A national advocacy group has spent $7,300 in support of Nicholas Mavodones’ quest to win an eighth term on the Portland City Council, a highly unusual move for a local election in Maine.

Joey Brunelle, who is challenging longtime City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, said, “I don’t think it’s right for out-of-state PACs to be getting involved in a local City Council campaign.” Staff file photo by Derek Davis

The contribution by the National Association of Realtors Fund, made public this week in a filing at Portland City Hall, was used earlier this month to buy $7,000 worth of online ads and $300 in research in support of Mavodones, who is finishing his 21st year on the council. The content of the ads was not immediately clear and it’s not clear whether they have been deployed.

While personal donations to municipal campaigns are capped at $800 a person, outside groups can spend as much as they want to influence an election, as long as they operate independently and have no coordination or communication with the campaign. City Clerk Katherine Jones said she is satisfied with the group’s reporting.

The out-of-state independent expenditure – apparently unprecedented in a race for municipal office in Portland – drew a strong rebuke from Mavodones and from his challenger, Joey Brunelle.

“I’m shocked. This is outrageous,” Brunelle said. “Independent or not, I don’t think it’s right for out-of-state PACs to be getting involved in a local City Council campaign. That’s not the way we do things in Portland.”

Mavodones seemed equally surprised and upset. He called for the group to stay out of the election and to disclose its donors.

“I condemn this stuff,” City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said of the campaign spending by a national Realtors group. “Frankly, I don’t want any help from them.” Staff file photo by Derek Davis

“I’m completely shocked,” Mavodones said. “I condemn this stuff. It’s harmful for them to get involved in our local races. Frankly, I don’t want any help from them.”

The NAR Fund’s John Pierpoint filed the independent expenditure report with the state on Oct. 4, and a copy was emailed and faxed to the city on Thursday and Friday.

A call to Pierpoint was redirected to Gerry Allen, who oversees campaigns for the NAR, but he did not respond to requests for comment and for copies of the ads and their distribution.

The group has engaged in Portland politics before.

Last year, the Chicago, Illinois-based NAR Fund poured over $75,000 in cash and in-kind donations into a successful campaign to defeat a citizens initiative to adopt a rent stabilization ordinance, which would have regulated rent increases in Portland and added protections for tenants.

Brit Vitalius led the Say No To Rent Control campaign, which raised over $300,000 to defeat rent stabilization. When asked if he had any knowledge or involvement in the NAR’s spending in support of Mavodones, Vitalius said, “Let me check on what I can say.”

Karen Jones, president of the Greater Portland Board of Realtors, said her group is glad for the help in supporting Mavodones.

“The Greater Portland Board of Realtors is thrilled that the National Association of Realtors, in consultation with us, has decided to support Nick Mavodones,” she said. “He consistently exhibits a rational approach to issues around home ownership and property rights for Portland residents and property owners.”

Brunelle, Mavodones’ opponent, supported the rent control referendum last year, but dropped that policy goal from his platform after it was turned down by voters and is not campaigning on the issue this year.

The outside money will likely brighten the spotlight on campaign financing – a central theme to Brunelle’s candidacy – and boost efforts by clean elections advocates to address the upward trend of money in Portland politics. Some council candidates have raised over $20,000 in recent years and mayoral candidates have topped six figures.

In November, Portland residents will vote on a proposal to require municipal candidates to be more transparent about their donors. Currently rules only require candidates to file reports in July (if they are active) and 11 days before the election.

A proposed charter change would require candidates to file a report 42 days before the election – a requirement that currently exists for state candidates. Brunelle complied with a request from advocates to voluntarily disclose his donors at the 42-day mark, but Mavodones didn’t, saying he didn’t want to make a special accommodation for an outside group.

Like last year, Brunelle has pledged not to take money from out-of-state donors, real estate developers or political action committees. He had raised $2,508 since July, when his semiannual report showed him having raised $1,617 up to that point. Mavodones said he has raised “north of $20,000” for his re-election bid.

The Maine League of Women Voters and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections have said the charter amendment is the first step in campaign finance reform efforts in Portland. Other initiatives could include a municipal clean elections program and the maximum amount an individual can contribute to a candidate. That cap is currently $800.