Diane Russell’s PAC problem

Liberal Democrats are understandably frustrated. They want to like this high-profile female politician who shares most, if not all, of their progressive views. She’s been in government for many years and is now seeking an even higher office. The last thing these liberals want is for a Republican to win that seat, so they’re loathe to criticize her too much.

But they can’t get past her shady campaign-financing schemes — in particular, her political action committee, with its questionable contributors and dubious expenditures. They’re uncomfortable with the way she mixes her personal email activities with her political responsibilities. Despite her rhetoric about changing the system from the outside, she’s obviously an insider.

I’m talking, of course, about State Rep. Diane Russell, of Portland, who’s running for a state Senate seat this fall.

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Last week, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting published an article by Naomi Schalit headlined, “Portland legislator paid self from leadership PAC founded to support other candidates.” It revealed that Russell’s Working Families PAC, which was ostensibly set up to support the candidacies of fellow Democrats in the Maine House, has spent nearly $40,000 since 2013, but only $1,550 went to Donkey Party politicians or organizations. Over $7,700 went directly into Russell’s purse for work she supposedly did to build an email list for local and national progressive causes.

Much of the rest of the PAC’s expenditures paid for Russell to travel, eat in expensive restaurants, drink coffee and booze, and raise more funds for the same purposes. Here’s a sampling of some of the expenditures in her PAC’s paperwork:

  • “Food” for a “meeting” last October at Empire, a Chinese restaurant and nightclub on Congress Street: $77.10.
  • A “bourbon and brownies fundraiser,” also held last October, for which Russell paid herself $225.
  • Plane tickets for a trip to “California/Las Vegas” last October: $1,158.40.
  • Accommodations at a Las Vegas hotel last November: $223; and a hotel room in Boston that same month: $155.26.
  • Spending money in Vegas (drawn from her PAC because “debit card wouldn’t work, had to get cash out”): $91.98.
  • “Meeting” at a Starbucks in Suffolk, Virginia, that cost $30 and is dated Nov. 15, 2015, the same day as an expense for “taxi in Las Vegas” ($18.17).
  • “Food for fundraiser” from MJ’s Wine Bar, a drinking establishment in downtown Portland not known for its cuisine or catering, in July 2014: $257.36.
  • “Gas” from the 7-Eleven on Congress Street in July 2014: $50.02 (is Russell driving an SUV?).
  • “Food” at The Corner Room, a restaurant owned by Harding Lee Smith, the chef whose history of racist, homophobic and anti-worker antics has been well documented: $109.70.

The list of contributors to Russell’s PAC is equally troubling and confounding. Jackson Parker, president and CEO of the Maine construction company Reed & Reed, which bids on public projects, gave Russell’s PAC $1,000 in July 2014. The high-powered law firm Pierce Atwood, which also does a lot of business in Augusta, provided $250 that month. There’s $100 from Linwood Higgins, a lobbyist for a horse-racing association, and $300 from Scarborough Downs owner Sharon Terry.

What’s particularly perplexing to me are all the contributions for less than $50. The names of those donors don’t appear in the PAC’s filings, and I’m very curious to know who the heck chips in $5 or $10 or $25 to a PAC like this — or any PAC, for that matter.

Russell admitted to Schalit that her PAC does not even attempt to fulfill its mission statement: helping fellow Dems get elected to the Maine House. “[I]t has a lot to do with elevating the dialog and making sure I understand how to help women get elected,” Russell said.

Elevating the dialog? Gimme a break. Political slush funds like this undermine faith in the democratic process. The only thing Russell is elevating is her bank balance. She’s also done a remarkably shoddy job managing her PAC, which has paid thousands of dollars in fines for late filings over the years.

Russell needs money from businesses, lobbyists and law firms to make sure she understands “how to help women get elected”? That’s insulting and ridiculous. She obviously knows how to get herself elected — she’s done that four times in her Munjoy Hill district.

If Russell wants to get herself elected to the Maine Senate this year, she should follow the lead of the candidate she’s backing for president, Bernie Sanders, by denouncing PACs and refusing to accept suspicious corporate contributions. Of course, she’ll have to dissolve her own PAC first. I suggest she begin that process today.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.