2014 Gubernatorial Campaign

Liberal activists desperately trying to save Michaud

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Advertisements from the Republican Governors Association are significantly affecting the race for Maine governor, causing a panic on the left and setting off a desperate attempt to contain the damage to Democrat U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.

According to The Maine Wire’s recording of the conference call, liberal activists believe Mainers with strong Democratic voting records are having second thoughts about Michaud because of ads highlighting his position on welfare for undocumented immigrants.

The conference call, held Thursday, included nearly a dozen representatives of liberal non-profits and was organized by Maine Equal Justice Partners, a 501(c)3 non-profit that has been a relentless critic of the LePage administration.

The stated goal of the call was to develop a response to the RGA’s television and radio ads. Those ads criticized Michaud for disagreeing with Gov. Paul LePage on whether the state should reimburse municipalities that provide General Assistance welfare to undocumented immigrants.

LePage moved in June to block this illegal flow of welfare dollars – a change DHHS estimates will save Maine taxpayers $1 million per year. Critics panned the move as an election year ploy, while supporters hailed it as yet another much-needed change to Maine’s overly generous welfare system.

Participants on the call included Maine People’s Alliance “Organizing Director” Kevin Simowitz, MEJP’s Senior Policy Analyst Robin Merrill, Ralph Carmona of Portland, Suzanna Lafreniere of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Regina Phillips, an employee with the city of Portland, and several others who could not be identified from the recording.

“You’ve all seen it. There’s been radio advertisements along similar lines,” said Merrill at the beginning of the call.  “It’s mean-spirited, it’s also inaccurate. It’s, you know, saying that Michaud- Mike Michaud – supports putting $100 million toward supporting illegal immigrants,” she said. (An unidentified man later corrected her regarding the sum in question.)

As the call unfolded, the participants scrolled through the typical playbook.

“I’m hoping, maybe, potentially, NAACP would be interested in maybe making a statement tying this to race relations,” said Merrill. Regina Phillips, who directs the city of Portland’s Refugee Services Program, and who is also a NAACP executive committee member, can be heard confirming that NAACP will issue a statement.

There are several mentions a media relations strategy, i.e. working with reporters to get critical coverage of the ad. Bill Nemitz, an anti-LePage columnist for the Press Herald, is mentioned several times by name. (Nemitz has not yet covered it, but this Sept. 6 editorial appears to be a product liberal activists’ outreach to editorial boards.)

Although Merrill’s purpose in organizing the call was apparently to stage a press conference in Portland, the representative from Maine People’s Alliance dropped a bombshell on the group.

“This is Kevin [Simowitz] at MPA – Do you mind if I add a little wrinkle before we plan the press conference?”

“This is like actually an ad that’s aimed at Dems who are a little bit wiggly,” said Simowitz. “And it’s been really successful, actually, in moving people who have pretty strong Democratic voting records telling us at the door that they voted for Obama twice but may consider voting for LePage because of this ad.”

Simowitz reminded participants on the call to keep their eyes on the prize, namely, the election of Michaud: “And as we think about the press conference, it’s like helpful to step outside a little bit and think about like well, who got this ad and felt moved by it and what do we have to do to move them back.”

Simowitz attempted to persuade the activists on the call to not do a press conference, as doing so would only attract more unwanted attention to Michaud’s stance on the issue.

In discussing whether to hold a press conference, Ralph Carmona, who has run in Portland as a Democratic candidate for mayor, said, “If we don’t think it’s politically astute for the election of Michaud then we shouldn’t do it.”

The result of the call is an aborted press conference.

At the end of the call, we learn that Regina Phillips (or another Portland city employee) has been on the call from a city telephone line. Someone apparently puts the conference call on hold and the city’s pre-recorded “hold” message can be heard in the background.

The Maine People’s Alliance and MEJP are two liberal advocacy groups funded by mostly-anonymous donors. MJEP is registered as a 501(c)3. Maine People’s Alliance is registered as a 501(c)4 and operates a political action committee that has endorsed Michaud.

Chelsea Tryder, a tax lawyer with PretiFlaherty, said “First, there are different rules that apply to 501(c)(3) charitable organizations and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.  With charities, the general rule of law is that 501(c)(3) organizations cannot participate in a candidate’s campaign for elective office and that the organization’s employees cannot use the 501(c)(3) organization’s resources or assets to support a candidate.

Tyrder said a 501(c)(4) may participate in a political campaign, but must make sure that such political activity is not their “primary activity”.

“It is very important to stress that these limitations, however, do not limit the 1st Amendment rights of the employees of charitable and social welfare organizations,” said Tryder. “That said, a private citizen employed by a 501(c)(3) charitable organization needs to be careful not to act or speak for the 501(c)(3) organization and not use the 501(c)(3) organization’s resources or assets in connection with his or her private activities in supporting a candidate.”

Whether the non-profits on the call broke any laws is difficult to say, but participants on the call were certainly aware that they were having a political discussion about an election.

Before the conversation about how best to defend Michaud against the political advertisements got started, Merrill took a moment address concerns about whether 501(c)3 non-profit groups should be plotting to influence the gubernatorial election and boost Michaud.

“I know that there is some concern and some groups that felt like they couldn’t really take part in the response to this, because of being a c3 organization and having certain restrictions, you know, around not being able to work on elections or get involved in campaigns in that way,” said Merrill. “And I share – I mean Maine Equal Justice, we’re a c3 organization and we’re bipartisan, and so I feel comfortable kind of organizing this thinking and response – or helping to do that – because I really see this – or I’d like to frame this – as a way of educating and just responding to misinformation and mean spirited attacks on people and populations that we care about, as opposed to coming out and saying ‘don’t vote for LePage’ or ‘vote for this person, don’t vote for that person.’”

MPA and MEJP are a big part of what the New York Times has described as a “consortium of progressive groups financed by S. Donald Sussman,” who are looking to, “unseat Gov. Paul R. LePage this year and put both the governor’s office and the Legislature under Democratic control.”

Sussman, the billionaire hedge fund tycoon and husband of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, also happens to be majority owner of the Portland Press Herald, the largest individual donor to the Maine Democratic Party, and a generous donor to Michaud.

Listen to the full recording here:

Note: This story will be updated.

Steve Robinson
Editor, The Maine Wire

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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