Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Poliquin is taking heat for his support for a 21-year-old voter initiative that temporarily halted the widening of the Maine Turnpike.

The hotly contested 1991 referendum pitted environmentalists against business groups over a $100 million project that would have added two lanes to the 30 southernmost miles of the toll road. A May 16, 1991, Portland Press Herald story identified Poliquin as the top donor to the Campaign for Sensible Transportation, the political action committee that opposed the widening.

The initiative was spearheaded by Brownie Carson, who was then executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s foremost environmental advocacy group. Poliquin, who served on the NRCM board, donated $10,000 to a campaign that successfully convinced voters to put the road project on hold.

Poliquin’s Republican rivals have begun circulating the story while highlighting his former affiliation with NRCM. It’s the second time in less than a week that Poliquin has been targeted by other contenders in the GOP primary. His critics say his ties to NRCM and the anti-widening effort don’t square with his current pro-business, anti-regulation campaign rhetoric.

“I think it raises legitimate questions about his consistency on the issues,” said Rick Bennett, who along with Poliquin is among the six Republican hopefuls vying to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. “He’s promoting himself as someone who supports economic growth, yet he fought against a project that Maine businesses supported.”

Poliquin confirmed today that he supported the anti-widening campaign. However, he said, he did so based on the economics of the project, not the ecological impacts feared by environmental groups.

“At the time, I thought it was a horrible investment for Maine,” Poliquin said.

The project called for the authority to issue revenue bonds to be repaid for by toll money.

Alan Caron, who helped lead the campaign against the widening, said Poliquin was not involved with campaign strategy. Poliquin’s donation helped to purchase advertising that depicted the project as another example of wasteful government spending by a turnpike authority that handed out political favors without any oversight.

Caron said the ads — dubbed “the gold-plating of the turnpike” — turned the tide against the well-funded pro-widening group. His account is consistent with news reports, which described the campaign as swinging in the anti-widening group’s favor after the project was attacked on its economic, rather than environmental, deficiencies.

Bob Deis, a spokesman for the pro-widening campaign, is quoted in news accounts as saying the project wasn’t defeated because of “the issues, it was defeated because of anger at state government.”

The widening project was eventually approved, and the bonding is responsible for a proposed 26 percent toll hike, according to current MTA Director Peter Mills.

Poliquin said he joined NRCM as a businessman who believed in protecting the environment. He said he left NRCM after he realized the group was unwilling to compromise on issues that were important to business.

“I wanted to be involved, but after a while I found their agenda to be quite radical, so I extricated myself,” he said.

Carson, the former NRCM director, said he couldn’t recall Poliquin’s expressing disenchantment before departing the organization.

Carson said Poliquin joined NRCM shortly after marrying his wife, Jane. He said Poliquin called one day to say that he’d told friends and family to donate to NRCM rather than give him and Jane wedding gifts.

Carson said Poliquin left NRCM shortly after his wife died in 1992 and he became a single father.

Before that, Carson said, Poliquin was a “generous” donor.

“He made no secret that he was a fiscal conservative,” Carson said. “But he was also very passionate about protecting the environment.”

He added, “I’m not surprised that some of his competition in the Senate race would use his association with us as a sledgehammer against him.”

The criticism from other GOP candidates suggests that the self-described activist state treasurer may be leading a primary contest that will be decided June 12.

That’s Poliquin’s assessment.

“This shows that we’re winning,” he said today.

Last week, Poliquin came under fire for distributing campaign literature that his opponents claimed deceptively suggested that he’d received an endorsement from Gov. Paul LePage. The governor has vowed to stay neutral during the primary contest.

Attorney General William Schneider, another Republican U.S. Senate candidate, said Poliquin was attempting to ride LePage’s “coattails” to the nomination.

Poliquin has acknowledged that he’s hoping to woo LePage voters and tea party activists.

The latest criticism appears designed to undercut that support by questioning Poliquin’s positions on issues that mobilize a Republican base that may well decide the primary. 

In addition to Poliquin’s involvement with pro-environment NRCM, Bennett also questioned a $500 donation Poliquin made in 1989 made to Handgun Control Inc., which is now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The group supports increased regulations on the sale of firearms, including mandatory background checks.

The 1989 donation and Poliquin’s NRCM involvement were both known in 2010, when he was one of seven GOP gubernatorial candidates. However, Poliquin was never a serious contender in that race. He finished sixth.

Bennett acknowledged that Poliquin is a threat now, but he did so while jabbing at the treasurer’s campaign war chest.

Poliquin reported last week that he had raised $229,214 over the recent reporting period, second only to independent Angus King, the presumed frontrunner. However, it’s not yet clear how much of Poliquin’s money is from supporters or his own funding — a point that Bennett was quick to mention.

Poliquin, a former investment manager, spent more than $700,000 in 2010, but his campaign was almost entirely self-funded.

“We’ll see how much he’s raised and how much of his own money he’s contributed,” Bennett said. “Until then the consistency of his positions deserve tough scrutiny.”

Under federal campaign finance regulations, Poliquin’s fundraising report was submitted to the secretary of the U.S. Senate last week, but the information has not yet been conveyed to the Federal Election Commission, which will make details of the report public later this month.

Poliquin brushed off the criticism, saying it was a sign that he was upsetting the status quo.

“I’m not the establishment candidate,” he said. “If you want to vote for one of them there’s a whole room full to choose from.”

He added, “I expect more of it (criticism). Unfortunately, this is how it’s done. It is what it is. It’s the silly season.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

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