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Politics

Parsing Maine election results — while looking ahead to the next one

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Robbie Feinberg
/
Maine Public
Brandon Mazer (left) won a tied Portland City Council race after City Clerk Katherine Jones randomly drew his card from a bowl on Nov. 4, 2021. His opponent, Roberto Rodriguez (facing away), has requested a recount.

A comprehensive list of news and notes from Election Day and beyond.

Emptying the off-year election notebook with observations, newsy tidbits and lingering questions while wondering about the implications of Question 1 ...

Will the Central Maine Power corridor fight doom renewable energy projects?

CMP and supporters of the project pushed this narrative repeatedly in the closing weeks of the campaign.

It seemed to resonate with former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly, who expressed his misgivings in a recent column in the Washington Post. National energy reporters were also intrigued by this framing, which hinges on the idea that popular votes on energy projects — renewable ones in particular — could usurp permitting decisions by professional, nonpartisan regulators while also allowing fossil fuel generators to draft off NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) sentiments among abutters.

It’s an intriguing question, but not everyone is buying the premise.

Jeremy Payne, of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, told Maine Public’s Fred Bever on Election Day that CMP’s decisive loss at the hands of voters on Tuesday can be largely attributed to CMP, its less than sterling reputation among ratepayers and a campaign that did too little to convince voters that they would directly benefit.

“Today's vote, and the results of it, is a referendum on Central Maine Power, not necessarily on the energy infrastructure that we will need to move toward beneficial electrification,” he said.

Payne added that future projects would do well to listen to abutters and host communities early and make benefit packages accordingly.

“That's the thing CMP has tried to say through its ads, you know, 'This is a terrible precedent. This will wreck everything forever going forward,'” he said. “I mean, I think it would wreck everything going forward if everybody does it exactly the same way they (CMP) did it. I don't think there's any company that would try to develop a project the exact same way they did given the experience we've all just seen the last two years.”

Claim: NIMBYs killed the corridor

Did they, though?

There were certainly groups and residents along the 145-mile line that were worried about its visual and ecological effects, and they were part of the grassroots campaign to scuttle the $1 billion project.

But the assertion that NIMBYs killed the project just doesn’t add up when looking at the voting results. When overlaying CMP’s service area with referendum results by town, all but a handful of localities voted 'yes' on Question 1, even though the corridor clear-cut is not visible to most of them.

To those directly affected by the project, CMP’s defeat Tuesday was foreshadowed long ago when 25 towns either opposed the project in local referendums or rescinded early support.

It also didn’t seem to matter that CMP sweetened the pot with tax benefits. Lewiston was perhaps the best example. The city stood to benefit from $8 million in new revenue from the project. Voters there on Tuesday voted to halt construction 56%-44%.

There are benefits, but how much?

CMP and its affiliated campaign committees routinely touted a benefits package that state officials negotiated in 2019.

The package totaled $258 million and included money to reduce electric bills for low-income Mainers, electric vehicle charging stations, broadband expansion and location-specific workforce and education grants.

However, the benefits package was successfully framed as a pittance by corridor opponents, who highlighted the fact that the ratepayer relief was stretched out over decades and resulted in a 9-cent reduction in the average bill.

The opponents’ dismissal of the benefits package was arguably bolstered amid CMP’s prolific spending on the campaign, not to mention early work on the project itself. The utility spent at least $42 million on the campaign over two years. It’s so far spent nearly $400 million on construction.

Those figures were widely disseminated during the runup to Election Day and may well have been on the minds of voters who were not convinced the project meant as much to them as it did to CMP’s bottom line.

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Steve Mistler
Supporters of Yes on 1 at a campaign gathering on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

California dreamin’

Ninety-four million dollars.

Or, $94,000,000.

Yes, we’re writing out the cost of the Question 1 campaign with the hope that doing so will prevent the desensitization that typically accompanies ridiculous spending to influence voters.

To put it another way: Unofficial turnout numbers from Tuesday indicate that voter turnout was about 396,000. That means the campaigns involved in Question 1 spent about $237.37 per vote.

That’s the highest spending per vote for a state ballot campaign in the country, at least since 2017, according to Ballotpedia. The spending per vote more than doubles Nevada’s Question 3 initiative in 2018, which now ranks second nationally at about $100 per vote.

Notably, the three other ballot campaigns on the list involved energy.

Maine’s total spending has yet to reach California’s crazy ballot initiative landscape — but we’re getting there!

Maine’s Question 1 is about $10 million short of cracking California’s top 10 list of referendum spending.

The campaign to create a consumer-owned utility could conceivably eclipse Question 1 spending if it qualifies for the ballot next year.

What referendum?

Just hours after voters voted overwhelmingly to halt construction of the corridor, CMP’s construction crews were back at work Wednesday morning. The move, while not entirely unexpected, still incensed opponents.

“CMP and its allies dumped nearly $74 million into a campaign to sell their project to Maine voters and got soundly rejected,” former state Sen. Tom Saviello said in a statement. “Now they are constructing frivolous legal claims, after the vote, because they cannot separate themselves from the potential billions in profits they expected to derive from this project. It is long past time for CMP to ignore their blinding greed, end this project and return their focus to serving their ratepayers.”

CMP, of course, is contesting the constitutionality of the referendum and on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court. But why now, after spending all the money to defeat Question 1? After all, CMP was successful last year convincing the Maine law court to invalidate a referendum that was supposed to be on the 2020 ballot.

CMP’s Thorn Dickinson told Maine Public Wednesday that last year’s referendum was so clearly illegal that it was a no-brainer to challenge it beforehand. He said corridor opponents did a better job writing the more recent one, which made it harder to challenge in court before voters went to the polls.

Setback for the aspiring “battery of North America”

Hydro-Quebec, the government-owned utility that will supply the electricity of the project, appears to be backing CMP’s push to finish the project despite the referendum result, according to a statement released by the company on Wednesday.

However, Quebec Premier François Legault appeared to float alternatives when discussing the vote in Maine with journalists at the COP26 climate talks in Scotland.

According to the Canadian Press, Legault said H-Q and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker are committed to completing the project. However, he added, “Nothing is certain in life, but I am confident that it will get done. There are different scenarios; for now I can't give more details. There are different routes you can take to get to Massachusetts."

Legault appears to be referencing the corridor project in Vermont, which would serve the same purpose of the CMP project and help the Bay State achieve its renewable energy targets by importing H-Q hydropower.

Permits for the Vermont corridor were achieved in 2018, but Massachusetts opted for the CMP corridor because it was roughly $600 million cheaper.

Either route is a boon for H-Q. The CMP contract is worth an estimated $10 billion over 20 years to the company.

Mills on Question 1

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has been a backer of the corridor since 2019, and she voted “no” on Question 1.

Asked by reporters Thursday for her reaction to the results, she said, “I truly share people’s frustrations with this utility company, their frustrations about management, reliability of service to the public.”

She added, “I aim to do as much as I can to, among other things, increase the power and the authority of the Public Utilities Commission so that any utility that doesn’t perform will be held accountable. I think that’s very important. Accountability is important in any business and no less so for a business that is provided a monopoly over hundreds of thousands of people’s homes and businesses… the need for accountability in that kind of business is more important than anywhere else.”

Mills was less assertive when asked whether it’s OK that CMP is continuing to work on the project in the wake of Tuesday’s vote.

“I think that issue apparently is before the courts. I trust and hope that the courts will arrive at an independent judgement, objective and independent judgment about that matter as a matter of law,” she said. “I haven’t read the court complaint . . . I trust the courts. I think people really want to get this behind them. People are sick of seeing the ads on TV from all sides, from both sides, and I hope that the courts will act expeditiously in putting the matter to rest one way or the other.”

No way to lose (or win)

Three statewide ballot questions dominated election coverage this year, but there were a number of local races, including in Portland, where three seats on the city council were decided.

One of those races was decided in a seemingly peculiar way — drawing lots.

School board member Roberto Rodriguez and planning board chairman Brandon Mazer, two of the four candidates for an at-large seat, were officially tied after a ranked-choice voting runoff. To break the tie, both candidates each folded a piece of paper with their name on it and dropped it into what appeared to be a wooden salad bowl (According to Press Herald reporter Randy Billings, the bowl is City Clerk Kathy Jones’. She apparently bought it at an antique shop and brought it in for the tiebreaker drawing).

It might seem odd to determine an election winner this way. Maybe it is, but it’s not unheard of.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states resolve ties for legislative races by drawing lots or some similar method of chance. One of them is Virginia, which in 2018 decided partisan control of its House of Delegates by drawing lots (Republican incumbent David Yancey won, giving the GOP the majority).

The NCSL analysis doesn’t include local races like city council contests, but apparently ties at that level are not uncommon. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, one of every 100,000 votes cast in U.S. elections and one of every 15,000 cast in state elections were for a candidate that officially tied or won by one vote.

Mazer “won” the tiebreaker, but Rodriguez indicated that he’s requesting a recount, which could make Thursday’s lot-drawing exercise moot.

Dems gain a seat

Republicans are touting wins in the Virginia gubernatorial race and a near-miss in New Jersey as signs of a red wave in the 2022 midterms.

That might be true, but in Maine, the GOP ended up losing a seat in the state House of Representatives.

Augusta City Councilor Raegan LaRochelle, a Democrat, defeated Republican candidate James Orr, 56%-44% according to unofficial results. LaRochelle’s win flips a seat that Republicans have held for about a decade. The special election was held to replace Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, who resigned in early July.

Republicans will get a chance to regain a seat when another special election is held to fill the seat recently vacated by Rep. Kyle Bailey, D-Gorham. Former state Sen. Jim Boyle has announced his candidacy for the seat.

A special election date has not yet been set.

Virginia foreshadowing trouble for Mills?

Republicans seem to think so.

Following Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Republican National Committee released a statement declaring, “If Youngkin can flip a once hard ‘blue state’ like Virginia on its head and kick an incumbent party to the curb in the process, Democrat Governors in battleground states around the country – like Maine – should be afraid, very afraid of what’s to come.”

The Pulse has previously noted that the Virginia contest could be a bellwether for the race between Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

However, there are some big differences between the two contests — and the candidates. For one, the issues that dominated the Virginia campaign could be different next year. The GOP’s embrace of the culture war topic of public schools might not have the same resonance with voters a year from now. The pandemic and restrictions might be less of a concern.

Additionally, the Virginia race might prompt Democrats to revisit their strategy of trying to link every Republican candidate to former President Donald Trump. They tried it in the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon last year, only to watch Collins outperform the Democrat in some locations in the 1st Congressional District.

And besides, LePage has declared himself “Trump before Trump was popular,” so Democrats don’t have much work to do on that front.

But they do have cause for concern. Inflation and supply chain problems loom over the nation’s economic recovery. President Joe Biden’s approval rating is upside down, which can make it tough on Democrats already facing historical headwinds in the upcoming midterms.

At the same time, Mills and LePage are well known here, which will make it harder for outside groups to nationalize the contest. Democrats’ attempts to nationalize the Collins-Gideon race last year was a spectacular failure, in part because voters are so familiar with Collins.

Mainers now have a right to food. What happens next?

Question 3 was entirely overshadowed by the debate over the CMP corridor. But 61% of voters agreed that a “right to food” should be enshrined in Maine’s Constitution.

Maine is now the first state in the nation to adopt such a constitutional right.

But as with the brief-but-robust debate over the proposal itself, there is considerable disagreement about what will happen now that Mainers have “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume food of their own choosing.”

Heather Retberg, one of the leaders of the Question 3 campaign, told Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell that she hopes it will bring about a fundamental shift in the way people (particularly people in official positions) think about food.

"What we have said all along is that it would hopefully change the question of municipal officials from, 'How do I enforce?' to, 'How do I ensure? How do I protect? How do I respect? How do I make sure that everybody in my community — how do we make sure that people have access to feed themselves in dignity so that they aren't making choices between putting food on the table and medicine and shelter and food,'" Retberg said.

But opponents still fear the amendment — which they say was well intentioned but overly vague — will lead to a slew of conflicts over “backyard farms” and increased incidences of animal abuse. And what, exactly, Mainers now can expect from this new right?

“The ‘right to food’ is included in the opening of that (legislation), however, it's not defined. So none of the actual delivery legal mechanisms to protect the right to food are enshrined in this amendment," Rebecca Graham with the Maine Municipal Association, which opposed Question 3, told Maine Public.

The Maine Farm Bureau, which also opposed the ballot initiative, told The Associated Press that the organization respected the will of the voters.

“Maine Farm Bureau is prepared to support Maine farmers as this amendment is enacted and, as always, stands clear in its resolve to protect and embrace food safety and animal welfare as a standard for all Mainers,” said Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau.

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