AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans cried foul on Thursday, two days after Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap appointed Peggy Schaffer to the role of small business advocate, a position within the secretary of state’s office created in 2011 to assist businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
In appointing Schaffer, Dunlap dismissed Jay Martin, who had been the state’s first small business advocate, having been appointed by former Secretary of State Charlie Summers.
Rich Cebra, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, didn’t mince words.
“This is pure political patronage, and it is absolutely disgusting,” Cebra said in a statement. “To get rid of a qualified man, someone respected by the business community, and replace him with a hired political gun with no business experience is transparently corrupt.”
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, ranking Republican on the Labor, Commerce, Research, and Economic Development Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Office of the Secretary of State, called Martin “a qualified, nonpolitical advocate for Maine’s small business community.”
“We are very concerned about the decision to terminate Mr. Martin and bring in a replacement with no business experience,” she said. “It appears to be political patronage or favoritism, and many in the business community have expressed concern to me.”
Volk said she and her Republican colleagues on the LCRED committee “feel that the secretary should explain his decision.”
Dunlap, reached in Washington, D.C., said he doesn’t need to explain himself, pointing out that the small business advocate “serves at the will of the secretary” and that making such an appointment is “nothing out of the ordinary.”
“I looked at the full scope of the office just like Secretary Summers did, and like Secretary Summers I made some changes,” Dunlap said. “I left some positions alone, but I saw the opportunity to take the small business advocate into a more proactive position and one that’s more reflective of my goals.”
Dunlap said just because he’s a Democrat and appointed a Democrat to this position, that doesn’t mean the position or the work the small business advocate will do will be partisan.
“Our work across the board is nonpartisan,” he said. “There’s an expectation that work of the Secretary of State, and the registry of corporations, and oversight of notaries public, administration of motor vehicle laws are fair and balanced and nonpartisan. The fact that I’m a Democrat or Secretary Summer was a Republican doesn’t necessarily impact that work.”
Republicans questioned Schaffer’s lack of business experience, having worked in politics for the past 16 years, most recently as chief of staff for former Senate President Libby Mitchell. They juxtaposed that with Martin’s past 16 years in the restaurant industry and successfully growing a small publication business in Bangor.
“The purpose of the small business advocate is to be a voice for small business in state government,” Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, another member of the LCRED committee, said in a statement. “How can you be a small business advocate when you’ve spent your career in the public sector?”
Lockman said Dunlap’s decision surprised him, given the latter’s reputation as “a reasonable, bipartisan person.”
Rather than a liability, Dunlap said Schaffer’s eight years of experience at the Department of Economic and Community Development was a benefit.
“She’s been in state government for a long time; she know how it works,” he said. “That’s a big advantage.”
Republicans pointed to an op-ed Schaffer penned for the Bangor Daily News, in which she praised unions and said, “The deck is stacked by the employer,” as evidence that she’s anti-business.
“I have reached out to several people in the business community, and they have all said they simply won’t deal with her,” Cebra said. “Dunlap’s hiring of Schaffer, an anti-business, liberal partisan, is a sad departure from Secretary of State Charlie Summers’ hiring of a well qualified, nonpolitical professional.”
Dunlap was unfazed.
“I stand behind the appointment,” he said. “I think Peggy Schaffer will do an excellent job and will be a very strong resource for the business community.”