Less than two weeks before the election, Portland Charter Commission candidates are lining up to denounce the tactics of a political action group affiliated with the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and a former mayor.

And some of those endorsed by the group have been among its harshest critics.

People First Charter has spent nearly $12,000 supporting a slate of seven candidates and aggressively opposing four others. The expenditures – along with fundraising emails and a mailer circulated around the city – have injected partisan rancor into a nonpartisan election for a commission that will spend the next year reviewing the structure of city government.

Even candidates supported by the group have taken to social media and written newspaper columns in an effort to distance themselves from People First and contain the damage in the days before the June 8 vote.

The mailer, while fairly tame by national political standards, raised the group’s profile with city voters and led candidates to criticize its tactics. It asks voters to oppose four “business as usual” candidates. The mailer also urges voters to “get big money out of politics” even as the group is spending big to influence the election.

The mailer was sent after weeks of fundraising emails that identified the chamber of commerce as the opposition and urged people to donate money to People First. Since early May, fundraising emails have featured the People First slate, while touting the PAC’s priorities for addressing policy issues, such as affordable housing, living wages and health care, by reforming the city’s charter rather than relying on the council.

Brian Batson, photographed at Capisic Pond Park on Friday, is running for a seat on the Portland Charter Commission and was the first to publicly criticize the campaign tactics of a controversial outside group. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Outside groups and independent expenditures play big roles in national and statewide elections, but they are rare in municipal races in Maine. Portland, however, has seen similar efforts and a significant increase in campaign spending in recent election cycles.

Brian Batson, a charter commission candidate in District 3 and former city councilor who has spoken out against similar tactics in past elections,  was targeted by the mailer. Batson was the first candidate to publish an opinion piece denouncing the group’s tactics, although a cascade of similar letters have followed from other candidates.

“It seems clear to me that candidates were comfortable accepting PFC’s advocacy and support right up until they started hearing from voters who were upset about the PFC mailer,” Batson said Thursday. “I have a long-standing history of opposing political groups that spread this type of rhetoric and at no point in any of my campaigns have I accepted these kinds of tactics.”

Zack Barowitz, a candidate for Portland’s Charter Commission, is not happy about being endorsed in a mailer put out by People First Charter. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Shay Stewart-Bouley, who is running in District 1, has become the most outspoken critic of the group and its tactics, even though she is one of the seven candidates it supports. She denounced the endorsement and called on the group to remove her name from all campaign materials. And Zack Barowitz, who is running in District 3 and has the group’s backing, has done the same.

Registration papers for People First Charter lists Glen Gallik and Aaron Berger as the principal officer and treasurer, respectively.

A man who answered the phone number listed for Gallik on the political action committee registration said the reporter had the wrong phone number. And the email address listed for the committee on the registration forms was not valid. Gallik did not respond to an email requesting an interview.

Berger, who is listed as the Southern Maine DSA president in the 2020 annual report submitted to the state, said in an email that the group had no comment.

The winners of seats on the charter commission will spend a year reviewing the structure of city government before recommending changes, which would have to be approved by voters citywide.

The mailer sent out by People First Charter, as well as other communications, led numerous candidates to denounce the group’s tactics.

The commission was created in response to a citizen-led effort to establish a public financing, or clean elections, program for municipal races. But most of the focus of candidates and outside groups has been on whether the city should have a stronger mayor with more control over daily operations and policy-making along with a weaker city manager, or none at all. Supporters of the strong mayor say it will make city government more responsive to citizens, while opponents say it will politicize city government.

The decision by the DSA to make independent expenditures in the charter campaign caused a rift in People First Portland, a separate group created by DSA to campaign for a slate of citizen referendums passed by voters last fall. The group announced last fall that it would turn its attention to the charter commission, but the decision to change strategies and form a political action committee that could spend money to support and oppose candidates caused several of the leaders to leave the group.

Bre Kidman, a Saco resident who ran for U.S. Senate last year, stepped down as co-chair of People First Portland in the spring because the group wanted to form a political action committee and make independent expenditures to sway voters, rather than running the sort of grassroots organizing campaign that helped the group pass four of five citizen initiatives in November.

Kidman personally opposed the move, seeing it as “an explicit capitalist means of organizing” and an effort to circumvent campaign finance limits and buy the election. It also meant that the group could not legally coordinate its campaign with candidates.

“Because that mechanism explicitly forbids you from coordinating with candidates, it puts you in a position where you can’t necessarily get a good pulse on what everyone is thinking and feeling and come up with a message that works together,” Kidman said. 

Kidman said former Mayor Ethan Strimling was a strong advocate for independent expenditures, although the decision to move forward was made through a vote of DSA members. Kidman said Strimling, who lost his seat in 2019 after one term, provided valuable institutional knowledge during last year’s referendum effort, but has spent his career in a toxic and broken political system that relies on divisive campaign tactics.

“It’s like trying to teach a scorpion not to sting,” Kidman said.

Em Burnett, who was instrumental in People First Portland’s successful referendum drive last fall, left the group and said other key organizers of the referendum campaign also left after it became clear a political action committee would be formed. Burnett qualified as candidate on the commission, but has since dropped out.

Burnett said concerns about independent expenditures appear to be justified. Burnett described the tactic as “old school” and “chauvinist politics” because the group is speaking for other candidates without their consent. Burnett compared the new group with Progressive Portland, which was aligned with Strimling and was criticized for contributing to the more partisan tenor of city politics.

“These are pretty bad tactics and they are pretty mimicking of unsuccessful tactics of the past from Progressive Portland and Ethan’s campaign,” Burnett said. “If you look at it from the outside there’s a lot of through-lines between all of the tactics and I think this is hopefully the last chapter of it.”

Strimling has been defending the People First’s mailer online and promoting the group’s slate through text messaging. He did not respond to a phone message requesting an interview.

Batson said in his newspaper column that the charter commission campaign reminded him of his three-year council term while Strimling was mayor and Progressive Portland was sending out missives.

“If I aligned with former Mayor Ethan Strimling on policy during my council tenure, I was his best friend,” Batson wrote. “If I strayed, I received coordinated constituent harassment and political pressure to fall in line.”

According to 11-day pre-election campaign finance reports filed this week, People First Charter has raised over $17,000, the vast majority of which came from four groups. Top donors include Massachusetts & Northern New England Laborers’ District Council ($5,000), Southern Maine DSA ($4,000), People First Portland ($3,219) and the United Association Local 718 Plumbers and Pipefitters ($2,500).

The PAC reported spending nearly $12,000, leaving about $5,000 on hand heading into the last week of the campaign.

On May 17, the group reported spending about $1,090 in support of each of the seven candidates it endorsed and about $248 against each of the four candidates it opposes. The total – $8,618 – was paid to Daylight Communications, a Massachusetts company, for the mailer. On May 21, the group spent $321 on each candidate it endorsed and paid $2,250 to Dale Rand Printing for “canvass material” plus another $52 on text messaging. Three days later, it spent $838 on Facebook ads.

The People First Charter campaign is hurting the candidates the group is trying to get elected, some of them say.

Stewart-Bouley, who also wrote a newspaper column about the group’s tactics, said she decided to speak out about the flyer after it became a topic of conversation with voters. On social media, she noted that the group is making it harder for candidates who already have an uphill battle.

“Certain local groups are creating a situation where honestly, and I say this with love and care, your actions have the ability to harm marginalized candidates,” she said. “It’s not OK. Support us if you choose, but don’t hobble us because you aren’t reading the room.”

Those comments were amplified by others endorsees, including at-large candidates Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Catherine Buxton, who added that “if we are really interested in shifting power locally, that also means in the tactics and leadership not just in City Hall, but with local groups and leaders who also wield a lot of power and influence.”

Anthony Emerson, another at large candidate endorsed by the group, also wrote a column, distancing himself from the tactics.

“Allow me to be clear: Not a single candidate endorsed by People First Charter supports personal attacks on other candidates, nor were we informed that our names would be featured above personal attacks,” he said. “That mailer came as much of a shock to us as it did to everyone else, and some other endorsed candidates have already disavowed it.”

Buxton said in a lengthy statement that the tactics are putting candidates like her, who want to get the big money out of politics, in an uncomfortable position of having to explain why a PAC is raising money and sending mailers on their behalf. “Now we seem hypocritical for engaging in dialogue about reforming how we fund elections,” she wrote.

Zack Barowitz, a candidate in District 3, said in a newspaper column that at least one of his supporters removed his campaign sign from their lawn after receiving the mailer. He said that sign was restored after he assured the couple that he was not consulted on the mailer and did not support the group’s tactics or rhetoric.

Meanwhile, People First Charter also is running social media ads saying their slate supports eliminating the city manager position. But the candidates themselves say they have more nuanced stances, with most supporting some sort of city administrator to oversee daily operations under a strong mayor system.

Robert O’Brien, who is running unopposed in District 2 and was neither targeted nor supported by the group, said a questionnaire that the group circulated before making endorsements was “by far the most tortured” of the half dozen he filled out, lumping a number of general issues into one question.

For example, one question asked: “Do you support amending the charter to guarantee basic needs like shelter, housing, Pre-K, public transportation, green space, and public health for all residents in need?”

O’Brien said it was clear that the group would use the surveys not only to support candidates, but to oppose candidates who were not in “lockstep” with the group’s goals. “It felt like a game of gotcha,” he said.

Ryan Lizanecz, who is running in District 5 and was neither targeted nor supported by the group, said the mailer is a topic of conversation while campaigning door-to-door.

“It seems to be overwhelmingly negative, from what I hear,” Lizanecz said, adding the move could derail months of campaigning for the candidates involved. “I’m very thankful I’m not involved with it.”

City Councilor April Fournier also denounced the tactics. She wrote on Facebook that she was “watching in absolute horror as a local, supposedly progressive PAC puts out literature that is divisive, villainizing fellow candidates, and creating collateral damage for the candidates that it endorsed.”

Fournier said some voters are saying they will no longer support some of the candidates who were endorsed by the group. 

“And now those candidates have to spend precious campaign time trying to explain that this was done without their knowledge or permission when they should be focusing on their campaigns, their issues, their plans in the final two weeks,” she added. “These strategies do not work. That era is over. We’re not going back there.”

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