AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Heritage Policy Center, arguably Maine’s most active and vocal conservative public policy group, is losing its most visible spokesman.
Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the think tank and a close adviser to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, announced Tuesday that he is leaving Maine next month to start a similar organization in Florida.
“This is a great opportunity,” Bragdon said in an interview. “Florida is the fourth-largest state, and I’m looking forward to having an influence on limited government and free-market policies there.”
For the past 3½ years, Bragdon has helped lead an organization that has played a major and often controversial role in policy debates over such hot-button issues as government spending, welfare reform and, most recently, Maine’s pension debt.
The 35-year-old also served as co-chairman of LePage’s transition team after the November election as well as co-led the team that helped the governor put together his $6.1 billion budget proposal.
“Tarren Bragdon is a leading voice for free markets and personal liberty,” LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said in a written statement. “Gov. LePage appreciates Tarren’s principled advocacy as well as his counsel to the governor’s transition and early months in office. We all wish Tarren the very best and will be following his work in Florida.”
Bragdon said the as-yet-unnamed Florida organization will focus on Medicaid reform, health care and county-level government. The group will be affiliated with the State Policy Network, an umbrella group of free-market organizations including the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
For many conservatives, the Maine Heritage Policy Center is the go-to place for data and reports, although Democrats and liberal-leaning groups often dismiss those reports as erroneous, misleading or skewed.
A former lawmaker, Bragdon has appeared often in front of the cameras warning about “out of control spending” in Augusta. The center led several unsuccessful ballot campaigns to enact a “taxpayer bill of rights” to limit government spending, and Bragdon and center staff frequently hold luncheons and lectures to call attention to issues.
But the center and Bragdon, in particular, also have been accused by their detractors of being too cozy with Republican politicians, acting more like a political advocacy group than a nonprofit “think tank.”
Critics also have accused the MHPC of hypocrisy by publishing the salaries of all state employees while refusing to release the names of the center’s donors. Bragdon, who reportedly earns more than $100,000 a year, also sparked the ire of some state employees earlier this spring when he suggested that many state retiree pensions were “lavish” compared with the private sector.
As a lifelong Mainer who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Maine and Husson University, respectively, Bragdon said it was a difficult decision to leave the state. But Bragdon said he has known Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Republican Florida legislators for several years.
“It’s an exciting time for conservatives in the state of Maine, so on one hand it is very hard to be leaving,” Bragdon said. But he said he believes the Maine Heritage Policy Center will continue to shape policy debates.
Bragdon is the second high-profile person with the center to leave in recent months. LePage recruited the center’s education expert, Steve Bowen, to serve as the commissioner of the Department of Education.
MHPC board chairman Michael Duddy said the board would launch a search for Bragdon’s successor.