As the dust settles from the primary elections, it’s become clear that voters rejected a prime example of dirty politics – Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), who was running for the Democratic nomination for Senate District 27.
Russell finished dead last in a three-way race, and is now under investigation by the Maine Ethics Committee for her questionable campaign tactics. To add insult to injury, she’s also being investigated for her use of a political action committee, and whether or not that PAC acted as a money mill.
But Russell was expected to fare much better, and it was a bit of a shock that she lost by thirty-points considering that the Portland Democrat raised more than three times more than the combined total of her two opponents. Many of her contributions came from out-of-state donors, as she has only reported roughly $5,700 from Maine voters. She even received donations from foreign countries – such as France, Germany, Thailand, Sweden and Denmark.
And according to the Maine Ethics Commission, Rep. Russell’s $90,000 fundraising total actually set the record for the most money ever raised in a primary for a state legislature seat.
This is quite simply an astonishing and excessive amount of money, and much more than what is needed to compete in a state Senate primary. It shows not only a sense of desperation and despair, but a lack of respect for our Maine tradition of responsible government. She believed she could essentially buy a Senate seat using her fundraising prowess and ability to woo donors from across the country.
One of the reasons Russell was able to raise boatloads of money – her massive email list – is actually the basis of one of the ethics complaint against her. Portland resident Michael Hiltz has alleged the list of 200,000 email addresses she used to raise money actually belongs to her PAC, not her. Russell contends that the list is her person property, but the Maine Ethics Committee recently voted to move forward with an investigation, and will address this issue again on July 27.
That same PAC, called Working Families PAC, is the same one that is also accused of being a money mill and nothing more than a source of income for Russell. It was recently discovered by Pine Tree Watchdog that Russell has paid herself nearly $8,000 from her PAC since 2013. It gave just $1,550 to Democratic candidates (even though the stated purpose of PAC is to “support” other candidates) and spent the rest of its funds on travel, fundraising, food and a few other smaller categories. Talk about unethical behavior.
But worse of all is Russell’s complete disregard for campaign finance laws and her total lack of respect for our political system. She’s been nearly silent on her previous issues, and appeared oblivious to her responsibilities and obligations.
When she was questioned as to how her PAC fulfills its mission of helping Democratic candidates for Maine House seats, she had the audacity to respond “Oh, is that the mission statement of the PAC? I haven’t changed it?”
Unsurprisingly, her PAC also has a history of being penalized by the Maine Ethics Commission. After failing to file a report for her PAC in January and July of 2015, she was fined $2,131 for violating campaign finance law. And in December 2015, she was fined $2,000 for failing to report expenditures for over a year.
But the desperation in this campaign wasn’t just limited to excessive fundraising and spending. Russell’s opponent, Ben Chipman, was the target of a mysterious D.C. organization which delivered handwritten letters to many of his female supporters. The letter attempted to smear Chipman, and bring up a dispute he had with a tenant of his several years ago. Russell denies any involvement with this national organization, but asserted they likely became involved because “I’m a national figure. I have earned a reputation nationally.”
Russell is clearly a rising star in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – but now she’s getting attention for all the wrong reasons. She’s standing out as someone who blatantly disregards any and all campaign and election laws, and as someone who is willing to say or do anything to get ahead.
She has no trouble adopting many of the same unethical and big-money techniques that voters are sick and tired of, and acting like the establishment politicians that she claims to despise.
So good job, Portland Democrats. You actually took a meaningful step to keep money out of politics, and prevent a big-spending and unethical politician from buying an election. Bravo.