‘Dark money’ from California backs Maine Democrat challenging Senate president

A California-based political organization has pledged $50,000 to the Democrat in one of Maine’s most-watched Senate contests, again highlighting that money from out-of-state is pouring into legislative races.

The $50,000 pledge, which was revealed in registration paperwork filed last month for a political action committee called Progressive Maine, is intended to help Democrat Jonathan Fulford unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Thibodeau for the Waldo County Senate seat. Thibodeau, who is the president of the Senate, eked out a victory over Fulford by just 135 votes in 2014.

Joshua Grossman, president of a Super-PAC called Progressive Kick Independent Expenditures of Oakland, California, said Monday that allocating the $50,000 to Progressive Maine on Fulford’s behalf was part of a community organizing “pilot project.” He said the money will be used to hire local staff to coordinate volunteers in activities such as door-to-door canvassing. That includes backing Fulford and all five ballot question on the Nov. 8 ballot. He said the money is not intended for political advertisements.

“Fulford is someone we want to help and we’re not pretending otherwise,” said Grossman. “This is an attempt on our part to foster a team organization project which is neighbors educating neighbors.”

Progressive Kick has supported numerous congressional and state-level candidates, including in Maine. In 2014, the organization pledged nearly $1.3 million for Democrats challenging what it saw as vulnerable Republican governors, including spending more than $100,000 in opposition to Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election campaign. The group has reportedly been interested in Maine politics dating back to 2011 when it sought ways to unseat former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.

The PAC’s top donor in 2014 was National Nurses United for Patient Protection, which contributed more than $1.5 million, along with dozens of individual donors from across the country. Between January 2015 and June 2016, according to Federal Election Commission data, donors have included nursing and teacher labor unions in California and a handful of individuals who combined for about $433,000.

The Maine Progressives PAC’s treasurer, Neil Reiff, is a former deputy counsel for the Democratic National Committee is now an election law specialist based in Washington, D.C.

Thibodeau criticized the organization’s anticipated independent expenditures in the race, which because they are being administered by a Maine-based PAC, could come without the California organization being required to reveal its donors.

“There’s little question that dark money has a favorite candidate in this race and it’s not Mike Thibodeau,” said Thibodeau. “There is no question that their intent is to try to influence the outcome in Waldo County while shielding their undisclosed donors.”

Maine law regarding disclosure of donors to organizations making independent expenditures was changed in 2015 by citizen initiative. Under the new law, organizations that buy at least $250 of political advertisements in favor of a certain candidate or cause must disclose their top three donors within the advertisement itself. In this case, the California organization appears to be exempt from identifying its donors for two reasons: It does not intend to purchase advertising and the money is being administered through a Maine-based PAC.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which oversees campaign finance in Maine, said he couldn’t speak specifically about this group without inspecting its filings but he explained the law in general.

“The idea of the top three funders disclosure is that when a citizen receives the actual communication, such as the mailer or broadcast advertisement, included with that is a statement about those those top three funders are,” said Wayne. “It doesn’t cover face-to-face communications.”

Fulford, a publicly financed candidate, said Monday that he’d recently heard about the $50,000 pledged on his behalf from a reporter but didn’t know much about it. Though he is barred by law from communicating with Progressive Kick, Fulford said he does not condone the organization’s spending in his race.

This election will see record amounts of money spent by wealthy individuals and corporations, some visible and some invisible, because the Supreme Court ruling Citizens United,” said Fulford. “In Maine, we will see independent expenditures by groups from out of state. I do not encourage or endorse this spending in my race. I will introduce legislation that will challenge this ruling.”

Progressive Maine — the PAC formed by Progressive Kick — is looking to hire full-time organizers in Belfast and Winterport, according to a Sept. 3 Facebook post by the Waldo County Progressives.

Grossman, who is the founder of an eco-friendly paper products company called New Leaf Paper, said he chose the state because of its voting history and low population in each Senate district. According to Grossman, more than 100,000 Mainers turned out to vote in 2012 who didn’t return in 2014, and they were disproportionately young, progressive Democrats. His goal is to bring them back to the polls.

“[The Thibodeau-Fulford election] was a close contest [in 2014] and we hope we can make a difference,” he said. “We could have chosen somewhere else in Maine. We had to do it somewhere so this is where that somewhere wound up being.”

Thibodeau and Fulford are scheduled to appear in a candidate forum at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast.


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.