National anti-tax activist Grover Norquist threw his weight into Maine’s U.S. Senate race Thursday, criticizing Republican Rick Bennett for not signing a no-tax-increase pledge.

Bennett fired right back, saying Norquist “willfully distorted” Bennett’s views and anti-tax voting record to protect his own political influence in Washington, D.C.

“By refusing to sign the pledge and leaving tax hikes on the table, Rick Bennett joins the ranks of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama,” Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in the news release. “Given the importance of small businesses to Maine’s economy, Rick Bennett’s openness to higher taxes should cause voters who support Bennett to reconsider.”

Norquist’s group didn’t immediately explain why it singled out Bennett, one of three Republican candidates in the race who have not signed the pledge. The others are state Sen. Debra Plowman and Attorney General Bill Schneider. It cited a statement on Bennett’s campaign website saying “everything should be on the table” in order to balance the budget and cut the national debt.

Bennett said he was targeted because he is one of the three front-runners in the race and the other two — state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Secretary of State Charlie Summers — have signed the group’s tax pledge. The sixth Republican candidate, Scott D’Amboise, also has signed.

“This is a willfull and intentional distortion designed to preserve (Norquist’s) power rather than fix the problems of the country,” Bennett said. “I’ve said that all spending needs to be on the table. … I’ve said I am not going to vote for tax increases. Public statements are not enough for Grover Norquist, he needs you to sign a piece of paper.”

Bennett also said he has a clear anti-tax voting record in the Maine House and Senate. “Comparing me to Nancy Pelosi … is really absurd on its face. I served 12 years in the Maine Legislature and never voted for a tax increase. Actions speak louder than words.”

Norquist is known for promoting the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”, which has been signed by almost every Republican congressmen, and for publicly criticizing candidates who refuse to do so.

Bennett challenged the value of the pledge, pointing out that he voted against a $300 million increase in state taxes in 1991 while Summers voted for it as a member of the state Senate. The budget bill included a new snack tax and an increase in the gasoline tax and was part of a deal to overhaul Maine’s workers’ compensation system.

Summers defended his 1991 vote Thursday, saying the taxes were temporary and part of a package that ultimately lowered costs for businesses. “That was in the context of a state shutdown over workers’ compensation,” he said.

It is a very different economic situation 20 years later, Summers said. He said he signed the pledge because it’s clear that the federal government is overspending. “What we have to do is address spending issues. I’m not willing to entertain tax increases.”

Bennett maintained he is committed to cutting spending and not raising taxes, too. But he also said he won’t be pressured into signing a pledge.

“I believe there are abuses in our tax code that are used to fund corporate welfare,” such as subsidies for wind farms and ethanol producers, he said. “I don’t want to be held hostage to Grover Norquist for voting to clean up these petty outrages in our tax code.”

Plowman and Schneider said Thursday they also oppose tax increases and voted against them in the Legislature, and don’t believe they need to sign a pledge.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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