Aroostook Enigma: Mystery Surrounds Maine Potato Matriarch’s Stillborn Senate Bid – Steve Robinson Investigates

Why did Sue McCrum end her State Senate campaign after less than 24 hours?

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Jay McCrum (left) and Senate President Troy Jackson (right)

It’s a genuine Aroostook County Mystery: What happened to Sue McCrum, the matriarch of the powerful Penobscot McCrum potato empire, that led her to drop out of the District 2 State Senate race just 24 hours after she filed papers to run? On March 5, 2020, McCrum filed to enter the race. Before her paperwork had even appeared on the state ethics website, she’d already terminated her candidacy.

For more than two years there have been questions and speculation surrounding McCrum’s aborted candidacy, and the real story is, as several political insiders told me, an open secret in The County. That secret has been kept by powerful political players on both sides of the aisle, including current and former Democratic officials, Republican elected officials, and the McCrums themselves.

During the 2020 election cycle, incumbent Aroostook County Sen. Michael Carpenter, a Democrat, was considered vulnerable, and McCrum was a highly prized Republican recruit targeted to take him on. McCrum’s initial decision to run was celebrated by Republican campaign operatives, and yet she ultimately stepped aside. She was replaced by then-representative Trey L. Stewart who went on to defeat Carpenter in the fall campaign. Sources told me McCrum personally recruited and encouraged Stewart to run for that seat, after she decided to quit.

But why would a highly touted recruit who had made the decision to run and was considered a strong candidate against a vulnerable candidate decide to step aside the very moment her campaign began? After all, the decision to run for State Office in Maine isn’t typically taken lightly, and once you have made that decision you have already weighed the various considerations, including the public scrutiny you will receive, the thankless nature of the work, the endless drives to Augusta, and so much more. Several political insiders I spoke with couldn’t remember a similar instance of such an in-and-out happening absent some well-known factor, like the sudden death of a family member.

So what happened?

Sue McCrum isn’t saying. Reached by phone, she declined to comment for this story. As did more than a half a dozen connected political players across northern Maine.

But Aroostook Omerta hasn’t stopped some very well-informed speculation as to what might have happened, and which well-known political figures may have been involved. More than one source said most everyone in the County knew why McCrum dropped out of the race, especially within the tight-knit community of potato farmers, but no one wanted to talk openly or on the record.

“Everyone up here knows the story,” was a frequent refrain I heard while sleuthing around this great potato mystery, and several times I was told: “Follow the money…”

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

The McCrum family is an American potato dynasty. For six generations, McCrums have been growing, digging, and processing the glorious Maine potato. In 2004, the family purchased the Penobscot Frozen Foods processing plant in Belfast, making them one of the largest players in the American spud game. In 2019, the McCrums were looking to get into the French Fry market in a major way by opening a massive potato processing plant in Washburn, Maine. By May of that year, the family business had submitted reams of paperwork for Department of Environmental site permits, wastewater discharge permits, and more. Despite the government lockdowns, the McCrums were able to start processing near the end of June 2020, providing jobs across northern and eastern Maine during a time when the state government was intent on shutting down the state’s economy.

But the state also provided some help to the McCrums along the way.

In June of 2019, right before the McCrums broke ground on the Washburn facility, the 129th Legislature passed an emergency bill to create a narrow tax credit for food processing and manufacturing in Maine. Gov. Janet Mills signed the credit into law on June 19, 2019. The new program allowed qualified applicants to get huge annual tax breaks — 1.8 percent of a project’s total investment, from $35 million to $100 million, every year for 19 years. That means applicants stood to save between $630,000 to $1.8 million on their tax bills every year for nearly two decades, depending on the scope of the investment.

Aspiring food processing entrepreneurs could take advantage of the tax credit if they began construction on a new food plant no earlier than April 1, 2019, had at least 40 full time employees in the first three years, paid those employees above the area average wage, and invested the minimum $35 million in the project. Applicants had to be involved in processing food grown in Maine and had to have been headquartered in Maine for the past five years. After three years, the job creation requirements increased. Projects that started after Dec. 31, 2024 would not be eligible. All an applicant had to do to keep the big tax breaks coming was regularly convince the Maine Commissioner of Economic and Community Development that they were keeping their promise to create good paying jobs. The statute outlines how the Commissioner can revoke the hefty tax breaks if he finds a recipient isn’t living up to his end of the bargain.

With those conditions, the program was exceedingly narrow and the pool of potential applicants quite shallow. Indeed, a casual observer would be forgiven for wondering whether lawmakers created the program not as a general tax credit but exclusively to benefit Penobscot McCrum. According to the fiscal note for the bill, the program meant the state would forgo $1.11 million in tax collections for fiscal year 2022-23. Simple math suggests the state wasn’t planning on more than one facility meeting the requirements for the credit. And only one applicant got special attention from lawmakers in the press.

More back-of-the-envelope math: $11.9 to $34.2 million.

That’s the potential value of the tax credit over 19 years for Penobscot McCrum.

With that kind of cheddar on the line, you can see how members of a family business might want to be very, very careful about how they approached politics. No need to upend the potato cart when Augusta is letting you off the hook for eight figures in taxes. This would be especially true if the bank that was financing your expansion plans was only doing so because of the promise of lucrative tax breaks. That’s the downside of benefitting from government largesse: it makes you vulnerable to the machinations of political schemers. One phone call from an irritated pol could ruin an entire project. It’s not uncommon for businesses that benefit from government grants or tax credits to have those programs dangled in front of them by powerful political actors as an act of not-so-subtle coercion.

Take for example Bath Iron Works, the subsidiary of General Dynamics that builds U.S. Navy ships in midcoast Maine. In Jan. 2020, House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Portland) and Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) sent a letter to BIW President Dirk Lesko threatening to withdraw a $45 million tax break the legislature had granted in 2018. Jackson and Gideon claimed BIW wasn’t living up to its commitments, and the gangster talk they used in the letter was comically absurd.

“It would be unfortunate if the Legislature had to reconsider this special tax credit,” the powerful Democrats wrote.

The threat was clear: We gave you this handout on the condition that you would help our friends in the Labor Unions, and we’ll take it away if you don’t start ponying up the dough. It would take a seriously stupid person to think General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors on the planet, would knuckle under to a couple of ego-tripping part-time lawmakers. But perhaps Jackson and Gideon were emboldened to write the letter because previous attempts at extorting good behavior from tax credit recipients had worked splendidly. The formula is simple: We, the Almighty State Lords, will grant you some tax relief, but we’ll take it away if ever you dare cross us.

Since Sue McCrum withdrew from the District 2 race, the McCrums haven’t talked publicly about the decision. But they haven’t been shy about where they stand on Aroostook politics or the governor’s race. The McCrums hosted a fundraiser this week for Republican former Gov. Paul LePage, and Jay McCrum has donated thousands of dollars to LePage. Closer to home, the McCrums appear to be backing Troy Jackson’s well-spoken and well-liked competitor, former TV reporter Sue Bernard. Which is interesting, considering Jackson was the original sponsor of the multimillion dollar tax credit Penobscot McCrum used to complete the Washburn potato processing facility.

“I talked with Sue McCrum and she strongly encouraged me to run for State Senate,” Bernard told me.

The whole Aroostook mystery gets curiouser and curiouser.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether the McCrums, sometime around March 5, 2020, got a phone call, and on the other end of the line they heard a voice whispering, “it would be unfortunate if…”

And if, as so many politicos of both parties in Aroostook believe, this happened, one naturally has to wonder: Who made that call?

I called Troy Jackson today to see if the Senator from Allagash, a longtime friend of the potato industry, knew the answer.

Sadly, he didn’t pickup. But I texted and he quickly responded. He asked me to text my questions, so I asked one:

“Do you know why Sue McCrum dropped out of her State Senate race on March 6, 2020?”

He read the text at 3:47pm and still hasn’t responded.

If you can shed some light on this mystery, send me an email.

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