The first money bomb of Maine’s legislative campaign has landed on the Biddeford-Saco area, leaving supporters of the state’s Clean Election program shuddering.
Ocean Properties Inc., the Portsmouth, N.H.-based developer behind last year’s proposal for a racino in Biddeford, transferred $25,000 to a new political action committee on May 31. Over the past few days, the Race for ME PAC has spent $13,334 on fliers and newspaper advertisements supporting three pro-racino candidates in the area’s Democratic primaries for state Senate and House.
Most of the expenditures – $9,513 – were made in support of Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, a racino supporter who is running against Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, for the Senate seat to be vacated by Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, who is term-limited.
Valentino was a high-profile proponent of sending any racino plan out for voters’ approval. The proposal for Biddeford was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent statewide in November.
All of the expenditures were made on the day Ocean Properties’ donation arrived. The PAC bought ads supporting two pro-racino candidates for the House.
Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, who must leave the Senate because of term limits, is the intended beneficiary of $1,884 in ad spending. She is running for the House District 137 seat against Rep. Alan Casavant, the mayor of Biddeford and a casino opponent.
The PAC also is supporting former Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey over Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, in District 135. Twoomey supports racinos; Beaudoin does not.
“We’re just trying to be involved, and we believe that an expansion of gaming is inevitable in southern Maine in general and that Biddeford in particular is the spot for it,” said Peter Connell of Ocean Properties. “It’s a longer-term proposition, and we’re supporting candidates that were supportive of our project or potentially would be in the future.”
Ocean Properties’ expenditures are extremely large for a legislative primary. As Clean Election candidates, Valentino and Pilon have only about $8,800 each to spend on their primary campaigns. Twomey and Beaudoin are running with less than $2,000 apiece. Casavant and Sullivan are both privately financed, but as of May 31 had raised only $270 and $1,275, respectively.
“This is a clear case of an outside interest buying elections because they don’t like the result,” says Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. “If they can’t win in the public eye, they can only win in the Legislature.”
The candidates who didn’t receive support from the PAC expressed dismay at the size and timing of Ocean Properties’ involvement.
“It definitely blindsided me,” Casavant said. “I find it disconcerting that so much money from a special interest would come in so late.”
“I’m a Clean Election candidate. I have no money to combat these fliers and ads,” Valentino said. “They’re targeting all the people who voted against them, trying to make sure we never get back” to Augusta.
Pilon, the primary beneficiary of the ad buys, said Tuesday that he didn’t know about the expenditures until asked about them by a reporter. He said he has supported the racino project not because of gaming’s attributes, but because it would include a facility that could host trade shows, which York County lacks.
“It would certainly help southern Maine to have that type of facility available to all the commercial entities in the area,” he said. “Those revenue dollars are currently going to Cumberland County when we could have them in the local economy.”
Records on file with the state ethics commission show that Pilon, a real estate agent, also has the backing of the Maine Association of Realtors PAC, which has spent $2,700 on his behalf. Pilon also has a leadership PAC, Move Maine Forward, which Dec. 27 received $2,100 from six Ocean Properties executives.
Ocean Properties has a record of aggressive political spending in support of its real estate projects.
Last year, the company spent $8.5 million backing the unsuccessful racino ballot measure. In 2008, its executives contributed relatively substantial amounts to Portland City Council candidates who supported their proposal to build an office and hotel development on the Maine State Pier.
This time, the company thinly veiled its involvement, making its contribution under a little-known subsidiary, 318 T Street, a limited liability company registered in Delaware. The PAC itself is run by Christie-Lee McNally, former executive director of the Maine Republican Party, whose Raven Strategies was paid more than $20,000 in consulting fees by Ocean Properties’ pro-casino ballot committee last year.
The PAC’s glossy fliers supporting Pilon began arriving in mailboxes Monday. McNally said print ads in support of Pilon and other candidates would appear in the upcoming editions of local weekly newspapers.
“These are positive independent expenditures, not negative expenditures,” she said. “They plan to keep it on a positive message.”
Political finance experts say the situation illustrates the power that special interests can now wield on even obscure races.
“This has always been the sleeping giant in any sort of clean elections system: that if you restrict candidates’ spending to so much money, they will be at risk of being outspent by an organized interest,” said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College. “Policymakers think that the likelihood of this happening is very small, so the system will survive. But when you see something like this happen, it points out the potential weakness.”
Maine clean election candidates used to be able to receive matching funds if PACs or privately financed opponents spent large quantities against them, but those portions of Maine law were effectively struck down by a sharply divided 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision. This past session, the Legislature considered but ultimately did not act on proposals to create a matching fund system that would comply with the court’s decision.
“This is exactly the type of races we were thinking of when we were advocating for a replacement of matching funds,” said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. “Anyone spending this type of money on these races right now knows that these publicly financed candidates don’t have additional funds to respond.”
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org