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Politics

Eliot Cutler fallout obscures his novel effect on Maine politics

Eliot Cutler
Joel Page
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AP file
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler speaks at a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010, in Portland, Maine.

In this week's Pulse: Cutler fallout obscures his novel effect on Maine politics, Collins backs Biden’s SCOTUS pick, GOP sets priorities, and ethics complaint against... someone?

Last week’s arrest of two-time gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler on child pornography charges brought predictable political fallout that largely obscured the 75-year old attorney’s unique influence on Maine politics.

Shortly after Cutler’s arrest at his home in Brooklin, the Maine Republican Party called on Democratic politicians to return his campaign contributions. Gov. Janet Mills, the most recent recipient of Cutler’s political giving, promptly donated the $3,450 he’d given her reelection campaign last year to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden responded similarly, reportedly donating $1,000 to the same organization, which more than doubles what Cutler gave Golden’s 2018 campaign.

Some Republican activists also noted that Cutler’s arrest came just after the contentious confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson’s rulings on child pornography cases were a focal point of several GOP senators whose questions were viewed by some as a wink and nod to the QAnon conspiracy adherents in the Republican base.

The recriminations from some Democratic activists framed Cutler’s two unsuccessful bids for governor as in-kind donations to former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s election in 2010 and reelection in 2014. Photos of the Republican and Cutler high-fiving after a debate in the latter contest circulated widely on social media last week, while others recalled LePage proclaiming during his 2014 victory speech that he gained great respect for Cutler and recommended that he run for Maine Attorney General.

Cutler never sought the post, and it’s unclear if he would have won even if he did. The state Attorney General is elected by the Maine Legislature. Cutler’s standing among Democrats, who controlled the House at the time, was not especially lofty.

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Hancock County Jail
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Eliot Cutler

Democrats’ dim view of him centered on the belief that he was a spoiler candidate in 2010 and 2014, effectively dividing the center-left electorate so that LePage could win with the Republican base and conservative-leaning independents. LePage’s political team has long disputed this claim, but the belief persists.

It also arguably led to Cutler’s most consequential -- albeit indirect -- effect on Maine politics: the adoption of ranked- choice voting.

Cutler was not the face of the successful campaign to implement RCV via ballot initiative in 2016. His public advocacy for the little-used system mostly coincided with his immediate electoral ambitions, or a subsequent failure.

Cutler called for ranked-choice voting after he narrowly lost to LePage in 2010, insisting that he would have won the contest had the system been in place. He reiterated that call during the 2014 race for governor, framing RCV as liberating an independent-minded electorate held captive by the whims of Republican and Democratic party bosses.

His oft-repeated appeal to voters to “vote their conscience over fears” was not the official slogan of the 2016 RCV campaign, but it was arguably the subtextual argument for a voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, delivers a majority winner and eliminates the so-called spoiler effect of third party candidates such as Cutler.

Cutler kept a low profile during the successful ballot campaign, but it was led by activists who had backed his two gubernatorial bids. He also provided some financial support.

State lawmakers had proposed implementing the system several times before, but it was viewed with suspicion by both major political parties, and as a result, repeatedly failed in the Legislature.

The bipartisan opposition to RCV changed after LePage’s reelection in 2014. Democrats were increasingly jittery about “spoiler” candidates, a concern rooted in the difficulty of galvanizing a historically finicky Maine electorate known for split-ticket voting and a soft spot for non-party candidates (see: former Govs. James Longley and Angus King, who would later become an independent U.S. Senator.). With that in mind, Democrats largely embraced the little-used voting system and continue to do so.

Ranked-choice voting prevailed at the ballot box in 2016 with 52% of the vote, but it was dealt a big blow by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2017. The law court argued that using it in gubernatorial and legislative general elections likely violated the Maine Constitution, an argument made well before the referendum, but downplayed by RCV advocates. It’s currently used in legislative and gubernatorial primary contests when there are three or more candidates, as well as congressional primary and general elections.

RCV supporters had vowed to send a constitutional amendment to voters that would allow the system to be used in gubernatorial contests. But it would require supermajority support in the Legislature and that has yet to materialize amid unified GOP opposition.

For now and the foreseeable future the driving impetus for RCV -- to eliminate the spoiler effect of candidates like Cutler -- remains unfulfilled, at least in gubernatorial general election contests.

Collins backs Biden’s SCOTUS pick

Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ announcement that she’ll support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination appeared to all but guarantee that the U.S. Supreme Court will soon have its first Black woman justice.

It remains to be seen whether she’ll be joined by any other GOP senators, however, or if it will provide cover to a Democratic senator who has yet to declare her stance on Jackson.

Collins said that the federal appellate judge “possesses the experience, qualifications, and integrity” to serve on the high court. While the Republican leadership is opposed to Jackson, other potential GOP pick-ups beyond Collins include Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowsi.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, Susan Collins
Carolyn Kaster
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AP
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson meets with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 8, 2022. Collins will vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson, giving Democrats at least one Republican vote and all but assuring that she will become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

At a minimum, Collins’ vote will allow the Biden administration to say Jackson won bipartisan support.

There’s also still a scenario where her vote is pivotal (as she was with President Trump’s controversial nominee, Brett Kavanaugh). With the Senate split 50/50 and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaker, eyeballs immediately shifted to Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema after fellow Democrat (and frequent co-scuttler of progressive initiatives) Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he’ll back Jackson.

Collins’ subsequent announcement elicited this response from opinion columnist EJ Montini in Sinema’s hometown paper, The Arizona Republic:

“Something wonderful happened in our nation’s Capitol this week. For the first time in a very long time Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was made . . . irrelevant.”

GOP sets priorities 

This week, Republican legislative leaders signaled they’ll get behind Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal for using the surplus to send one-time $850 rebate checks to most Mainers.

That puts them at odds with former Gov. Paul LePage, who has criticized the payments as part of his bid against Mills for another stint in the Blaine House.

Legislative Republicans actually want to send the $850 checks to all income tax filers in Maine – regardless of income – while Mills’ plan calls capping eligibility at $75,000 for individuals or $150,000 for couples. Under the Republican proposal, 120,000 more Mainers would get checks, but it would consume about $100 million more of the surplus.

Republicans also agree with spending some of the surplus on nursing homes (a long-term priority of the GOP), hospitals, PFAS pollution and preventing Maine Veterans Homes in Caribou and Machias from closing.

But in supporting the $850 checks, Republican leaders backed off, at least for now, two other priorities for some within the party – most notably LePage.

Republicans are no longer pushing to use the surplus for income tax cuts. A press release from the House and Senate Republican offices said Democrats have “shown no interest in considering structural tax law changes that prevent over-collection in future years.”

Democrats, in turn, questioned the financial wisdom of using a one-time surplus to pay for “permanent” and ongoing cuts to the primary source of tax revenue to the state.

It’s not like the income tax issue is going away, however. Far from it. LePage has made income tax cuts (or eliminating it entirely) a primary platform of his campaign against Mills.

Republican leaders also aren’t pushing to use part of the surplus to suspend Maine’s 30 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. And, again, LePage has been hammering this issue for weeks.

“Any delay in financial relief is playing politics with the finances and anxiety of Mainers who must make everyday decisions on how to put food on the table,” LePage said on Monday. “Janet Mills cannot claim to have dollars to spend and then also claim there is no ability to provide immediate relief at the gas pump. It is time to get this done,” said Gov. LePage.

Mills has actually suggested that she was open to the idea. But Democratic legislative leaders haven’t allowed the introduction of a late-session bill to suspend the gas tax.

And Mills and the Democrats, contend that $850 checks will go a lot farther, faster to cover the high prices Mainers are paying for gas, groceries, heating oil and everything else.

Ethics complaint against . . . someone?

On Wednesday, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices took up a complaint alleging that a state legislator had “engaged in a violation of legislative ethics.”

And that’s about all we know.

State law – which is, of course, crafted by legislators – says that ethical complaints against lawmakers are confidential and not a public record until after the commission has voted to pursue the complaint.

After discussing this latest complaint in executive session, members of the Ethics Commission resumed the public meeting and voted unanimously, 5-0, that there was insufficient evidence to launch an investigation. So it remains confidential, unless the target of the complaint asks to have it publicly released.

Outgoing Commission chairman William Lee explained the process and why no information was being released. And then he added that anyone who disagrees with the law keeping initial complaints against legislators confidential should contact legislators.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.