Senate candidates assert distance from negative ads

Posted Oct. 28, 2010, at 10:09 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 02, 2010, at 11:33 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Thanks to negative campaign fliers sent out this week by an out-of-state political action committee, mud season has come at an odd time of year to Hancock County.

It’s not melting snow that has resulted in the mud-slinging but negative campaigning that targets James Schatz, the Democratic candidate in a three-way race for state Senate District 28.

The Alexandria, Va.-based Republican State Leadership Committee has mailed fliers to Hancock County voters criticizing Schatz for actions he took as a Blue Hill selectman.

The fliers are part of a $400,000 ad campaign that the GOP group has launched on five key state Senate races, including the Bangor-area District 32 race.

The fliers take Schatz to task for agreeing with other selectmen to pay “10,000 taxpayer dollars to a political organization” in 2008 and then voting the next year to cancel the town’s $10,000 Fourth of July fireworks celebration. The literature does not identify which political organization received the money or why selectmen paid it.

According to Schatz, the group that received the money was the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, a group that was formed to try to repeal Maine’s school consolidation law. The reason selectmen gave local taxpayer funds to the group was that residents, unhappy that state officials were pushing them to join a larger school district, voted at a special town meeting to do so, he said Wednesday. Blue Hill is one of seven neighboring towns in the area that continue to reject the state’s consolidation mandate.

Schatz said the fliers also misrepresent his vote on the 2009 fireworks display. He said he voted in favor of holding the holiday celebration but the two other selectmen decided the economic climate was too poor for the town and area businesses to afford the fireworks.

“It’s totally dishonest,” Schatz said of the campaign literature. “It’s not based in any fact.”

Schatz said he thinks the mailing effort could end up backfiring for Republicans. People in the Blue Hill area are familiar with the reasons selectmen decided to cancel last year’s fireworks display, he said, and with the town’s financial support of repealing the state’s school consolidation law.

“They see through it,” he said. “They think it’s a joke.”

Schatz said he does not think his Republican opponent, Ellsworth resident Brian Langley, played a role in collecting information for or distributing the negative ads. While acknowledging that no one party “has a monopoly on bad manners,” Schatz said people should be cautious about which interests end up having their favored candidate in the state Senate.

“It doesn’t bode well for a group that does this kind of thing,” Schatz said. “I don’t want to see that kind of influence get elected.”

Langley said Wednesday he “absolutely” had nothing to do with the fliers. He said it was “disheartening” to think that a group from out of state could sabotage the race by spending tens of thousands of dollars on an advertising campaign that none of the candidates wants.

“I don’t know if they are designed to target Jim or to backfire to make me look bad,” Langley said. “No sane or reasonable person would drop that kind of money thinking it is going to help me.”

Langley, who now serves with Schatz in the state House of Representatives, said he has tried to contact the RSLC to ask it to stop the mailings, but has not been able to track it down.

Langley said he has seen other advertisements that have targeted him and Bar Harbor resident Lynne Williams, a Green Independent running for the same office. The campaign should be about issues such as jobs and the state’s economic climate, he said, not about negative and misleading accusations.

“There’s an ugly side to this that doesn’t belong here,” he said.

For the record, Langley said he does not take issue with either of Schatz’s actions cited by the fliers. He, like Schatz, thinks the school consolidation law should be repealed, and he thinks Blue Hill selectmen have the right and responsibility to be frugal with taxpayer money, even when it comes to the Fourth of July.

“This is local control and local politics, which is what I’m all about,” Langley said. “If it’s something you can’t afford, you just don’t do it.”

Williams, a lawyer, said Thursday that she found the mailings “outrageous.” She remembers seeing similar tactics when she lived in New York and California, she said, and thinks such activity should be discouraged.

“It’s really pretty disgusting the way they have insinuated themselves into this race,” Williams said. “Jim, Brian and I respect and actually like each other.”

Williams said some Democratic-leaning groups in Maine have spent money on promotion efforts that, by making no reference to her campaign, suggest there are only two candidates in the race, but she said the RSLC mailings are on a whole different scale. What voters should consider, she said, is which candidate is best equipped to make state government responsive to the needs of Maine residents.

“I understand Augusta. I’ve sued five state agencies,” Williams said. “It’s really important that people see the Green Independent Party as an alternative.”

The recent mailings about Schatz do not represent the first time a state Senate candidate in Hancock County has been targeted by a political action committee hoping to get an opponent elected.

In 2002, a group calling itself Maine Unlimited distributed fliers about Dennis Damon, criticizing the Trenton Democrat for his personal use of a government credit card while serving as a Hancock County commissioner. Damon said he used the card in 1999 on behalf of a client who immediately wrote a check to the county to repay the expense and that there was no policy or law that prevented him from doing so.

Damon, who now represents District 28 in the state Senate, won the 2002 election and each one since. He is barred from running again this year by term limits.

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