Diane Russell’s spending choices raise questions about her debt-ridden campaign

Good morning from Augusta. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Russell raised a lot of eyebrows in political circles with her latest financial showing and not in a good way.

The former state representative from Portland raised less than $50,000 through 2017’s end, alongside an eye-popping $73,000 of debt with only $5,000 left. What’s most notable is what she was — and wasn’t — spending money on.

She owes consultants and her own party, but she spent lots on food and travel. Russell’s latest filing shows that she has $34,000 in debt to fundraising consultants and another $24,000 to a digital consulting firm. She owes $8,500 to the Maine Democratic Party, most of it for access to the Voter Activation Network, a crucial piece of campaigning software. But while she only raised 10th-most in the 24-person gubernatorial field, she has spent $5,900 on travel and $2,500 on food. That ranks her second in the field in each of those categories.

A lot of that was on trips and small purchases close to home. Given that debt, many of Russell’s purchases are questionable. She spent $2,400 on airfare alone, taking apparent trips to California, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte. In the latter city, she spent $15 at a hair salon. She spent a total of $650 with Lyft, a ride-sharing company, and $167 at the Hilltop Superette, a market close to her Munjoy Hill home. She spent $120 at Starbucks. While Democrat Adam Cote and Republican Mary Mayhew spent more than her on travel and food, respectively, they both had far fewer expenses.

She says all expenses were campaign-related, but she dodged several questions in written exchanges. In an email exchange beginning last Friday, Russell said “all” expenses “relate to the campaign.” She dodged questions about debt except to say her campaign “made early investments in outreach and digital with the understanding they would pay off in the long-term, but that we would take a hit in the short-term.” When asked more questions on Tuesday, she didn’t answer them and said she was “attacked for raising too much small donor money” during a failed state Senate campaign in 2016 and now, she was being “attacked for raising too little small donor money.” She asked, “What exactly is a female Democratic candidate supposed to raise to make everyone happy?” Russell’s political committee expenses were questioned by Pine Tree Watch in 2016 and she has been fined twice before by the Maine Ethics Commission, but state law is permissive on spending.

But the red ink signals problems for her campaign. With only $5,000 on-hand as of 2017’s end against so much debt, it’s fair to question the viability of Russell’s campaign, since new money should be put there. Six months after an election, the Maine Ethics Commission considers debt to be contributions to a candidate, subject to limits under state law. Two of Russell’s creditors didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Maine Democratic Party spokesman Scott Ogden declined comment, but another person familiar with the party’s arrangements with candidates said it promptly moves to cut off access to the Voter Activation Network for those who miss payments. Russell’s reported missed payments go back to October. She didn’t answer questions about that.

Poliquin touts campaign cash advantage

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin is in a strong fundraising position going into 2018, but a Democrat says he’s in a good spot. In a release earlier this week, Poliquin, a Republican from the 2nd District, said he raised more than $2 million by year’s end with $1.93 million left, which is more than he raised by that point in the previous election. Assistant Maine House Majority Leader Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said he’ll report $345,000 for 2017, more than Democrat Emily Cain had by this point her 2014 campaign for what was then an open seat. Cain won a primary against Troy Jackson, the current Maine Senate minority leader, but lost the general election to Poliquin. Five other Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination this year. Full reports in the race are due to the Federal Election Commission on Jan. 31, when we’ll see the first report from Democratic candidate and conservationist Lucas St. Clair of Hampden.

Get ready for another fight over raising taxes to pay for care

Organizers of a petition drive for a referendum to fund and create a home care system for all senior citizens say they succeeded. The organizers, led by the Maine People’s Alliance, scheduled a news conference this morning in Augusta to announce that they collected enough signatures to trigger a ballot question. The initiative would provide daily living services to people older than 65 and people with disabilities, regardless of their income. It would be funded with new payroll taxes for employers and employees on salaries above $127,200 annually. Those taxes are expected to generate $132 million a year. If Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap certifies the signatures and voters approve the measure later this year as a referendum, it will likely encounter fierce opposition in the Legislature, which last year turned back another tax on upper earners that would have benefitted public schools.

Democrats continue press for over-the-counter Narcan rules

The Legislature enacted a law in 2016 that called for an opioid overdose antidote, to be dispensed by pharmacists over the counter, but Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has yet to move on it. House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, both Democrats, sent a letter to the Maine Pharmacy Board urging quick action on naloxone. The board voted in August 2017 to approve the rules but the executive branch has held them up.

Reading list

  • Maine energy providers lost a bid for a massive renewable power contract with Massachusetts. A New Hampshire company called Evensource and its “Northern Pass” proposal to deliver hydropower from Quebec was chosen on Thursday. Among the losing bids was a $950 million proposal from Central Maine Power. A CMP spokesman said the company will continue preparing a route through western Maine for an energy corridor.
  • Republicans and Democrats disagree on how to express their opposition to white supremacy. The Legislative Council, which is made up of five Republican and five Democratic leaders from the Legislature, rejected a resolve to qualify neo-Nazis as terrorists on Thursday. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, says, however, that he is behind another resolve due to go to the House and Senate next week, which condemns segregationist messages and actions in more general terms.
  • Olympia Snowe is among the defendants in a class-action lawsuit against the Aetna health insurance company. Snowe, a former Republican U.S. senator from Maine, has been on Aetna’s board since 2014. She is one of a dozen board members named in a complaint regarding a pending $77 billion merger between Aetna and CVS Health. The lawsuit, brought by an Aetna shareholder, alleges a financial filing by the company was intentionally misleading to secure shareholder support.
  • There will be fewer lobsters in the future but Maine’s fishing industry will survive. That’s the takeaway from a study by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which estimates the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine could decline by two-thirds by 2050. The expected decline is due to warming ocean water.
  • Wash your hands. Now. And cover your cough. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention says Maine’s flu season is in full swing and the illness has taken hold in the schools. So far, 22 people have died from the flu this year, including five adults in the past week. There have already been more than 1,700 confirmed cases.

Winter karma’s going to get you. Gonna knock you right in the head.

When I was taking my kids to the car Thursday morning for school, my 7-year-old was kicking a snowball around in the driveway and almost slipped and fell on some ice.

“Well, that was almost instant karma,” he said. I was a little surprised. I’d never heard him mention karma before but hoped he learned about it from John Lennon. That’s not the case. He told me today he learned it from his 13-year-old brother.

Looks like the lessons go on. Here’s his soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd and edited by Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.