PORTLAND — A slate of Maine business people came to the defense of former governor and independent U.S. Senate candidate Angus King on Monday.
The group was responding to a new television ad campaign, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that attacks King's record as governor.
That ad says when King left office he left behind a huge budget deficit and during his time in office state spending grew by more than $1 billion.
The ad, which has been airing during the prime-time coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games on NBC, calls the former two-term governor the "king of spending."
King's campaign went on the offensive last week ahead of the ads, refuting the information and noting it would have been impossible for King to leave the state with a debt as the state's Constitution requires a balanced budget. They've also noted that King's last term in office was the first time the Legislature actually accounted for state spending for public education.
Crystal Canney, King's communications director, said Monday that the group of Maine business people who came out to support the former governor did so of their own volition and included a mix of big and small businesses in Maine.
The U.S. Chamber, based in Washington, has endorsed one of King's opponents, Republican Charlie Summers, in the race to fill Sen. Olympia Snowe's soon-to-be-empty seat.
Chip Morrison, executive director of the Lewiston-Auburn-based Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that he disapproved of the U.S. Chamber's ad and that it was not reflective of how Maine business people felt about King.
Morrison said the local chamber is not a member of the U.S. Chamber. He also noted that the local chamber doesn't endorse candidates for office.
"We have to work with whoever wins," Morrison said. "So we don't endorse."
But he said the U.S. Chamber's attack ad against King is wrong. Morrison said if the U.S. Chamber wanted to support Summers it should have released an ad saying why they endorsed him, instead it released an ad attacking the candidate who was leading in the polls and in campaign fundraising.
"I think we should do away with attack advertising," Morrison said. "It just makes me bristle, it makes me ill. They take a kernel of some thing and expand it into something that is ugly and distasteful and does a disservice to the American voter."
Morrison said King's track record with business in Maine was good and that he was often an ally in their quest to seek lower taxes and less regulation. Morrison said one tax rebate program that King championed for Maine businesses led to the expansion of Procter & Gamble's Tambrands plant in Auburn.
"This helped create hundreds of jobs and a ton of new tax revenue for Auburn," Morrison said. "And during his eight years in office Angus King stood between Maine's business community and some pretty onerous legislation coming out of Augusta."
He said when businesses small or large needed an ally in Augusta they could find it in King. "When we needed help to stop a piece of anti-business or particularly anti-employer legislation he was our friend," Morrison said.
Also coming to King's defense Monday was Kevin Hancock, president of the Casco-based Hancock Lumber Co. Hancock Lumber employs 400 workers.
Hancock joined a group of other business people for a press conference Monday in Portland.
Hancock said his company supports the U.S. Chamber of Commerce but he was deeply disappointed with the attack ad on King.
"I believe that most people in Maine will find the ad offensive and see it as a poster child example of big, clumsy out of state money bringing negativity and divisiveness into a campaign that Angus is committed to running honorably, respectfully and thoughtfully, as is his nature and custom," Hancock said in a prepared statement.
When he first saw the ad on television Hancock said he started laughing because it was such a distortion of the truth.
"It is a cookie-cutter commercial that looks like it was made to run anywhere in the country — just cut out a photo of the candidate you oppose — dump in a few deceiving statistics, buy some ad time and head off to the next market," Hancock said.
Hancock went on to laud King's pro-business track record and also touted his vision, ability to make compromise and support of both workers and business owners.
"I truly feel Angus King is a once-in-a-generation public servant," Hancock said. "I respect and appreciate everyone who runs for public office. I just see Angus as a rare leader who can be highly effective representing Maine on a competitive and hard to navigate national stage."
While they attacked the U.S. Chamber's portrayal of King as a free-spending liberal, they were unable to rebut one of the key points: that King left incoming Gov. John Baldacci with a budget gap of roughly $1 billion.
"The numbers don't lie: When Angus King left office spending was through the roof and Maine had a $1 billion deficit. There's nothing misleading about that," said Lance Dutson, Summers' campaign manager told the Associated Press. "I know it's painful for Angus to hear this, but that doesn't make it misleading or false in any way."
But Canney said there was never a $1 billion deficit in Maine.
She said that figure was a "structural gap," which doesn't reflect actual spending. "It's the difference between what you actually fund and what you want to fund," Canney said. "The state constitution requires a balanced budget in Maine."
Later Monday, Dutson said the business people who came out for King Monday never discussed that "deficit Angus King left for Gov. Baldacci."
"They didn't address the issue or provide any evidence to the contrary," Dutson said. "The fact is, America, our country, is in a difficult financial condition because of poor decisions made at the highest levels of government and it's pretty important to understand this candidate's record. It's critical to the discussion we are in right now."
Dutson said he couldn't address why the U.S. Chamber launched its support of Summers with a negative attack ad against King instead of a pro-Summers message. "That's a strategic decision on their part," Dutson said. "I have no idea why they went that route."
He said the campaign was still pleased and proud to have the support of the, "nation's preeminent business organization."
King was in policy briefings on Monday and did not attend the news conference.
Danny Lafayette, president of Lafayette Hotels, a Bangor-based company that owns hundreds of hotels and restaurants, said revenue grew during the dot-com bubble and that King made targeted investments in education and infrastructure. He noted that Standard & Poor's gave the state an AA-plus rating during that period.
Wendy Newmeyer, from the West Paris-based Maine Balsam Fir Products, said it was the overall tone of the attack ad that left her frustrated.
"They alluded to the fact that Angus was not for job creation. That was ridiculous, totally ridiculous, and off the mark," she said. "Somehow it was alluded he was fiscally irresponsible. I don't believe there's a shred of evidence to support that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.