AUGUSTA, Maine — A Hampden native, DC insider and political blogger who was named one of the top 10 communicators in politics is returning to Maine to be the new CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Matt Gagnon, a 2004 graduate of the University of Maine, has been working for various Republican groups and politicians in Washington, D.C., since 2008. Most recently, he was director of digital strategy for the Republican Governors Association, a post he’d held for nearly three years.
Gagnon, who recently relocated his family to southern Maine, said he’s excited to be home again.
“This is something I’ve viewed as a dream job in the past,” Gagnon said in a recent interview. “To say I’m happy is an understatement. This allows me to do what I love in a state I love.”
The 33-year-old replaces J. Scott Moody, who announced his departure as CEO in April. Moody has since taken the lead of State Budget Solutions, a Virginia-based national group focused on state and local government.
Moody was known in Maine political circles as a policy wonk more than a political animal or a powerful spokesman for the free-market ideals espoused by the Maine Heritage Policy Center. With Gagnon, who has maintained connections and public persona in Maine throughout his time in the Beltway, the group’s public profile will likely increase significantly.
“Naming Matt to this position will be a big story for a few days, but I think going forward, if he chooses to, he can raise the public profile of the organization significantly because he’s already well known,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine. “He’s already a pretty big name in Maine Republican circles, and national circles.”
Gagnon’s appointment represents a reversal of sorts for the organization. Most of MHPC’s former chiefs began their careers as Maine political insiders and used the position with the group to springboard into national-level organizations. Gagnon’s trajectory has been the opposite.
With the RGA, Gagnon was named one of the “Top 10 Communicators in Politics” by Campaign & Elections, a prominent political journal, as well as one of the “Top 50 strategists in online politics” by Business Insider.
Before he joined the RGA, he worked stints with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as several consulting companies. His work has focused on new media and digital communication and strategy.
In Maine, he kept his name in the public eye first as an independent blogger who ran the popular and incisive Pine Tree Politics website, and later as a columnist for the Bangor Daily News.
Mike Tipping, communications director for the liberal advocacy group Maine People’s Alliance, said he first got to know Gagnon as a fellow blogger, and now considers him a friend, despite the deep chasm that separates their political points of view.
Tipping said he hoped the CEO position with MHPC wouldn’t jeopardize Gagnon’s willingness to lift the veil on Republican Party politics.
“I’ve enjoyed some of his writing and I hope this position doesn’t interfere with his ability to criticize his own party when he does, and put out information in the different ways he has,” Tipping said. “It’s always been interesting that he’s been able to give an inside perspective on things. That has been helpful in Maine politics.”
Like many political groups, the center keeps its funding sources secret, but several observers, including Tipping, have characterized the the group as a tool for deep-pocketed national conservative donors such as Charles and David Koch.
Gagnon will take the helm at MHPC on Sept. 1. He said he’s excited to hit the ground running for this year’s gubernatorial election. Though the group does not formally endorse political candidates, its ties to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration are well known.
Several former MHPC staffers and officials have gone on to work in LePage’s administration. Former CEO Tarren Bragdon led LePage’s transition team in 2011 and MHPC’s former education guru Stephen Bowen was chosen as LePage’s first education commissioner.
Former MHPC staffers Peter Steele and Amanda Clark both have jobs in LePage’s communications office, and Sam Adolphsen, who used to lead the group’s Open Government project, now has a senior position in LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Gagnon said that with a conservative governor in the Blaine House, it only makes sense for the state’s preeminent conservative think tank to have his ear. But, he said, that doesn’t mean MHPC will always toe the governor’s line under his watch.
“We are going to be an organization involved in conservative change, and advocating for it,” he said. “Where there are areas we disagree with the administration, you’ll hear from us.”
The goal, Gagnon said, is to turn the organization into a model for conservative groups not only in New England, but across the nation. With his thick Rolodex of contacts throughout the country and roots in Maine, Gagnon may be among the best suited men for that job.
“I believe very strongly that however much [MHPC] has been a leader, there’s an awful lot of room for growth,” he said. “There’s a lot left on the playing field.”
MHPC President Peter Anania said Gagnon won the unanimous approval of the board over a pool of 20 applicants.
“What we really need is someone who can help us get the word out, and advocate for the conservative policies we’re putting forth,” Anania said. “We’re excited that he’s coming on board, and that he’s bringing some national contacts for us, and maybe some national reach. We’re looking forward to that.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.