AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s that time of year again, when the airwaves are filled with creepy music and talk of sinister plots and dark days to come.
Try again: election ads.
With just one week left before Mainers head to the ballot box, candidates and political organizations are clogging television airwaves and mailboxes with campaign materials attacking their opponents.
Republicans are accusing Democrats of taxing babies.
Opponents of gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage are accusing the Republican of wanting to “dismantle” Maine’s schools.
And independent Eliot Cutler, who is hoping to ride a last-minute surge to victory next Tuesday in the race for governor, is under attack from both major parties for his business dealings in China and his stance on tax issues.
On Monday, Cutler defended himself against fliers distributed by the Maine Democratic Party that he said are filled with “trash and lies” and ads questioning his commitment to public education.
The fliers label Cutler as a lobbyist for “big oil companies” and suggest he helped the government-owned China National Offshore Oil Co. in efforts to buy an American company until Congress intervened.
Television ads paid for by a political action committee with links to Maine’s teachers union and state employees union — both of which have endorsed Libby Mitchell — also accuse Cutler of working with Chinese companies that moved American jobs overseas or were accused of violating trade laws by “dumping” underpriced products on U.S. markets.
In an interview, Cutler said the legal and lobbying firm in which he was a senior partner — Akin Gump of Washington, D.C. — has worked with American companies doing business in China and Chinese companies working in the U.S. for decades.
In 2007, Cutler opened the Beijing office and was the firm’s senior partner in China. But before that, Cutler said, he was never involved with any of the firm’s work with China.
“I have never moved a single job to China, and I have never been involved with a client that was in the process of moving a job to China,” Cutler said.
Cutler also bristles at suggestions that he was a lobbyist, insisting he was a lawyer who only registered as a lobbyist on a handful of occasions so that he could talk with government officials on specific projects.
“These two campaigns [Democrats and Republicans] don’t know how to respond to an opponent who has said he is not going to be doing any negative campaigning, who has said he would not be running any negative ads,” Cutler said.
But the Maine Democratic Party’s Arden Manning referred to Akin Gump’s own website to support the party’s claims. That site states that Akin Gump lawyers worked with Chinese companies on, among other things, dumping cases and oil projects.
However, the website does not provide dates for those projects that would show whether they took place during Cutler’s two years in Beijing or earlier.
“He was head of the office there,” Manning said. “Staff reported to him, they worked for him and this is what the office does.”
The Democratic Party also released a “fact sheet” citing examples of Akin Gump clients that moved jobs overseas, although again it was unclear whether Cutler was involved in any way.
Mitchell and Democratic legislative candidates, meanwhile, are under attack by Republicans for passing a “baby tax” in Maine.
The allegation — leveled in both television ads and tens of thousands of mail fliers — stems from a 2009 vote on a bill to change the way the Dirigo Health program is funded.
The legislation, LD 1264, was intended to fix a controversial and confusing system of paying for Dirigo by collecting assessments or fees from health insurance companies — a system the companies frequently challenged in court.
Instead, the Legislature voted largely along party lines to require health insurance providers to pay a 2.14 percent assessment on most insurance claims that were paid out. Now, Dirigo is entirely funded through those assessments, federal funds and grants from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, not through allocations from the general fund.
“That is why the Legislature changed it, to make it simpler and more predictable,” said Trish Riley with the Maine Office of Health Policy and Finance.
But Republicans say the assessment is actually a tax because insurance companies merely pass along the additional costs to consumers. And although the assessment applies to most medical claims, GOP strategists chose to focus on the fact that the assessment applies to insurance claims related to child delivery.
Lance Dutson, spokesman for the Maine GOP, defended the party’s use of the word “tax” because consumers end up paying the costs.
“When you increase the costs to businesses, businesses don’t absorb it; they pass it along to consumers,” Dutson said. “That is something that Democrats don’t seem to understand.”