A national group representing wealthy individuals has joined the debate over raising the minimum wage in Maine. The organization - called "Patriotic Millionaires" - began airing TV ads in the Portland area Thursday urging Mainers to vote in favor of a higher minimum wage.
This comes as residents of Portland vote on a proposal next week that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Supporters welcome the involvement of the Washington DC-based group, while opponents dismiss it as a propaganda stunt that fails to understand the reality of the local economy.
When they go to the polls next week, Portlanders will be asked to approve a further hike in the city's minimum wage. The city council recently passed a measure raising the minimum hourly rate to more than $10 an hour. Question One on the municipal ballot in Portland next week proposes a further hike, taking it to $15 an hour by 2019. And the Patriotic Millionaires support the idea.
The TV ad began airing in Portland Thursday. It features about a dozen of the group's members WHO appear to be corporate executives or financial professionals - talking about why it's a good idea to raise the minimum wage. The organization says its membership consists of more than 200 Americans with annual incomes of at least $1 million, and/or assets of at least $5 million. Talking directly to camera, they argue the economic and moral case for raising the minimum wage.
"When it comes down to it, putting more money into the hands of working people in a consumer society is going to create more demand for products, more demand for services and it's going to create more demand to create jobs," says Justin Strekal, the group's deputy communications director.
He says the ad is not just targeting the Portland vote, but also a wider push by the Maine People's Alliance to get a $12 an hour minimum wage question on next year's state ballot.
"We'll support any locality or state who want to raise the minimum wage for their workers," Strekal said.
Question One supporters are pleased to have some out-of-state heavy hitters coming aboard just days before the election. Mako Bates is with the group Portlanders for a Living Wage.
"I'm glad they decided to pitch in," said Bates. "Of course what will be decisive in the election is who shows up to vote."
Scott Rousseau is the owner of Play It Again Sports - a retail business with outlets in Portland and Biddeford. He's an opponent of the minimum wage hike and the ad.
"It's a lot of propaganda," he said.
He's one of several local business owners who oppose Question 1, arguing that $15 an hour is too far, too fast. A minimum wage at that level may work in places like Seattle and San Francisco, Rousseau says, because the median income in those cities is at between 55 and 75% higher than it is in Portland Maine. But if it's enacted here, he says, small businesses like his will struggle.
"You're talking an increase of $111,000 in labor costs in one year, with no notice," he says. "For a retail business to account for that, that's $350,000 in new sales, in one year."
Opponents of the proposal also claim it would drive up consumer prices and put Portland at a competitive disadvantage. For supporters however, Question 1 represents the best initial step toward bringing people out of poverty.