The office of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin sent a letter last month to hundreds of constituents in Maine’s 2nd District stating that the shuttered Madison Paper Industries mill is still open and was helped by a 2015 trade decision the Republican congressman supported.
The taxpayer-funded letter, dated Sept. 20, 2018, cited an International Trade Commission ruling in 2015 allowing for continued duties on Canadian paper imports as key in “saving more than 200 jobs at Madison Paper and keeping the facility operating and producing their quality product.”
The Somerset County mill closed in May 2016, laying off about 215 people, increasing property taxes in Madison and adding to the loss of paper industry jobs in Maine.
The letter, signed by Poliquin, comes weeks before he is up for re-election and makes no mention of the mill closure or the job losses.
“This constituent mailing was in fact sent in error,” Brendan Conley, a spokesman for Poliquin, wrote in an email.
“Congressman Poliquin and our staff have done a substantial amount of work to help the mill in both 2015 — including winning the ITC case at the time — and after the mill closed that year and since to assist former workers with (Trade Adjustment Assistance) benefits and other casework as needed. We apologize for this error.”
Conley said fewer than 500 constituents received the letter, and Poliquin’s office will be correcting the situation, although Conley declined to say how the mistake was made or what will be done to correct it.
Poliquin, a two-term Republican, is running for re-election in a four-way race against Democrat Jared Golden and independents Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar.
Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, said it is likely the mistake was an honest one by Poliquin’s office that does not necessarily reflect poorly on the congressman’s campaign or his candidacy.
“It’s strange, but it’s likely it’s exactly what his office said it is — a mistake,” Brewer said.
That will probably not prevent Poliquin’s opponents from using the erroneous Madison mill information as a sign Poliquin is out of touch with his district, said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“Congressman Poliquin has consistently emphasized the advantage his work in the private sector has given him as a political figure as someone who knows how to create jobs,” Melcher said Thursday.
“Democrats have tried to paint him as someone who is out of touch with his district, and may use this to question how much he knows about the state of business in Maine. His signature is on the letter, and so people can hold him responsible for what is on it.”
Golden, the Democrat running against Poliquin, said in a statement Wednesday it appeared his rival “has used taxpayer dollars to send out a poorly disguised campaign mail piece.”
“More significantly, Poliquin takes credit for saving jobs at the Madison mill, which closed more than two years ago,” Golden said. “Bruce Poliquin is wrong to brag about helping save jobs at a mill that closed under his watch.
“It’s of little comfort to the workers who lost their jobs, the people of the 2nd District, and is just more evidence the Congressman is completely out of touch with our community.”
Bond, a Portland lawyer, said: “I think it’s peculiar Bruce Poliquin would tout a closed mill as a success story. Although I would love to see all of our mills working at full capacity, we also need to be supporting wide and diverse small businesses with supports like rural broadband and reinstating the home equity line of credit as a tax deduction.”
Conley did not say how broadly the letter was mailed, although Arnold Luce, chairman of the Anson Board of Selectmen, provided the Morning Sentinel with a copy he received.
Luce said he had heard of other people in Anson also receiving it. The town borders Madison and was affected by the loss of tax revenue and jobs from the mill closure.
Luce said he was confused and shocked when he first read the letter.
“I think Mr. Poliquin ought to either spend a little more time in Maine or read the local paper,” Luce said. “If he doesn’t know the Madison mill closed, I would think he’s kind of out of touch with Maine.”
Mike Croteau, a former union president at the Madison mill who was laid off when the facility closed, said he was not familiar with the letter. He described Poliquin as supportive of the mill’s employees when the case was being heard by the ITC in 2015.
“I’m not sure why this was sent, but I do know Bruce was a positive figure in helping us with the countervailing duties case,” Croteau said.
Word of the constituent letter spread this week following a Facebook post by former Democratic state Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, who uploaded a copy of the letter on the social media site.
“I think all too often Bruce Poliquin is out of touch with the district,” McCabe said Thursday. “He often comes out in the 11th hour and tries to take credit for things like trade issues or other things that have been worked on by other members of the delegation.
“The fact they sent this letter out as a campaign stunt and then it backfired shows how out of touch they are with what’s actually going on in the district.”
McCabe, who served in the Legislature from 2008 to 2016 and as House majority leader from 2014 to 2016, worked on legislation to offset the drop in tax value at the mill in 2016, including co-sponsoring a bill that brought an additional $585,000 to the Madison school district.
Conley, in response to the criticism from McCabe and Luce, wrote in an email: “For any of the several individuals who you quoted bashing Congressman Poliquin for a clerical error: Where were they when the Congressman was fighting tooth and nail for these jobs?
“Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t change the fact that Congressman Poliquin and our office have worked tirelessly for these Mainers, and will continue to do so no matter what. The only thing that matters to Congressman Poliquin and our staff is doing what is right for Mainers. Period.”
Poliquin is reportedly one of Congress’s top spenders on taxpayer-funded mass mailings, according to an August story by the Sun Journal highlighting the practice known as “franking.”
The practice allows certain government officials to send mail merely by affixing a signature rather than paying for a stamp, but prohibits them from doing so in the 90 days immediately before an election. The rule only applies to mailings sent to 500 or more people, which is more than the number of people to whom the Madison letter was sent, according to Poliquin’s office.
Madison Paper Industries closed in May 2016 after 38 years in production and adding to the loss of paper mill jobs in the state and the decline of the industry.
The closure came two months after the mill’s parent company, UPM-Kymmene Inc. and Northern SC Paper Corp., announced the facility would be shutting down and cited a decline in demand for supercalendered paper, the glossy magazine paper in which Madison specialized, as the main factor for the closure.
The announcement about the ITC decision was made in November 2015, and parts of the Poliquin letter are similar to a news release Poliquin sent out at the time. The announcement that the mill would be closing came five months later.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, including Poliquin, also worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to secure funding in April 2016 for a federal program to provide assistance and job training for displaced workers.
The former papermaking facility was sold in December 2016 to a company that planned to auction off the papermaking equipment. No plans have been announced for the redevelopment of the site.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, talks with Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale, right, and Director of Public Affairs Clara McConnell in Auburn on Aug. 29. (Sun Journal file photo)
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine