The deluge in South Portland has officially begun.
Grass-roots organizers, business interests and political consultants are revving up for dueling campaigns designed to sway residents on a controversial amendment to the zoning ordinance that will appear on the November ballot.
At stake is the passage of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which was submitted this spring by residents seeking to prevent so-called tar sands crude oil from ever being pumped through South Portland.
Through interviews with campaign organizers, volunteers and officials on both sides of the issue, a picture of two drastically different campaigns has emerged.
On one side is the relatively moneyed petroleum and waterfront business interests, a group that expects to spend more than $100,000 to defeat the referendum. In the opposite corner are hundreds of motivated residents who hope to replace some of the expensive trappings of a modern campaign with old-fashioned shoe leather and neighbor-to-neighbor outreach.
Both camps have rented office spaces. Both have assembled staff, and both are serious about the time-intensive effort of reaching voters before Nov. 5.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Dan DeMeritt, campaign manager for the Working Waterfront Coalition, the group that is opposing the ordinance.
The campaigners are not the only ones preparing to spend money.
At least one budget-minded South Portland official is girding for a protracted legal battle over the ordinance that he says could cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars if it passes and opponents challenge the measure in court.
City Councilor Jerry Jalbert estimated that the city may have to add $100,000 to its current budget of roughly $184,000 for legal expenses, although no such budget considerations would take place until next year. South Portland does not have an in-house attorney, and would likely have to pay for additional retained counsel to represent the city in a legal fight over the ordinance amendment.
Jalbert said that although backers of the ordinance change have had the advantage of starting their campaign earlier, the opponents are preparing a full-throated response.
“This won’t be one side overwhelming the other,” Jalbert said. “This is going to be a fair fight.”
The vote in South Portland is the byproduct of an international struggle over Canada’s ability to export the heavy oil that is abundant in the tar sands of Alberta.
The Portland Pipe Line Corp. operates a South Portland terminal and a pair of underground pipes that supply crude oil to a refinery in Montreal. Activists behind the referendum say they want to make sure the pipeline isn’t used to export tar sands oil from Alberta, although the company itself has not made such a proposal.
Environmental activists say tar sands crude is an especially risky oil because it is sticky and corrosive and its export into the global market will accelerate climate change. Petroleum industry representatives, on the other hand, say the oil poses no greater risk of leaking or spilling than the crude oil that already flows through the Portland Pipe Line.
OPPONENTS BRING IN PROS
The plan to sway voters to reject the ordinance amendment is multipronged.
At least one round of telephone polling has already occurred. And, opposition campaigners have sent their first piece of direct mail, putting a human face on locally owned businesses they say stand to lose their livelihoods if the measure passes.
The waterfront coalition has planned a “Working Waterfront Week,” culminating in public tours of members’ facilities Sept. 28 that they will dub “Working Waterfront Day.”
Radio and telephone advertisements, also known as “robo-calls,” are in the works, too.
At least some of the high-wattage campaign strategy has come from a small cadre of consultants and advisers hired to run the professional outreach operation.
DeMeritt, who is also a columnist for the Maine Sunday Telegram, is the proprietor of Winning Campaigns, an independent public relations consultancy, and the former spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage. He was hired in March by the American Petroleum Institute, a national industry lobbying group.
Jim Merrill, who leads the New Hampshire division of the Bernstein Shur Group, the lobbying arm of the law firm by the same name, was a consultant in 2012 for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Rounding out the roster are Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, who is in charge of corporate fundraising, and Don Russell, of the Portland-based Burgess Advertising and Marketing LLC, whose firm was retained in early August to organize some of the public relations events.
Py and Russell said the group has assembled a team of speakers who will be the opposition campaign’s advocates before citizen groups, city officials, and community leaders. Russell said the sessions will give them a chance to listen to concerns and answer questions about the proposed ordinance amendment.
By the time voters enter the voting booth Nov. 5, expenses to defeat the measure are expected to grow into six figures, said Py.
“Our committee will spend over $100,000,” said Py, who is fundraising for the campaign. “These sort of sprint-campaigns cost money.”
SUPPORTERS COME KNOCKING
What the proponents of the ballot initiative lack in up-front funding, they plan to make up for with an old-fashioned ground game, albeit with a few technological aids.
Crystal Goodrich, a community organizer who is directing the canvassing effort, said teams of up to 40 volunteers will fan out every Saturday and Sunday between now and Nov. 5. Her goal is for volunteers to reach 10,000 voters in roughly eight weeks.
And the message they plan to bring is that tar sands oil would bring with it new dangers to environmental and public health, whether from transporting the oil or from smokestack emissions in processing it.
The door-knocking is by no means random. Using electronic voter-tracking software and data about who consistently votes, Goodrich and others are targeting their effort at people the campaign believes are most likely to be sympathetic to the ordinance, a group that will include registered Democrats and people who do not identify with a party.
According to the campaign, roughly 250 people have signed up to help in the door-knocking effort, a number Goodrich said is growing every time the teams go out into the community.
“I think we have the advantage that the people who live in South Portland (and) who will be voting care about the things we are trying to protect,” said Goodrich, who in 2009 helped lead a successful campaign to defeat a summertime ban of dogs on Willard Beach.
Phone banks are also planned. They are a relatively cheap way for supporters to reach voters when the weather is too poor to canvass. A phone call is also a way to follow up with people previously reached in person.
In addition to help from the community, environmental groups have rallied behind the proposed ordinance change and the group that brought it forward, Protect South Portland.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which officially registered with the South Portland city clerk on Aug. 20 as a Ballot Question Committee, had already by that time donated nearly 250 hours in staff time, valued at more than $5,000. The Natural Resources Council has helped produce fact sheets and other materials useful to campaigners.
Another group, 350 Maine — an offshoot of a nationwide effort started by a climate scientist that urges people to ween themselves from fossil fuels — has also linked from its website to the South Portland initiative.
GETTING THE MESSAGE
While the campaign messages will focus on threats to waterfront jobs and threats to the environment, the rival camps also are trumpeting two different interpretations of the ordinance.
Protect South Portland has said the lawyers who wrote the ordinance amendment crafted its language to protect existing businesses on the waterfront so they may maintain their properties and perform upgrades that do not fundamentally change the usage of their property. They say the provision is narrowly tailored, possesses legal precedent, and is meant to specifically target the reversal of the pipeline and the risks from tar sands oil.
“I don’t think you can put a price on clean air, clean water, clean land, really,” said Cathy Chapman, the Protect South Portland spokeswoman. “We just feel that our health is more important than any other monetary issue.”
Opponents, on the other hand, say the proposed ordinance amendment is overly broad and would prevent business owners unrelated to Portland Pipe Line from performing routine upgrades to their facilities, adding new functions, or expanding their operations.
One such company is Turner’s Island LLC, owned by Melody and Roger Hale — who are featured prominently in the campaign’s first mail piece, along with their son. The business has a terminal it uses for diverse purposes, including loading biofuels onto trucks, repairing big ships, building barges and loading diesel fuel onto fishing boats.
“It’s disheartening that if the Waterfront Protection Ordinance goes through it would hamper the ability for local people to use the facility,” Roger Hale said. “It could impact the future, for my children and their children, and their abilities in what they can and can’t do.”
Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at