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A look at the secretive, expensive campaign to turn Maine voters against Pine Tree Power

Canadian lineman Noah Clowater holds a bilingual stop sign while directing traffic while his coworkers restore power, Nov. 1, 2017, in Yarmouth, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Canadian lineman Noah Clowater holds a bilingual stop sign while directing traffic while his coworkers restore power, Nov. 1, 2017, in Yarmouth, Maine.

In Nov. 2021, Portland-based Sea Salt and Spruce Consulting was promoting essential oils and various wellness and social media tips. Less than two years later, the same company is a significant recipient of campaign cash in a referendum that will determine the fate of Maine’s two largest electricity utilities.

Why the company was chosen as a vendor and how it spent nearly $800,0000 remains a closely guarded secret, yet it’s part of a sprawling, $32 million effort by Central Maine Power and Versant Power to defeat Question 3 on the November ballot. While much of the utilities' campaign spending is visible to voters through a barrage of television and online ads, a more opaque influencing operation churns through social media, state house lobbyists, consulting firms and paid politicians.

Campaign finance reports and corporation filings provide a faint trail of this activity, but it often dead ends at the political operators hired to spend the vast sums of cash provided by the parent companies of CMP and Versant — Avangrid and ENMAX, respectively.

“I’m not going to pull back the curtain on our campaign strategy or operation,” Willy Ritch, the campaign manager for CMP-backed Maine Affordable Energy, wrote in response to questions from Maine Public last week. “We follow all the Maine ethics rules for (campaign finance) reporting to the letter, but we have no obligation to go into the resume of our vendors or employees ...”

Ritch, a seasoned political consultant and former spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, had been asked by Maine Public to provide details or examples of past or current campaign work done by Sea Salt and Spruce Consulting. There’s no indication that Maine Affordable Energy or Sea Salt and Spruce are skirting any state campaign finance laws. However, the lack of transparency about the services the firm is providing leaves questions about its role in the second most expensive referendum in state history.

Those questions also come amid criticism from Question 3 proponents about the utility-financed campaigns’ use of paid surrogates, including former legislators, to lobby against the referendum.

Anna Kellar, director of the campaign finance reform group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said that there has been a lot of policy focus on campaign contribution disclosure, but how the money is spent can be important to the public, too. Sea Salt and Spruce is one of several vendors Maine Affordable Energy is paying for “voter outreach” and “consulting” services, broad categories that include a wide range of persuasion activities.

“It does raise questions about whether the categories of disclosure are sufficient,” Kellar said.

To date, Maine Affordable Energy has spent $3.6 million on voter outreach services with Washington, D.C.-based Second Street Associates receiving the most at $2.4 million. Sea Salt and Spruce is second on the recipient list, followed by Digital Turf LLC, a Kennebunk-based firm that’s a client of former Democratic state Rep. Charlotte Warren, of Hallowell, according to 2022 legislator income disclosures. Warren, who previously supported a legislative effort to enact a proposal similar to Question 3, has been deployed by Maine Affordable Energy to campaign against it. Warren isn’t listed as a recipient on the group’s campaign finance reports and payments to her are possibly batched with payments to other vendors.

According to campaign finance filings, Digital Turf has been active in state or Portland elections since at least 2018. Its website features examples of its work and short biographies of its employees. Sea Salt and Spruce has not been paid by any other political action committee or ballot question committee besides Maine Affordable Energy, according to 15 years worth of campaign finance filings at the Maine Ethics Commission. Its sparse website states on its homepage that it’s a firm “known for its multi-platform digital messaging, innovative sentiment analysis and effective community targeting on behalf of its clients.”

Web archives of the site also reveal a significant transformation from the one that was pitching essential oil products as recently as 2021 and under the same owner.

Yet the company currently sits alongside well-known campaign consultants and vendors in receiving significant campaign cash for its services, including several headquartered in New York and Washington, D.C.. It has received more than Ritch and his own consulting firm, Salt Public Affairs, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

It’s not known if Digital Turf and Sea Salt and Spruce are performing similar services. In an email exchange, Ritch would only confirm a Maine Public finding that the owner of Sea Salt and Spruce is also getting paid by his group as its social media director, and that the company has been hired separately “to provide additional services related to our campaign.”

Ritch declined to provide any further details, but said that he had hired the company for “local campaigns as well as a private sector client to do social media or digital advertising.”

“They are quite good at it,” he said.

When asked to identify the other campaigns or provide examples of the company’s work, he declined.

The company did not respond to a request for comment through its webpage.

For the utilities, the referendum is as high stakes as it gets. If voters approve Question 3, they’ll greenlight seizing the utilities' assets and replacing executives with a nonprofit run by an elected board. Two utility-backed campaign committees have responded with the second most expensive referendum campaign in state history, outspending the campaign supporting Question 3 by 44 times this year alone.

Maine Affordable Energy and the Versant-backed Maine Energy Progress are also leveraging vast financial resources to expand the anti-Question 3 campaign well beyond ad persuasion and endorsements.

Both campaign committees are using current and former politicians to advise against the takeover, including previous critics of the utilities.

Maine Energy Progress has paid former state Sen. Tom Saviello $5,000 a month since March to campaign against Question 3 and he’s spoken against it at smaller local events. Two years ago, Saviello helped lead the campaign to derail CMP’s transmission corridor, an effort bolstered as much by the company’s unpopularity at the time as opposition to the project itself.

Meanwhile, CMP has paid longtime lobbyist Jim Mitchell $157,500 so far for “political strategy services.” Mitchell is one of the most influential lobbyists at the State House and boasts a long list of high-profile clients, including CMP. He also represents the Maine Mayors Coalition. Maine Public recently obtained a draft press release stating that the mayors group opposed Question 3, however the group has not yet announced its position.

By contrast, Our Power, the campaign supporting Question 3, has struggled to muster the financial support to compete with the utilities in paid persuasion. To date, it hasn’t purchased a single ad on broadcast television networks and it has been increasingly reliant on news coverage and high-profile endorsements — such as from actor Mark Ruffalo and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — to promote its message.

Our Power has spent most of its campaign contributions, which are just short of $1 million. Last year it paid former Democratic state Rep. Seth Berry $10,000 while he was serving in the Legislature. A spokesperson for Our Power recently said Berry, who spearheaded the takeover initiative as a lawmaker, is no longer affiliated with the campaign, although he has represented its interests in some forums and press events.

This story was updated Oct. 19 to clarify that the endorsement letter sent by the Maine Mayors Coalition was a draft and that it has not yet taken a position on Question 3.

Have more questions about Pine Tree Power or the other ballot initiatives? Call 207-330-4551 and leave us a message. We might use your suggestion in our election coverage.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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