Chipman superior to Russell in Portland Senate race

The vote to fill the Maine Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Justin Alfond will be held on June 14, about five months before Election Day. That’s the date of the Democratic primary, in which three candidates are vying to succeed Alfond in heavily Democratic District 27, which includes the eastern half of Portland and the islands in Casco Bay still ruled by City Hall. There’ll be a Republican on the ballot in November, Mark Lockman, as well as a Green Independent, Seth Baker, but the chances either of them will best the candidate with the “D” next to their name, especially in a presidential election year, are worse than bad.

Alfond’s departure creates a gaping leadership void in Portland’s legislative delegation to Augusta, if not the Maine Democratic Party as a whole. The former Senate President, who was relegated to minority leader when Republicans gained control of that body two years ago, cannot run for reelection this year due to term limits. The vacancy has attracted two state representatives, Ben Chipman and Diane Russell, trying to hop up to the upper chamber, as well as a political newcomer, Dr. Chuck Radis, who lives on Peaks Island.

There isn’t much daylight between the three candidates’ positions on issues like education (needs more funding), health care (needs more funding) or drug addiction (less jail time, more treatment and, naturally, more funding). So, in the absence of substantive policy differences, Donkey Party voters in District 27 are left to consider this question: which candidate’s political fundraising shenanigans are more odious?

This is really a matter of weighing Chipman’s Clean Elections rule-bending against Russell’s questionable management of a political action committee, since Dr. Radis, the newbie (who’s over two decades older than his opponents), hasn’t had the experience or the opportunity to run afoul of the state Ethics Commission.

When one compares the two state reps in this regard, Chipman’s sins pale beside Russell’s.

In March, Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting published a devastating investigative piece on Russell’s Working Families PAC in which she revealed that of the nearly $40,000 Russell had raised for her so-called “leadership PAC” since 2013, ostensibly to support fellow Democrats running for Maine House seats, only $1,550 had been dispensed to Donkey Party politicians or organizations. Meanwhile, Russell paid herself over $7,700, ostensibly to build an email list of lefty activists, and spent thousands more on out-of-state travel expenses, as well as food and booze during meetings and events at Portland bars and restaurants.

Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A couple months after that bombshell dropped, a political operative who’s supposedly “volunteering” for Russell’s Senate campaign, Steven Biel, filed a complaint against Chipman with the state Ethics Commission alleging that Chipman, a publicly funded Clean Elections candidate, improperly spent money from private donors on a mailer announcing two meet-and-greet gatherings. Chipman apparently took advantage of a loophole in state election law that allows the hosts of political house parties — who can spend up to $250 on invites, food and drinks — to pool their contributions and become a “host committee” capable of collectively spending a lot more money promoting meet-the-candidate events, even if those events don’t take place in their living room.

At least one member of the Ethics Commission reportedly thought Chipman’s tactic was squirrelly, but the four-member panel voted unanimously not to investigate Biel’s complaint, key parts of which were determined to be inaccurate. Chipman, who said Ethics Commission staff essentially OK’d the “host committee” expenditure before it was made, called Biel’s complaint a “politically motivated attack.”

That’s certainly what it looks like to me, though I must admit I’m already biased against Biel, who’s been trolling my personal Facebook page for weeks, leaving obscene posts criticizing my coverage of Mayor Ethan Strimling’s romantic relationship with a high-powered lobbyist and public relations executive.

But even if Chipman improperly pooled $1,800 worth of contributions to pay for some campaign junk mail, that’s peanuts compared to the sums Russell has spent on activities of dubious value. The Ethics Commission has repeatedly penalized Russell for sloppy accounting related to her PAC, levying fines in excess of $4,000 last year alone, Schalit reported.

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

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

To me, the mere fact that Russell has a PAC makes her the inferior choice for this Senate seat. The basic mechanism behind such “leadership PACs” is to collect cash from big businesses and wealthy individuals hoping to curry favor with elected officials, and then dole that money out to fellow politicians in hopes of currying favor with them when it’s time to choose party members for leadership positions.

That’s a textbook example of money corrupting the political process. Portland Democrats should elect a state senator willing to follow a cleaner curriculum. Given his experience and integrity, Chipman would be my choice.

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.