If there’s truth to the “six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by six links – then it’s probably true that political players conduct their business in a much smaller world.
Like a fish tank.
Take independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and the well-heeled national nonprofit Americans Elect.
Americans Elect is the spin-off group of Unity 08, originally formed and supported by independent and self-described moderate politicians like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. In 2012, Americans Elect had a more ambitious goal of nominating a bipartisan presidential ticket.
After gaining ballot access in the states – an expensive endeavor financed by $8 million from Peter Ackerman, founder of the investment firm Rockport Capital – the Americans Elect experiment failed when no viable candidates made themselves available for the “online convention.”
The group was also dogged by campaign finance watchdogs for operating as nonprofit, which could shield its donors while it engaged in political activity that strained the legal limits of its tax-exempt status (Democrats and Republicans use nonprofits in similar, more prolific ways.).
So what’s any of that have to do with Cutler?
For starters, Cutler was a board member of Americans Elect. He held that position until he became co-chairman of King’s 2012 Senate campaign. Americans Elect was largely dormant during the summer of 2012, but it awoke when King, sans party apparatus, was pummeled by big ad buys from Republican groups. Americans Elect spent more than $1 million to buoy King with political ads. Bloomberg chipped in $500,000 for the effort; Passport Capital’s founder, John Burbank, contributed $750,000. Ackerman, who bankrolled the Americans Elect ballot drive, contributed $500,000.
Time will tell if the group will assist Cutler with a King-like money dump, but there appears to be a bit of cross-pollination between his campaign and the Campaign for Maine, the political action committee supporting his bid. (Although Cutler has sworn off PAC contributions, there’s nothing in the election law to prevent one from spending money on his behalf.)
The first clue came in Cutler’s first finance report in 2013, when he received a $500 contribution from Kahlil Byrd, the former CEO of Americans Elect. Then there were a bunch of pro-Cutler tweets from Cara Brown McCormick, who is listed as an Americans Elect board member. McCormick, it turns out, is on Cutler’s campaign. Additionally, Cutler’s most recent finance report shows that Ackerman gave $1,500.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, members of the Maine media received a press release from a political consultant based in Pacific Palisades, Calif., announcing a press conference in Portland held by two Maine state senators, one out of office.
The consultant setting up the event was Ilena Wachtel, the former spokeswoman for Americans Elect.
The press conference was set up to blast EqualityMaine’s recent endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud. Cutler, who donated a lot of money to the group, was extremely unhappy with the snub.
Cutler’s campaign said it didn’t arrange the Portland presser and didn’t know about it until one of the participants gave the campaign a courtesy call. (Coordinating campaign events between PACs and candidate committees is illegal.) Contacted on Jan. 6, Wachtel wouldn’t say who asked her to set up the event but said the individual was from Maine.
The recent campaign finance disclosure for the pro-Cutler PAC the Campaign for Maine reveals a potential clue as to who requested Wachtel’s services. The PAC, run by Betsy Smith, the former head of EqualityMaine, shows a $2,500 expenditure for Wachtel for communications consulting. To be clear, that expenditure may not be for setting up the Portland presser, which was held several weeks after Watchel was paid. It’s also possible that Wachtel received an advance payment for an ongoing consulting role.
In either case, it leaves open the question of whether Americans Elect – at least two former members of which are on the Cutler campaign, including the candidate himself – will get involved in the Maine gubernatorial race and whether it will do so through the Campaign for Maine.
LEPAGE GETS BOOST FROM WSJ
On Friday The Wall Street Journal had a front page story about the states with the most millionaire households per capita. It probably won’t surprise many people that Maine didn’t crack the top 10, which is solidly occupied by the Marylands, New Jerseys and Connecticuts of the world, year after year.
Nonetheless, Maine and Louisiana saw some the biggest improvements in their rankings. You read that right. Maine. Louisiana.
Maine jumped 11 places to No. 25, Louisiana 14 spots to No. 32.
The rankings were based on a study by Phoenix Marketing International, which uses data from the Census Bureau, Federal Reserve and a national polling firm to compile its rankings. (The Phoenix ranking method has been used since 1983.) According to the WSJ, David M. Thompson, managing director at Phoenix, said it was difficult to account for some states’ big jumps or falls in the rankings (there were many of them). North Dakota, which also leaped 14 spots, to No. 29, had the most tangible explanation: The state’s well-documented energy boom from the Bakken shale fields.
There was no explanation for Nevada’s 20-spot tumble, so let’s just blame it on rigged black jack games.
Some will recall that Gov. Paul LePage was lamenting the loss of millionaires during a private but secretly recorded event in October. He cited some dubious statistics to back his claim. Nonetheless, even if the governor’s statement last fall is further contradicted by the Phoenix rankings, his re-election campaign arguably has something to brag about.
And so it did: “To earn a paycheck you need someone who has the money to pay you. Having more companies and individuals in Maine who have the means to create jobs is an indicator Maine’s economy is on the move,” said Brent Littlefield, the governor’s political adviser.
GIVE BACK THE MONEY
The Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal activist group, last week blasted LePage’s campaign committee for accepting a $1,500 donation last year from Logisticare, the Atlanta-based broker embroiled in the MaineCare rides fiasco.
“Logisticare Solutions LLC gave a $1,500 contribution to LePage’s campaign on September 13, 2013, just as his administration and the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee were scrambling to evaluate the company’s performance and find solutions to a flood of complaints about missed rides, long waits and unanswered calls,” an alliance news release said.
It added, “There’s an obvious question of whether these contributions have bought influence.”
The alliance didn’t mention it – perhaps because it couldn’t find it on the new campaign finance webstite – but Logisticare also had three separate $500 donations in 2013 to three political action committees: the House Democratic Committee, the House Republican Majority Fund and the Maine Senate Republican Majority Fund. Granted, those contributions came before the state flipped the switch on the sputtering broker system. Still, the alliance wants LePage to return his donation, so it seems logical that the group would want the political action committees to do the same.
After all, lawmakers who would benefit from those donations last year spiked L.D. 710, a bill submitted by Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, that proposed making sure that the transportation providers were kept in-state.
In his testimony, Collins noted Logisticare’s spotty track record in Wisconsin and other states, writing, “I have concerns about what would happen if one regional broker or another went over budget on services provided like in Wisconsin. What happens to those who still need the service? By using local regional transportation providers there is no question about whether or not a patient will be able to get the service they need.”
GAUNTLET THROWN DOWN, IGNORED
Cutler has been making some noise about challenging LePage and Michaud to debates for a couple of months now. Last week, he made the challenge official, sending letters to both his rivals.
“As you know, I have been publicly urging for some time that the three of us begin debates sooner rather than later,” Cutler wrote. “In fact, I suggested yesterday that we have debates in every one of Maine’s 16 counties, and I observe there is plenty of time left in the campaign to do it.”
The LePage and Michaud campaigns aren’t biting. While there are several debates scheduled for the fall, neither campaign is interested in having one now.
“Liberal-independent Eliot Cutler will do anything he can to get his name in the press,” wrote Littlefield, the governor’s political adviser. “This is yet another attempt. Governor LePage is busy creating jobs and managing the state; there will be plenty of time to debate later in the year.”
Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud, said: “We have already begun accepting invitations for debates during the general election. This letter seems like an effort from Cutler to distract from the fact that his support is stagnant and he’s having trouble raising money.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: