsor of the bill that the 2022 referendum is modeled after.

Both groups have until early next year to obtain more than 63,000 signatures to qualify for the 2022 ballot.

King mum as Biden pulls ATF nominee

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he’s withdrawing David Chipman as his pick to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The move comes amid united Republican opposition to Chipman, as well as a lack of commitments from several Democrats and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

King and Democratic Sens. John Tester, of Montana, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, remained on the fence over Chipman, who was fiercely opposed by groups like the National Rifle Association, which viewed his advocacy for gun control as disqualifying to lead an agency partially tasked with regulating firearms.

King has said little publicly about his ambivalence toward Chipman, but he has repeatedly surfaced in national media reports as one of the holdouts.

Matthew Felling, a spokesman for King, confirmed that the senator was one of several who had not committed to voting for Chipman and had reservations about his nomination. However, Felling did not say what those specific reservations were.

The NRA released a statement celebrating the decision to pull Chipman’s nomination, calling his defeat a top priority.

Gun control advocates criticized Biden for not sticking with Chipman as well as the senators who wouldn’t vote for him. Among them was Fred Guttenberg, the father of a child killed during the Parkland school shooting in 2018, who criticized Biden and King on Twitter.

The event is indoors. According to the Civic Center COVID guidelines, unvaccinated attendees are asked to wear a mask. The Civic Center also recommends vaccinated individuals wear a mask.

In a statement, the president blasted Republicans for uniting against Chipman.

“Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have made clear that they intend to use gun crime as a political talking point instead of taking serious steps to address it,” he said. “That’s why they’ve moved in lockstep to block David Chipman’s confirmation, and it’s why they side with gun manufacturers over the overwhelming majority of the American people in opposing common sense measures like universal background checks.”

Biden made no mention of King or the Democratic senators who did not commit to voting for Chipman and whose votes would have been needed to overcome unified GOP opposition in an evenly divided Senate, in which Vice President Kamala Harris acts as the tie breaking vote.

Prior to 2006, the ATF director was a presidential appointment with no confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate necessary. Since then only one ATF director has been confirmed.

Acting Director Marvin Richardson currently leads the agency.

Mills gets a primary challenger

And, no, contrary to some wishful thinking among some progressive Democrats, it’s not Senate President Troy Jackson.

It’s wildlife activist John Glowa.

Glowa, 67, of South China, has created a candidate committee with the Maine Ethics Commission and he’s expected to discuss his candidacy Tuesday outside of the State House.

In a press release this week Glowa cast himself as an outsider who will shake up the state government.

“Maine’s system of government is rigged to favor the government and those with political clout. This is a fact,” he said. “Unless and until we reform this rigged system, Maine’s government will continue to attempt little more than politically motivated window dressing and will live from budget to budget, never solving the myriad of problems, many of which the government has created.”

Glowa in recent years has made two unsuccessful bids to get into the Legislature. In both instances — the state Senate in 2018 and the House in 2016 — he failed to win the Democratic primary.

LePage launch

LePage has already made his gubernatorial bid official, but the former two-term governor will speak publicly at a launch event scheduled for Sept. 22 at the Augusta Civic Center.

He’s scheduled to speak around 6 p.m.

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