DAVID FARMER

LePage readies for a fight — now or later

Posted Jan. 04, 2012, at 4:06 p.m.

Just one year into his administration — and almost three years from facing voters for re-election — Gov. Paul LePage has built an intertwined and closely related political infrastructure focused on advancing his policies and securing his re-election.

His affiliates include two supposed nonprofits and his already formed re-election committee.

At least on paper, it appears LePage has been running for re-election since March of 2011.

Just three months into his first term, LePage, reportedly using leftover money from his inauguration, launched Maine People Before Politics, a nonprofit organization run by two of LePage’s former campaign hands, Jason Savage and political consultant Brent Littlefield.

People Before Politics claims to be a membership-based nonprofit, but by formation and activities, it appears to be operating as LePage’s external political arm, supporting his policies and defending his activities.

In August, eight months into his four-year term, LePage filed the paperwork to form his re-election campaign committee.

According to the available online records at the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, it’s the earliest formation of a gubernatorial election committee dating back to at least 2002.

On Tuesday, the re-election committee was scheduled to hold a fundraiser, apparently targeting lobbyists and the State House crowd. The invitation gives donors the option of contributing $3,000 to host the event, $1,500 to co-host or $500 for a ticket.

Tuesday is a significant date for State House fundraising. It’s the last day the governor or members of the Legislature can accept campaign contributions from lobbyists. Donations are not allowed during the legislative session, which began Wednesday, Jan. 4.

The event is asking big-dollar supporters to make the maximum donation allowed by law for both 2014’s primary and general elections. Last spring, LePage successfully doubled the limits on campaign gifts while also working to gut Maine’s Clean Election Act.

It takes a lot of gumption to ask donors to max out so far from an election, but that’s apparently the governor’s strategy this year.

Maine People Before Politics and the Committee to Re-Elect Paul LePage share the same treasurer, Richard Swanson, who was also the treasurer for LePage’s successful campaign in 2010.

In addition to his key role in LePage’s electoral and political efforts, Swanson is the deputy director of the Maine State Planning Office, where he serves as a political appointee.

The nonprofit group and the re-election committee also have in common Littlefield, who is an adviser to both and also worked on the governor’s campaign in 2010.

But the orchestration doesn’t stop there.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center has dropped even a pretense of distance between itself and LePage. The conservative advocacy organization played an important part in LePage’s election and transition into office.

Many of the governor’s most extreme policies, including the undermining of Maine’s insurance laws and his efforts to deny 65,000 Mainers health insurance, can be laid at this nonprofit’s feet.

In December, the CEO of the organization appeared on MPBN’s Maine Watch on “behalf of the governor’s office” to defend the governor’s recent budget proposals after Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew pulled out of the appearance.

Maine People Before Politics and the Maine Heritage Policy Center have taken on some of the roles that customarily are played by political parties by working to develop the governor’s policy, engaging voters, organizing volunteers and defending his agenda.

The great advantage is that neither organization is required to reveal the sources of its funding. Unlike political parties and the governor’s re-election committee, the nonprofits operate largely outside political reporting requirements.

LePage’s administration got off to a rocky start with the leaders of the state Republican Party. On the surface, that relationship appears to have mended.

As the GOP works to hold onto control in the Legislature, moderate Republicans and those in tough districts will need to distance themselves from LePage, which means the party will have to pick sides or hold its collective tongue.

Given LePage’s early fundraising efforts and the shadow political organizations that support him, maybe it doesn’t matter what the state’s Republican Party does or says. He has his own well-funded political apparatus at his beck and call, ready to carry his message without regard to Republicans in the Legislature or elsewhere in the state.

There’s lots of idle speculation that LePage won’t run for re-election, that he doesn’t like the job, the legislative process or the people he has to put up with.

The evidence goes in the other direction. It suggests he’s running and he’s getting ready for a fight — with the Legislature, his own party or an unknown foe down the road. And a fight is one part of his job that he clearly loves.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and EngageMaine. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com and follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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