On April 3, the deadline for Maine to file its Medicaid expansion plan to the federal government under a law enacted in a 2017 referendum, expansion advocates held a news conference at the State House.
Attorney General Janet Mills, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor, stepped to the microphone as the conference ended to announce something that could only help her efforts to woo liberal voters: she’d found a $35 million funding source for the first year of the expansion.
“These funds are available to pay for Medicaid expansion as enacted by the people last November,” Mills said. “There is overwhelming evidence that states which take advantage of Medicaid expansion experience lower health care costs, healthier families and stronger economic growth.”
Gov. Paul LePage immediately dismissed the proposal as a “political stunt,” saying “now that she is running for governor, she suddenly wants to use this money as a one-time budget gimmick.”
Mills is among the front-runners in the Democratic gubernatorial field and her job gives her a higher level of exposure than any of the other Democratic candidates. But is she blurring the lines between her roles as attorney general and as a candidate?
She doesn’t think so, and argues that she didn’t know about the April 3 news conference when she planned her own. However, her office has issued dozens of releases since she declared her gubernatorial run in July 2017 that arguably stated her personal position on an issue more than they conveyed any news.
Mills opposed proposals by the LePage administration, ripped Republican President Donald Trump’s administration for his proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, opposed Trump’s efforts to repeal the “Dreamers” immigration program, lambasted U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for proposing rollbacks of protections for student loan borrowers, called for a review of federal rules that bar marijuana businesses from holding bank accounts, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to protect labor union organizing rights, and urged the Maine Legislature to fix problems in the law surrounding ranked-choice voting.
Those come in addition to dozens of releases during the same period that announced more obvious news such as legal actions taken by Mills’ office, settlements and convictions. Mills said she doesn’t think she’s any more of an activist attorney general now that she’s running for governor than she was before — but that since Trump’s election, changes at the federal level have compelled her and her staff to object more often.
“There have been a lot of issues thrown in our laps in the last year and a half,” she said Friday in an interview. “I look at every proposed sign-on and every piece of litigation and say ‘what’s in the best interest of the Maine people?’ I’m running my office the same way I’ve always run my office.”
According to Maine law, employees of the state may not use their “official authority, influence or supervisory position” for political activity when they are on duty or using state-owned resources, but it also says they have a right to “express opinions on political subjects.”
The issue of the use of state resources by candidates is not new.
In 2014, just a month before LePage’s re-election, the Maine Democratic Party asked the ethics commission to look into whether LePage improperly allowed a campaign spokesman to ride to political events in a state-owned vehicle. The commission unanimously dismissed that complaint.
A year earlier, then-gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler attacked LePage over his office staff’s production a 26-page booklet that listed LePage’s accomplishments.
Several other high-profile officials in Maine have been visible activists while running campaigns for something else, including U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who waged a partisan political battle, including talk radio appearances and a blog distributed on the state’s website and through a state email account, when he was state treasurer in 2010 and 2011. Poliquin and two other Republican constitutional offices at the time — Attorney General William Schneider and Secretary of State Charles Summers, who fought a public battle over voter fraud while in office — all filed paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
In this year’s gubernatorial contest, Mills isn’t alone as a state official in the race. Among the Republicans are two sitting legislators and a former LePage administration commissioner. Three of the Democrats are current or recent legislators and independent candidate Terry Hayes is the state treasurer.
Robert Glover, an associate political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono, said there are gray areas regarding what materials are related to a person’s official duties and what materials are for campaigns, and that issue is becoming increasingly clouded in the era of social media and electronic communications.
“If you’re putting out a traditional mailer, there would be a cost associated with that,” Glover said. “Sending out an email or posting on Twitter, it’s not so clear.”
Glover said he doesn’t think most voters care about the issue as much as political insiders do.
“Everyone is aware that it happens and I hear grumblings about it from both sides,” he said. “Most of the people who are concerned about campaign finance are more concerned about dark money or independent expenditures.”
Mills said that if she were truly using her office to benefit her campaign, she’d speak up on even more issues, such as a 2010 filing with the U.S. Supreme Court that sought to block protesters’ First Amendment free speech rights at military funerals. Every attorney general in the country signed onto the case except Mills and Virginia’s attorney general. The filing was eventually rejected by the court.
“I read that brief and I said ‘that can’t be right; they’re not going to win that,’ so I didn’t sign on and I started getting lambasted,” Mills said. “I could have just signed on and said, ‘yeah, I’m with the veterans.’ But it was the First Amendment I was standing for.”
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