The wreck of Diane Russell’s campaign crazy train

I’ve seen some ugly campaigning in the two decades I’ve been covering Portland politics. For example, in 2007, Democratic attorney/lobbyist Tony Buxton financed a last-minute attack on John Anton and Ben Meiklejohn, two Green Independents running in what are nominally non-partisan races for the Portland City Council and school board, respectively. “These GREENS cause CHAOS,” read Buxton’s roadside signs, with big red X’s over the candidates’ last names. Anton won anyway, but Meiklejohn lost his school board seat that year.

In 2008, City Councilor Ed Suslovic was the target of what he called “an out and out smear job” by a fellow Democrat. Shortly before Election Day, a shady political action committee (Is there any other kind?) paid for a mailer and newspaper inserts that asked, “How Can Voting For Ed Suslovic Be Right … When So Much Has Gone Wrong?” The campaign lit claimed, among other dubious charges, that Suslovic “presided over the biggest tax increase seen in years” and “personally held up waterfront development” — a reference to Suslovic’s swing vote, along with those of three Greens, opposing a redevelopment proposal for the Maine State Pier favored by the Democratic Party faithful. Suslovic lost that election to Dory Waxman, whose campaign received significant funding from backers of the doomed pier proposal.

The political rhetoric in local elections had remained relatively civil since then, partly because the Greens, who’d been mounting an increasingly successful challenge to the Donkey Party’s stranglehold on Portland politics, started to lose traction and seats at the big table. But the embers of that old animosity were rekindled this spring by Rep. Diane Russell. Her bid for the Maine Senate seat being vacated by Justin Alfond was the meanest and ugliest local campaign I’ve witnessed yet.

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

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

Russell’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primary was fellow state Rep. Ben Chipman, who served in the Maine House as an independent (unenrolled) legislator before joining the Donkey Party last year. Dems like Russell don’t need an elephant’s memory to recall that back in the days of the Green insurgency, Chipman was a Green Party organizer, county official, and legislative aide in Augusta.

Russell, who’s boasted of her prowess as an online “grassroots” organizer, had amassed a war chest of nearly $90,000 by the end of May, mostly from out-of-state donors, and blew thousands on political junk mail that questioned Chipman’s bona fides as a Democrat. Her campaign lit also contained the blatantly misleading claim that Chipman “took money from Republicans to veto health care access” in 2009. (In fact, Chipman has long supported Medicaid expansion, and he worked that year to help defeat a tax referendum measure that was soundly rejected by voters of all political persuasions.)

Last weekend, whether by accident or design, Russell’s crazy train of a campaign flew right off the rails. Registered Dems in the district were alarmed to find photocopies of a handwritten letter, purportedly penned by a “Democratic primary voter,” stealthily delivered to their homes under cover of darkness. The letter essentially repeated the contorted claim in Russell’s lit regarding Chipman’s ’09 referendum work, and added allegations that Chipman had “bullied voters at a nursing home,” “harassed and threatened a tenant,” and was considered by police to be a threat to his own mother.

No, I’m not making this up.

A stamp on the “letter” claimed it was the work of a group backed by Americans Take Action, which is described on its website as “a network of populist progressives who believe that the American government should represent we the people once again.” That sounds to me like the type of flighty, lefty political entity a progressive online organizer like Russell might swap e-mails with. But in an interview with the Press Herald, her campaign manager, Nick Murray, denied any involvement, and added that he thinks it’s “really sad that people are automatically attributing this mailer” to Russell’s campaign.

Sad is one word that comes to mind.

By the time the sun rose Monday morning, there were reports of a shady guy going around town defacing Chipman campaign signs with the line “Slum Lord for Senate.” After lunch, Alfond issued a press release endorsing Chipman and excoriating the “gutter politics” of the Russell campaign, which he called “beyond the pale.” “[I]t makes our democracy weaker when we disrespect Maine voters like this,” Alfond declared.

The next day, Chipman trounced Russell at the polls, leaving her in third place behind a genial Peaks Island doctor making his first run for public office, whom Russell trashed in her campaign lit as having “No experience.”

Several voters interviewed by the daily paper on Tuesday cited Russell’s negative campaign strategy as a reason they picked Chipman. “This is Maine, not Texas,” one remarked.

Here’s hoping Russell and any other pols around here like her got that message loud and clear this week: “Don’t mess with Maine.”

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.