When Kiernan Majerus-Collins launched an online fundraising campaign last spring, the Lewiston political activist was hoping to hit a nerve with people angered about comments made by a local legislative candidate.
Instead, Majerus-Collins tapped a vein — an artery, even — of progressives nationwide who are outraged over pushback against Florida teenagers demanding stronger gun laws in the aftermath of a mass shooting at their high school in February.
The windfall of donations – more than $170,000 in less than a week – was 34 times more than the Lewiston Democratic City Committee had raised in the previous six-month period and roughly 100 times the amount raised by the Greater Bangor Democratic Committee. It was a historic, social media-fueled fundraising haul for a small, local political committee headed by a group of progressive activists in their 20s.
“I was shocked,” Majerus-Collins, who graduated from Bates College this year, said on Tuesday. “When I first put up the fundraising appeal, I thought maybe we would raise a couple of hundred dollars that would help us do some of the programming we have been doing and struggling to do. We were all surprised by the response.”
The Lewiston Democratic City Committee entered the homestretch of the 2018 election season flush with $181,000 in donations through June 30. In contrast, its rival organization, the Androscoggin County Republican Committee, received $10,339 in donations during that period. But the Lewiston Democrats face questions about how that money will be used.
The target of that initial fundraising appeal, Republican legislative candidate Les Gibson, dropped out of the race amid national headlines inspired by his calling one Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student activist a “skinhead lesbian” and another a “bald-faced liar.”
And the Democrat recruited to challenge Gibson, Eryn Gilchrist, not only can’t use any of the money for her campaign but remains deeply disturbed by the fundraising tactics ostensibly used on her behalf – including the creation of a Twitter account in her name.
“I found it to be really frustrating and emblematic of what I don’t like about politics, which is someone capitalizing on something divisive,” said Gilchrist, who as a publicly funded Clean Election candidate can only accept a limited number of small donations. “It drives a wedge between people.”
PLANS FOR HOW FUNDS WILL BE SPENT
The Lewiston Democratic Party’s enormous fundraising success in such a short period illustrates not only the political power of social media but also how little control donors have over how their money is used once they write that paper or virtual check.
The Lewiston Democratic City Committee must abide by Maine’s campaign finance and transparency laws, which include disclosing how money is spent. As of June 30, the last campaign finance reporting deadline, the committee had spent $11,473 with more than half of that paid as “processing fees” to the Democratic fundraising website Act Blue.
Majerus-Collins, who is one of four 20-somethings leading the Lewiston Democratic Party, is pledging to put the money to use consistent with the original intent of electing Democrats, while working on longer-term initiatives to boost Democratic turnout and voter enrollment.
“When we asked the world to give to us, we told donors that money would be used to defeat Les Gibson and it only took us four days to do that,” Majerus-Collins said. Gibson, he noted, is still treasurer of the Androscoggin Republican Party and retained the support of many local and state Republican Party leaders. The only exceptions Majerus-Collins points to are state Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough and Rep. Bruce Bickford of Auburn, both of whom publicly criticized Gibson’s comments.
“So as far as I’m concerned, the people who aided and abetted Les Gibson … are fair game,” he said.
One of those local party officials, Androscoggin County Republican Committee Chairwoman Patti Gagne, said she isn’t sweating how local Democrats will deploy their massive war chest.
“It doesn’t concern me really because I think we have a strong backing from people who want to see things continue in the direction that (Gov. Paul) LePage has taken us in and the direction that (President) Trump is taking us,” Gagne said. “We are working hard on our end as well.”
Gagne also said that as a conservative Roman Catholic, she often feels unfairly maligned by liberals who claim to support free expression but only when it comports with their own views.
“I just think it was really unfair,” Gagne said of the reaction to Gibson’s comments. “At the time, Mr. Gibson felt it was the right thing to step down. But I wish he would have stayed in the race and stood up for his right for free speech.”
CLEAN ELECTION CANDIDATE
At the time of his controversial comments, Gibson was the only candidate running for the House District 57 seat that includes the conservative-leaning towns of Greene and Sabattus. Gilchrist announced her candidacy just days before the deadline as the social media storm against Gibson grew.
As a Clean Election candidate, Gilchrist cannot tap into any of the $181,019 that the Lewiston Democratic City Committee raised through June 30. The Lewiston Democrats can spend money to support her or oppose her Republican opponent, Thomas Martin Jr., who stepped into the House District 57 race after Gibson’s comments became public. But the committee is prohibited by law from coordinating with Gilchrist on those expenditures.
Lewiston Democratic City Committee leaders – particularly Majerus-Collins – repeatedly referred to Gilchrist’s candidacy in their fundraising appeal.
“Great news: we’ve recruited a local Democrat to run against him! Folks can contribute here,” Majerus-Collins said several dozen times on March 13 in response to comments on Twitter.
“I promise that 100 percent of every dollar we receive will go directly to beating Les Gibson and his allies here in Maine,” he said in a March 14 post on Twitter. “We are determined to make sure that Gibson never sets foot in the Capitol as a state legislator.”
Gilchrist said the committee even created a Twitter account in her name, although she was subsequently able to gain control over it.
In an April 20 post on Facebook announcing that she had qualified to run as a Clean Election candidate, Gilchrist wrote that “a group unaffiliated with me, the 57th district, or my campaign raised tens of thousands of dollars using my name and practices that I don’t condone.” She then said she hoped the Lewiston Democratic City Committee “reforms their fundraising practices and honors the wishes of donors who may feel they were misled.”
‘TURN PEOPLE INTO LIFELONG VOTERS’
Months later, the fundraising activity still bothers Gilchrist.
“I would question how many people who donated understood that is what they were donating to,” Gilchrist said. “I think the money is inappropriate, period, and the usage is inappropriate.”
Asked about that criticism, Majerus-Collins said he certainly understands Gilchrist’s concerns and agrees that “we have to honor the wishes of the donors.” To him, that means working to defeat Gibson’s allies while also working to strengthen the Democratic base in the Lewiston area.
Majerus-Collins said the committee has no plans to blanket the region or Maine’s 2nd Congressional District with campaign mailers or to spend large sums on radio or television ads in support or opposition to any one candidate.
“I think that’s a mistake that the Democratic Party makes,” he said.
Instead, the committee plans to use that money to boost voter registration and turnout among college students and recent immigrants – two groups that often lean Democratic in Maine – and to “build a better electorate over time.”
“If you can turn people into lifelong voters, that is so much more powerful and long-lasting than a TV ad or a mailer that people look at for three seconds and then toss in the recycling bin,” he said.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins is the son of Steve Collins, who covers the State House and politics for the Sun Journal. All reasonable efforts are made to avoid conflicts of interest.