October 20, 2018
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Maine Democrat who wants to be governor has far more debt than money

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Diane Russell jokes outside the polls at the East End Community School in Portland, June 14, 2016.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Russell raised a lot of eyebrows in political circles with her latest financial showing and not in a good way.

The former state representative from Portland raised less than $50,000 through 2017’s end, alongside an eye-popping $73,000 of debt with only $5,000 left.

What’s most notable is what she was — and wasn’t — spending money on.

She owes consultants and her own party, but she spent lots on food and travel. Russell’s latest filing shows that she has $34,000 in debt to fundraising consultants and another $24,000 to a digital consulting firm. She owes $8,500 to the Maine Democratic Party, most of it for access to the Voter Activation Network, a crucial piece of campaigning software.

But while she only raised 10th-most in the 24-person gubernatorial field, she has spent $5,900 on travel and $2,500 on food. That ranks her second in the field in each of those categories.

A lot of that was on trips and small purchases close to home. Given that debt, many of Russell’s purchases are questionable. She spent $2,400 on airfare alone, taking apparent trips to California, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte.

In the latter city, she spent $15 at a hair salon. She spent a total of $650 with Lyft, a ride-sharing company, and $167 at the Hilltop Superette, a market close to her Munjoy Hill home. She spent $120 at Starbucks.

While Democratic rival Adam Cote and Republican hopeful Mary Mayhew spent more than Russell on travel and food, respectively, they both had far fewer expenses.

She says all expenses were campaign-related, but she didn’t answer some questions during written exchanges. In an email exchange beginning last Friday, Russell said “all” expenses “relate to the campaign.”

She didn’t answer questions about debt except to say her campaign “made early investments in outreach and digital with the understanding they would pay off in the long-term, but that we would take a hit in the short-term.”

When asked more questions on Tuesday, she didn’t answer them and said she was “attacked for raising too much small donor money” during a failed state Senate campaign in 2016 and now, she was being “attacked for raising too little small donor money.”

She added, “What exactly is a female Democratic candidate supposed to raise to make everyone happy?”

These aren’t the first questions about Russell’s spending: Her political committee expenses were highlighted by Pine Tree Watch in 2016 and she has been fined twice before by the Maine Ethics Commission, though state law is permissive on campaign spending.

But the red ink signals problems for her campaign. With only $5,000 on-hand as of 2017’s end against so much debt, it’s fair to question the viability of Russell’s campaign, since new money should be put there.

Six months after an election, the Maine Ethics Commission considers debt to be contributions to a candidate, subject to limits under state law. Two of Russell’s creditors didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Maine Democratic Party spokesman Scott Ogden also declined comment, but someone familiar with the party’s arrangements with candidates said it promptly moves to cut off access to the Voter Activation Network for those who miss payments.

Russell’s missed payments go back to October. She didn’t answer questions about whether she has been cut off.

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