Central Maine Power’s campaign effort is beginning to resemble its all-out lobbying blitz in the Legislature of late as it dispatches operatives from across the political spectrum ahead of a referendum challenging its $1 billion hydropower corridor.
The August announcement that CMP had hired Adrienne Bennett — who was a spokesperson for former Gov. Paul LePage and opposed the corridor during an unsuccessful Republican primary run in the 2nd Congressional District last year — to lead a new political committee opposing Question 1, made her the latest in a pro-corridor coalition of lobbyists and other politicos.
The corridor has never fallen clearly along political lines. Both LePage and Gov. Janet Mills, who will run against each other in 2022, are supporters of the project that faces stiff grassroots opposition. Sensing those political winds, candidates in last year’s election skewed against the corridor but did not gain the legislative supermajorities needed to overcome Mills’ veto pen.
The corridor debate and another on a second subject that could go to the Maine ballot in 2022 — a consumer-owned electric utility that would replace CMP and Versant Power — has made strange bedfellows in CMP’s bipartisan coalition of operatives and the fossil-fuel and environmental groups that have teamed up against the large utility.
But corridor backers have dominated the spending war so far, spending four-fifths of more than $42 million spent going back to 2019 in a public campaign over the project. At the same time, CMP and its allies have lobbied heavily on the corridor, consumer-owned utility and associated issues in Augusta. Parent company Avangrid, project partner Hydro-Quebec and a subset company managing the project disclosed $122,000 in lobbying expenses in 2021.
Hiring spanned from well-known Mills ally Jim Mitchell of Jackson, Mitchell and Tardy for CMP to conservative firm Patriot Consulting’s Zach Lingley for the company managing the project. Also doing work on the issue was Josh Tardy, an influential former Republican legislative leader who is Jackson’s business partner.
CMP’s hiring of Bennett exemplifies an attempt to capitalize on those differences ahead of the November referendum that will ask if voters want to retroactively block projects of the size of the corridor and the route where it is expected to run through Maine.
“If we have an opportunity to come to the table, to find common ground on something as we have on this particular issue and Question 1, it’s going to benefit us as a whole,” she said.
Bennett, who backed an anti-corridor question when she was running for office that was later struck from the 2020 ballot by Maine’s high court, said it was “no secret” she has been on the other side of the issue, but that her focus will be on the retroactive nature of this year’s question and the amount of power it would give to lawmakers.
She also noted differences between the two questions: The first would have directed Maine’s public utilities regulator to reverse approval of the project, while the new question tackles three issues — electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region, requiring legislative approval for similar projects in the future and retroactively requiring legislative approval for similar projects that cross public lands going back to 2014.
Bennett was a newcomer to electoral politics before her primary run last year for the right to face Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat whose former campaign manager, Jonathan Breed, now leads the CMP-funded Clean Energy Matters. During that run, she introduced a right-wing pundit who called Lewiston a “refugee dumping ground” at a speech in Maine.
Breed told Maine Public he did not want to “get into too much” about Bennett’s past work but sees her experience as a benefit. His group referred a request for comment on Tuesday to Ben Dudley, a former Maine Democratic Party chairman who leads the business community-backed Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs and said building a wide coalition can only benefit the project.
“The messenger matters,” he said.
But Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a prominent CMP critic, said there is a difference between hiring varied consultants and developing grassroots support, taking a shot at the new hire.
“It just shows you there are a lot of people looking for good paid work at decent wages these days,” he said.
BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this story.