As foliage season peaks, it's mud-slinging season in Maine politics

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AUGUSTA — The leaves may still be changing outside, but it’s officially political mud season in Maine.

The negative political advertising wars are fully underway, with both parties and outside groups targeting the other side’s candidates and then accusing the opposition of misleading or flat-out dishonest statements.

In a new ad in the tight, four-person race for governor, the Republican Party is hitting Democratic nominee Janet Mills for “double dipping” by collecting both a paycheck as attorney general and a modest pension for her dozen-plus years as a district attorney. Democratic leaders in the Maine Senate, meanwhile, are accusing their Republican counterparts of outright lies or fabrications in mailings sent to voters in several closely fought districts.

“There’s a big difference between partisan rancor and outright lies,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the leader of the Senate’s minority caucus.

Outside groups and parties have already spent or committed nearly $7 million to the governor’s race, not including the millions spent by the four candidates themselves. Millions more will be spent on legislative races in an election that will decide which party — or parties — will have control of the House and Senate when the next governor takes office in January.

And as ads and mailers accumulate, so do the allegations from both sides that those messages are replete with lies, distortions and inaccuracies.

On Thursday, Jackson and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, held a news conference to blast political action committees formed or headed by opposition Republicans.

One of the complaints from Jackson and Libby was that the Republicans had circulated a mailer claiming that their Senate District 14 candidate, Matthew Stone, who is challenging incumbent state Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, was born and raised in the district. In fact, Stone was born in Brunswick and grew up in Litchfield, which is currently located in neighboring Senate District 22.

Jackson and Libby also pointed to flyers that imply a Democratic candidate voted against tax cuts when, in fact, the candidate has never served in the Legislature. They also said Republican flyers inaccurately claimed a candidate was endorsed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine when, in reality, the organization did not endorse anyone in the race. 

“What we have here is blatant, inarguable lies,” Jackson said. He called on outgoing Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, to stand by a speech he made in the waning hours of the last legislative session about honesty. Thibodeau is the principal officer of the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC that has spent nearly $130,000 this year.

So far, the Maine Republican Party Committee has spent close to $1 million this cycle, while the Maine Democratic State Committee has spent about $1.8 million. Jackson is the principal officer for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which has given about $625,000 to the state party committee in 2018. 

“It’s kind of funny,” Thibodeau said. “The fact of the matter is every election cycle Democrats outspend us 3-to-1 and say things as extreme as we are trying to poison the children of the state of Maine and then complain because somebody said they were born in the district and they were actually born in Brunswick about 10 miles away.”

Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, issued a statement saying the complaints were “incredibly weak and misleading.” 

“Democrats have been attacking and misleading voters for months, but now try to trick the press into blowing this out of proportion,” Savage said.

Much of the negative advertising in the governor’s race so far has been aired by outside groups or the state’s Democratic or Republican parties, typically with financial backing from the Democratic Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association. The four candidates — Mills, Republican Shawn Moody, and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron —  have maintained a largely positive and civil tone with each other in public.

In the latest ad salvo by outside groups, the Maine Republican Party is criticizing Mills for collecting both a paycheck as attorney general and a pension for her four terms as district attorney in western Maine.

“Whether its chips, dips or the public payroll, double dipping is bad,” the ad’s narrator says. “And Janet Mills is the worst kind of double dipper. Along with her current, publicly funded, six-figure salary, Janet has taken a taxpayer funded pension check as well. Two paychecks, one job, all while running for governor.”

“Double dipping,” as critics like to call it, is both legal and relatively commonplace among public employees in Maine, especially in school systems. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly raised the “double dipper” issue in his attacks on what he sees as bloated administrative ranks in public schools.

In 2017, nearly 2,500 individuals working for the state, municipalities or public school systems received both a taxpayer-supported salary and pension payments, according to data from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. The average pension payout for such employees — the vast majority of whom are school district administrators or teachers — was $30,332 last year.

Mills earned $119,658 as attorney general but also collected $12,403 in pension from her years as the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. That placed Mills in the bottom 15 percent of all so-called “double dippers” in Maine that year, according to the Maine PERS pension data.

When Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2010 and elected a new attorney general, Mills began taking her pension so she could continue receiving health insurance through the state retirement system. When she was re-elected attorney general in 2013, she was advised to continue withdrawing pension benefits to keep her health care coverage. The state no longer contributes to her pension fund because she is receiving payments.

“It’s disappointing that Shawn Moody’s allies would try to mislead Maine people when the truth is, like many Mainers, Janet receives a small social security benefit on behalf of her deceased husband and a small pension which she took in 2011 in order to keep her health insurance,” spokesman Scott Ogden said in a statement. “Then again, we shouldn’t be surprised at these shameful and disingenuous attacks given that Shawn Moody opposes health care in general, including expanding health care for more than 70,000 Maine people and railing against the Affordable Care Act — what’s one more person to him.”

Moody, meanwhile, has been the target for weeks of negative ads that his campaign has assailed as false or misleading.

The highest-profile ad, which aired for several weeks in Maine, focuses on funding for public schools and shows a video clip of Moody saying that schools are “overfunded.” The group behind the ad, a political action committee known as A Better Maine, received much of its funding from the Democratic Governors Association.

The sound bite is taken from a January 2018 forum hosted by the Associated General Contractors of Maine in which the moderator asked candidates for yes-or-no answers to the question, “Do you feel Maine’s schools are adequately funded?”

“They’re overfunded,” Moody replied. “We need to get them to be more efficient and more effective.”

Since the ad surfaced, Moody and his campaign have clarified that the candidate believes school districts are too top-heavy with administrators and that more money needs to flow to classrooms.

“We know it is close to Halloween, but the ad claiming Shawn Moody only said ‘overfunded’ is all trick from Janet Mills’ team with no treat,” Lauren LePage, spokeswoman for Moody’s campaign, said Thursday. “The truth is that Shawn Moody wants to put more money in the classroom and spend less on overhead.”

The Maine Conservation Voters Action Fund, meanwhile, announced a $500,000 advertising and direct-mail campaign targeting Moody for his stance on climate change. While Moody agrees that the climate is changing, he has in the past questioned whether humans are the primary driver of those changes. 

Maine gubernatorial candidate, Republican Shawn Moody, far right, speaks during a debate with fellow candidates, Democrat Janet Mills, far left, independent Alan Caron, second from left, and independent Terry Hayes, on Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

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