AUBURN –– A leading national advocacy group on seniors citizens’ issues took the unusual step Thursday of endorsing a gubernatorial candidate – in this case Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

The National Committee on Preserving Social Security and Medicare, a Washington, D.C.-based group with 15,000 members in Maine, normally endorses only candidates for Congress, since the federal government has jurisdiction over benefits programs.

However, Max Richtman, president and chief executive officer, said the group felt compelled to jump into the Maine governor’s race because of the ongoing debate about expanding MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program – and because of a controversial statement from Gov. Paul LePage’s office in June that seemed to classify Social Security as a form of welfare.

At a press conference announcing the endorsement,

Richtman said “(LePage) either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or he isn’t telling the truth. In some governor’s races the issues are so defining and the positions are so clear.”

LePage, who was in China on a trade mission when the press release was issued, has tried repeatedly to clarify that he does not think Social Security is welfare, but an earned entitlement. He even launched a series of automated calls to re-enforce his record among seniors.

“How many times does the Governor have to point out – both on video, in person, in writing – he did not make that statement,” LePage political advisor Brent Littlefield said in an email Thursday. “It is clear he never said it. In fact he has consistently called for the elimination of taxes on seniors pensions and has already pushed through pension reform that has saved seniors millions.”

Richtman said Michaud has a 100 percent rating with the group, whose endorsement will be communicated members in a mailing. The group’s political action committee will also contribute to the campaign, and could make other investments as the election nears.

“We haven’t made those decisions yet,” said Richtman, who described the organization as second only to the AARP in size and influence when it comes to seniors’ issues.

The organization also endorsed Democratic 2nd District candidate Emily Cain on Thursday. She attended the event with Michaud.

Founded in 1982 by former Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son, James, the Washington, D.C.-based group received nearly $21.6 million in revenue in 2012, nearly all of which from membership dues, according to tax filings with Internal Revenue Services.

The group is classified as a “heavy hitter” by the campaign finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, meaning that since 1990 the group is among the 140 biggest overall donors. It gives primarily to liberal Democratic congressional candidates in states where Social Security and Medicare become major issues.

So far in 2014, the group has contributed $280,000 to Democrats and only $4,000 to Republicans, according to center, which reports the group spent about $460,000 on lobbying in 2013. The group invested an average of $700,000 in 2010 and 2012, the center reports.

Senior issues may play a major role in determining who will be Maine’s next governor. Maine is the oldest state per capita in the nation and seniors typically have a higher voter turnout than younger voters, especially in nonpresidential elections.

About 20 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million people are age 62 or older, according to the 2012 American Community Survey’s five-year estimates.

The endorsements were announced at the Schooner Estates, an upscale retirement community in Auburn.

Auburn, along with its neighbor Lewiston, will be important pick-up cities in both the gubernatorial and 2nd Congressional District election. Combined, Auburn and Lewiston are home to more than 11,000 people aged 62 or older, according to the Census Bureau.

Michaud is running against LePage and independent Eliot Cutler, who lost the 2010 gubernatorial election by 2 percentage points.

Michaud used the opportunity to criticize LePage for proposing cuts in the Meals on Wheels program, $60 million in funding for assisted living centers and the so-called drugs for the elderly program.

Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney said in an email that she’s not surprised that Michaud received the endorsement, noting that he has received $12,000 in contributions from the group since 2002.

Cutler, who has never held elective office, has always supported senior programs, including expanding MaineCare, said Canney, who said it’s just another example of “special interests throwing money at the Maine governor’s race.”

Cain, who received the endorsement based on a questionnaire, said she would oppose efforts to privatize Social Security or raise the retirement age, because the program is meant to give a security retirement to people who have “worked hard and played by the rules.”

“My opponent doesn’t agree,” Cain said. “So there is a real choice in my election.”

Bruce Poliquin, Cain’s Republican opponent and a fiscal conservative who is concerned about the national debt, told the Kennebec Journal during the primary that he would look to reform Social Security and Medicare because they are unsustainable.

In a written statement Thursday, Poliquin said: “As I said in my very first speech following the primary election, one of my number one goals as our next Congressman is to protect and preserve Social Security and Medicare.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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