A worker with Central Maine Power tests power lines in Oakland in December. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Online, over the air and in the mailbox, Maine residents are about to be bombarded with a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at saving the state’s two dominant electric utilities from being voted out of existence in November.

If Mainers vote yes, they’d make history – endorsing a first-of-its-kind plan to create a state-level public power company through a hostile takeover. Supporters want to buy out the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power – which distribute 97% of the state’s electricity – and replace them with Pine Tree Power, a new not-for-profit distribution utility.

The ballot initiative was launched by a citizens group called Our Power. It’s already been outspent 17 to 1 by the parent companies of the two utilities – Avangrid and Enmax.

Together, the two legacy power companies have given $18.4 million to three ballot committees, which have received 100% of their funding from the utilities. The committees have spent $16.5 million fighting back against the existential threat.

The most affluent committee, Maine Affordable Energy, is paying a trio of former state legislators to advocate against the proposed power alternative, according to public records and interviews. The committee also paid $5 million to a Democratic media and political strategy firm called Left Hook, which works with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is staffed with Obama campaign alumni.

Willy Ritch, the Portland consultant heading up the anti-takeover campaign, said he would not characterize the payments as a public relations campaign, but instead as part of a “coalition that is opposing a statewide referendum proposal.”


Experts disagree.

“It’s really hard to recognize the features of a corporate influence campaign a lot of the time,” said Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies the public relations industry. “Because it looks so much like what activists or advocates or ordinary groups on the other side are trying to do. And that’s by design.”

At its core, the ballot question is a battle over the future of who will distribute renewable energy in Maine. Existing utilities want to maintain control over the poles and wires and the profits that flow from them. Activists say a not-for-profit company managed by local people can bring about a transition that’s more equitable and less costly.

Nationally, the Maine campaign is emblematic of how legacy, investor-owned utilities are being challenged, struggling to maintain their dominance as the impacts of climate change force an uneven, contentious transition to a low-carbon economy.

The struggle is also unique in another way. Maine has strong campaign finance laws. Its utilities must disclose their political spending – a rarity.

Adding to the complexity: Neither of Maine’s top two power companies create electricity; they only distribute it. And Maine has one of the cleanest electricity mixes in the country. Central Maine Power’s parent company is also ranked among the top wind and solar generators in the United States.


Yet many Mainers consider the two companies unreliable, expensive and out-of-touch. CMP ranks poorly for customer service, but that may be largely attributed to Maine’s status as the nation’s most forested state – trees regularly topple power lines here, and a big storm can cause outages lasting days. CMP also botched a rollout of a new billing system in 2017. And the utility is under fire from renewable energy advocates who accuse it of foot-dragging on large solar farm connections.

Nativism also fuels some Mainers’ animosity. Avangrid, the CMP parent company, is owned by Iberdrola S.A., a Spanish energy conglomerate whose largest shareholder is the Qatar Investment Authority. Versant Power’s parent is owned by the city of Calgary, Canada. Opponents of the existing utilities paint a picture of greedy, global interests siphoning money away from Maine and thwarting the local control needed to upgrade the grid.

Don Mclean, of Norway, holds a sign supporting a bill to create Pine Tree Power on June 30, 2021. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal


Come November, voters will see this question: “Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”

The proposal for the new plan would create an elected 13-member board made up of a mix of residents from across the state and designated experts. The board would hire a private grid operator chosen through a competitive bidding process.

Avangrid is also separately funding a referendum campaign called No Blank Checks, which would require voter approval for the state to borrow more than $1 billion. The campaign is aimed at discouraging voters from endorsing Pine Tree Power.


But how voters cast their ballots may come down to an article of faith. That’s because voters won’t have a definite date for the creation of the new entity, nor certainty on how it would affect their electric bills. If the ballot initiative to create Pine Tree Power wins, that’s just the beginning. Next, the value of each utility’s assets must be calculated and paid to the companies.

The current value of each utility’s assets is a starting point – nearly $4.16 billion for CMP and $1.24 billion for Versant, or around $5.4 billion total, according to the latest company reports. But CMP says the ultimate sales figure could jump to $13.5 billion.

And no one can be sure how many years it could take for the inevitable legal challenges to play out. Our Power estimates three to four years. Maine Affordable Energy says 10 years is more likely.

Willy Ritch, spokesperson for the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, at his office in Portland. Ritch oversees the campaign to discourage Mainers from voting to seize the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


As part of their influence campaign, the utilities are paying three former Maine legislators to persuade Mainers to vote “no” on the Pine Tree Power plan, public records and interviews show.

Charlotte Warren, a Democratic former legislator, reported to the Maine Ethics Commission on May 1, 2022, that she signed a consulting agreement with a digital marketing firm that has been paid about $266,000 by the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition. She was still in office at the time. But Warren failed to disclose her affiliation two days later, when she co-signed an op-ed against the ballot measure in the Portland Press Herald.


Warren said her actions were adequate.

Former Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, in 2015. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I did then what I have always done – reported any outside income or new projects I was working on to the Legislature. That’s public and anyone can see it,” she said.

She also said that the campaign’s public relations consultant, Ritch, had composed the op-ed that was later published with her name on it. “I chatted with Willy about my thoughts on (Pine Tree Power) and then he drafted and sent it to me and I made some changes,” she said.

Maine Affordable Energy later spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads featuring the op-ed. It was shown to hundreds of thousands of Mainers, creating the appearance of widespread opposition.

Maine Affordable Energy also paid Democratic former lawmaker Edward J. Kane, public records show. Kane, who has spent decades in health care management and is president of the Maine Board of Pharmacy, got involved when he reached out to Ritch in early April. He said that Mainers are “shocked and surprised” by the push for a new utility.

“They are taken aback by the idea that the state could do this.”


Kane said he has been contacting former lawmakers and business leaders to inform them of the potential negative impacts of Pine Tree Power and soliciting them to join Maine Affordable Energy, which includes business interests and organized labor unions.

Former Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, in 2016. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He declined to say how much Maine Affordable Energy paid him for his efforts but called it a “modest amount.”  ​​

Maine Affordable Energy has also had Republican former lawmaker Andre Cushing on a monthly retainer since last summer, the company confirmed. Cushing said he was approached about doing “grassroots work” for the coalition after he left office. Currently a Penobscot County commissioner and Realtor, Cushing declined to specify how much he’s being paid by the committee. He said he hasn’t declared his compensation during speaking engagements.


Public power advocates point to the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, Florida, to bolster their case. Residents there voted in 2005 to buy the assets of the incumbent power company. Winter Park is among 2,000 towns and cities served by not-for-profit electric companies, according to the American Public Power Association.

Takeovers are rare, and usually involve cities, a process called municipalization. Since 2000, more than 60 communities have considered municipalization, but only nine proceeded, according to a 2019 study cited by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.


The fight in Maine is unprecedented in scope and potential losses. In smaller takeover battles, incumbent utilities lost a share of their business. In Maine, CMP and Versant are threatened with going out of business.

Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager of Our Power, said Maine is ready for the change, which was in part spurred by the state’s high level of public interest in climate change issues.

“To me, it feels like the logical next step,” she said. “Is it bold? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes.”

Kenneth Colburn, a former consultant with the global energy policy firm Regulatory Assistance Project, said there’s a sentiment the state’s two major utilities haven’t done enough to prepare for a new emphasis on clean energy technologies such as heat pumps and electric vehicles – necessary tools to meet the state’s own climate goals.

Workers upgrade the Central Maine Power station in Windsor in 2021.  Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal


The campaign against Pine Tree Power has so far spent up to $1 million this year on Facebook advertisements warning of the dangers of a government takeover of the power lines, according to data from Meta, the parent company of Facebook.


“A handful of politicians want to spend $13.5 billion to take over Maine’s power grid, putting costs and reliability in the hands of the government,” reads the text of one Facebook ad.

Other ads paint the ballot initiative for Pine Tree Power as a ploy by the Democratic Socialists of America: “What do you think about the DSA’s plan for government-controlled power in Maine?”

The $16.5 million the utilities have so far spent fighting public power stands in stark contrast with the $608,703 spent by Our Power, which raised most of its funds from small individuals and gifts from progressive foundations.

Avangrid’s cash has largely gone toward hiring large Democratic consultancy firms.

In addition to Left Hook, the strategy group that received $5 million, Global Strategy Group, a New York-based polling firm, was paid $690,000. The company has a history of working with fossil fuel giant Chesapeake Energy and with Amazon to bust union organizing on Staten Island.

As Election Day nears, utility executives in other states will be watching the campaign.

The referendum presents a threat not only to Avangrid’s business model in Maine, said Colburn, the former energy policy consultant, but also to the utilities it operates in Connecticut and New York. State governments there also have aggressive climate agendas, and customers frustrated by high rates and storm outages.

“This is one ship they don’t want to see launched,” Colburn said of investor-backed utilities across the U.S., “because it could turn into an armada.”

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