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Maine’s senate president has no intention of primarying Gov. Mills. But one group is still trying to convince him

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, covers his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, covers his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

In this week’s newsletter: The unorthodox effort to draft the “Bernie Sanders of Maine” to challenge Gov. Janet Mills; Golden irks Democrats (again); Maine completes redistricting.

Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson has had dustups with Gov. Janet Mills on several occasions in recent months, but he insists he’s not going to challenge her in a gubernatorial primary next year.

It’s a reality that has left some progressive activists who are disenchanted with Mills’ leadership contemplating a difficult question: Short of dragooning Jackson into a primary campaign, what might change his mind?

This week the website Run Troy Run materialized with an unorthodox answer. It’s collecting the names, addresses and emails of people who will each pledge $5 to support a Jackson candidacy. The idea is that a tangible show of support might persuade Jackson that he has the grassroots backing — and the money via the Maine Clean Election fund — to defeat Mills in a primary.

“We have not contacted Jackson about our (political action committee), and we understand why he may be reluctant to get in the race,” Maine Machinists Council president Mark Vigliotta wrote in a column published in the Bangor Daily News this week. “His legislative colleagues and the governor may pressure him to stay out. But we are determined to show that he will have the support of working people across Maine, should he decide to run.”

Jackson says he has already made his decision. He’s not running.

“To be honest, I am deeply disappointed in this column,” he said in a statement. “Though we may have our differences, I’m not challenging the governor in her campaign for re-election. Governor Janet Mills has been a strong leader throughout a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis and has been an integral partner on many issues I care deeply about. She has my support in 2022.”

That statement seems unequivocal. Jackson declined to elaborate further because, as his spokeswoman put it, he’s not interested in giving the effort to draft him “any additional airtime,” calling it a distraction from the work he hopes to accomplish with Gov. Mills and Democrats next year.

However, the organizers of Run Troy Run appear undeterred.

Kate Sykes, a progressive activist in Portland and one of the group’s officers, said the formation of a political action committee with the Maine Ethics Commission is imminent.

“We just want to demonstrate that there's a grassroots movement for Troy if he were to enter the race for governor,” Sykes said.

Sykes was responding to questions from Maine Public that were originally directed to Ethan Strimling, the former state legislator and mayor of Portland who has been promoting the Run Troy Run website on social media.

The poll and column prompted Jackson’s chief of staff, B.J. McCollister, to take the unusual step of publicly declaring that the Senate President and Senate Democrats had nothing to do with Strimling’s survey

Sykes confirmed that Strimling is affiliated with Run Troy Run. Strimling is also president of the nonprofit Swing Hard, Turn Left and Sykes is on the group’s board of directors. Sykes said Run Troy Run is operating independently of the nonprofit.

In addition to promoting the Run Troy Run website, Strimling recently used his blog with the BDN to promote a messaging poll his nonprofit commissioned that purported to show Jackson faring better than Mills in a head-to-head matchup against Republican challenger and former Gov. Paul LePage.

“We believe Troy is a better candidate to defeat LePage,” said Sykes, who described Jackson as the Bernie Sanders of Maine.

The poll and column prompted Jackson’s chief of staff, B.J. McCollister, to take the unusual step of publicly declaring that the Senate President and Senate Democrats had nothing to do with Strimling’s survey.

McCollister’s tweet further illustrates how Jackson’s team has been trying to snuff out any expectations of a gubernatorial bid.

Nevertheless, organizers of Run Troy Run say they’re not hearing a hard “no” from their preferred candidate.

“We have not actually heard a definitive answer that he's not going to run,” Sykes said. “If that happens, we will cease and desist. But we have not heard that message from him. We've heard that he's a little confused and stunned, perhaps, by what's happening, which is totally understandable. I mean, this is a guy who's been totally blindsided by a grassroots effort to get him to run for office.”

When Maine Public read Jackson’s statement aloud that he’s not running, Sykes responded, “We have a public website and a public Twitter. If Troy wants to communicate with us directly, and say no, that would be great. We just haven't heard that. I think it's within his capacity to find one of us … and say that. Say, 'stop.'”

Several sources at the State House told Maine Public that Jackson attempted to do just that in a recent phone call with Strimling, but details of the conversation could not be confirmed.

Even if the effort by Run Troy Run proves quixotic in coercing Jackson into the race, it could be useful to the group’s organizers. While political committees are prohibited from using donor information for commercial purposes — such as selling a compilation of names and addresses — PACs can harvest the donor information for future electioneering efforts.

The pledge form on Run Troy Run’s website requests names, addresses and email addresses, information that might help a fledgling political group looking to expand its influence.

It’s unclear whether that’s Strimling’s goal. Since he lost his mayoral reelection in 2019, he has remained involved in Portland politics, and more recently, attempted to influence the slate of candidates elected to the city’s charter commission with negative ads.

Several of the charter commission candidates distanced themselves from the ads.

In order to receive more than $1 million in public funds through the Clean Election program, Jackson would need 3,200 contributions of $5. As of Thursday afternoon, the Run Troy Run claims to have received 239 such pledges.

Golden decries “show vote”

The chaos in Congress was still unfolding as the Pulse was in production Thursday, as Democrats in the majority tried to wrangle their members to support President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion domestic spending plan, alongside a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

The wrangling has been made more difficult by two looming deadlines — funding the government so that it stays open, and extending the debt ceiling to pay for expenses that have already occurred.

Republicans are unified against helping Democrats, who have a slim majority in the House and a one-vote advantage in the Senate when Vice President Kamala Harris breaks a tie. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly vowed to block any bipartisan effort to raise the debt ceiling because, he argues, Democrats are pursuing a massive spending initiative without GOP votes. His argument ignores the fact that raising the debt limit pays the debts that Republicans helped accumulate under President Donald Trump through tax cuts and other initiatives. Nevertheless, it has proven useful as a disruptive legislative strategy because Democrats can’t agree on the size and scope of a spending package that will require the votes of every one of them in the Senate.

To put it simply, it’s a mess.

As of Thursday afternoon, the House and Senate were able to pass a bill to avoid the government shutdown, at least until mid-December. But on Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would have extended the debt limit.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden joined Republicans in opposing the bill. He was one of just two Democrats to do so.

His vote enraged Democratic activists, but he’s probably used to that by now. His rationale, according to a written statement, was that the House debt limit bill was destined to fail and, therefore, it was a show vote.

“Senate Republicans have made it clear with their statements and votes that they will not work with us to raise the debt ceiling as we did when they were in power in 2019,” Golden said. “However, we have full control of the government, and it remains our responsibility to do what is best for the country. Show votes that we know will fail in the Senate, like the one we took today, only move us closer to a dangerous deadline that undermines the nation’s fiscal credibility internationally. We should take the high road and begin the steps necessary to resolve this matter with a simple majority vote in both houses to prevent an avoidable crisis.”

Golden’s critics pointed out that McConnell and Republicans are using the Senate filibuster to block any majority votes to raise the debt ceiling. However, it’s also true that Democrats could raise the debt ceiling with a majority vote through the reconciliation process by attaching it to Biden’s Build Back Better bill. They just haven’t been able to do that yet.

We’re No. 2!

Maine became the second state in the country Wednesday to ratify newly drawn congressional and legislative district maps that will define electoral battlegrounds for the next decade.

Only Oregon completed its redistricting process sooner.

Gov. Mills signed the maps into law after the Legislature overwhelmingly approved them in votes that easily surpassed the two-thirds threshold.

The series of votes came after the state’s bipartisan reapportionment panel worked under a tight deadline to negotiate maps after long delays in the U.S. Census data.

Determining boundaries for 35 state Senate districts proved to be the trickiest, as Democrats and Republicans on the commission did not reach a consensus until its last day of work on Monday.

Sen. Jackson said the process worked even though negotiations were contentious at times.

"I'm not sitting here over the moon or anything like that because, you know, you get some things and some you don't," he said. "But it was a good process."

Commission members indicated that the toughest negotiations centered on districts in York County where a new district was created to accommodate population growth in that area.

Both parties were trying to adjust district boundaries after the latest U.S. Census data showed that most of the state's population growth occurred in the southern part of the state.

The process is designed to make sure districts are nearly equal in population, but the two sides hired consultants to try to develop maps that would give them an electoral advantage for the next decade.

Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, said the overall result is likely more competitive seats in a Senate that has flipped from one party to the other four times in the past six elections.

"Seats that aren't just Democrat or Republican," he said. "There are some parts of the state that we know that are more one way or the other, but there's a lot of ground here.”

In redrawing congressional district maps, the panel focused its attention on Kennebec County, which is already divided between Maine's two districts.

In moving roughly 23,000 Mainers from the 1st District into the 2nd, the commission moved a total of 13 towns from the 1st to the 2nd, or vice versa.

Among them is the state capital of Augusta, which will move to the 2nd District, along with Chelsea, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Manchester, Readfield and Winthrop.

Democrats had originally hoped to move Democratic-leaning Waterville into the 2nd District, but Republicans declared such a move a nonstarter in negotiations.

The resulting congressional map will likely make the 2nd District marginally more Democratic, a move unlikely to make a huge difference except in very close elections.

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