[NOTE: This post was updated at 6:45 p.m. to include comments from Councilor Jill Duson.]
“An out and out smear job”
Political insert in daily paper slams Mayor
By Chris Busby
A political insert delivered to home subscribers in today’s Portland Press Herald, and mailed to some other Portland voters this week, slams Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic in the last days of what has become the ugliest Portland political campaign in recent memory.
The insert links Suslovic to several damning claims: that he “presided over the biggest tax increase seen in years,” “personally held up waterfront development,” and is responsible for development deals in Bayside that have “cost Portland taxpayers millions more than expected.”
Suslovic called the insert “an out and out smear job,” and laid blame for it at the feet of one of his challengers, Dory Waxman. “This combination of outright lies and misleading half-truths add up to a desperation move by a campaign that is clearly in disarray,” Suslovic said, referring to Waxman’s campaign. “I think that if this is indicative of my opponent’s approach, it makes a mockery of her claims to be able to get people to work together.”
The insert does not name Waxman or either of the other two candidates in this race: Tina Smith and write-in candidate John Myers (a Bollard contributor).
Waxman said she was unaware of the insert and knows nothing about the group responsible for it, a new political action committee called The League of Responsible Voters. Asked if she condoned or condemned the insert, she said, “I don’t really have an opinion about it. It was nothing I ever would have done.”
Contributors to the PAC will likely not be revealed until campaign finance forms are submitted to the city after the election. Mortgage and real estate broker Tony Armstrong — a resident of Cape Elizabeth whose business, Maine Home Mortgage, is in Portland — is listed as the group’s sole representative on the PAC’s paperwork. He did not return a call seeking comment this afternoon.
Armstrong contributed $100 to Waxman’s campaign last July.
Suslovic and two other city councilors said they believe Ocean Properties (OP) is behind the insert. The politically connected, New Hampshire-based hotel and resort development company lost its bid to redevelop the Maine State Pier last year, and backers of their proposal consider Suslovic’s vote for the proposal submitted by rival developer The Olympia Companies to have been the swing vote that sealed the deal with Olympia. Negotiations between Olympia and city officials are ongoing.
Waxman has received campaign contributions from a host of individuals associated with OP’s bid, including Bob Baldacci (the governor’s brother), former Councilor and Mayor Peter O’Donnell, attorney Harold Pachios (who’s been retained by OP to scrutinize the city’s negotiations with Olympia), and OP founder Tom Walsh. Suslovic has not received a similar level of financial support from Olympia’s backers, and campaign finance reports show no contributions from employees of the company.
Last May, the Portland Forecaster reported that Armstrong was said to be representing OP in a deal to secure an option to buy the former Jordan’s Meats plant on Middle Street, a block or so from the pier. That deal has not been confirmed. Ocean Properties did not return a call seeking comment this afternoon. Armstrong has previously spoken in favor of OP’s pier proposal and criticized the decision to pursue a deal with Olympia.
Longtime City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she has never seen a campaign this nasty in over two decades in city politics. She said she believes OP is behind the insert slamming Suslovic, and added, “that’s an indication of what we would have been dealing with if [OP] had won” the right to negotiate for the pier’s redevelopment.
Leeman, who also backed Olympia’s bid and is currently leading the city’s negotiation team in talks with the company, has recorded campaign “robocalls” for Suslovic this fall. She does not believe Waxman’s claims to have been unaware of the insert and not associated with it.
Waxman said she will “continue to keep a high-road campaign” through Tuesday, a statement Leeman dismissed. “Based on a couple of phone calls I’ve received at my house and a couple pieces of literature, her comment with respect to taking the high road is just a [little] bit suspect. That hasn’t been what I’ve seen coming out of her campaign.”
Leeman is running unopposed for re-election to her district seat representing East Deering this year. If Suslovic also wins re-election, some councilors have said they expect Leeman will be chosen to serve a third term as mayor.
The insert’s author (or authors) apparently believe the mayorship is a much more powerful position than it is. Its claim that Suslovic “presided over the biggest tax increases seen in years” and that “[u]nder his watch, the city’s bond rating was reduced for the first time in almost thirty years” presumes a level of responsibility over city finances that the mayor does not have.
The city manager develops each year’s budget, which first goes to the Council’s Finance Committee (chaired last year by Councilor Jim Cohen, one of Waxman’s supporters) for consideration, and then to the full Council for a vote. Last year’s budget — which, as the insert noted, included significant job cuts — passed unanimously.
The author(s) claim that “[w]hile laying-off police, fire fighters and teachers, Ed found room in the city budget for his trip to Europe at taxpayer expense.” There may be a smidgen of truth in that statement, insofar as Suslovic said his trip was partially funded through a program administered by the U.S. State Department. But Suslovic said he personally paid all other costs for his trip to Portland’s sister city of Archangel, in northwestern Russia.
Suslovic’s responsibility for millions of taxpayer dollars spent on Bayside development deals is also misleading, at best. The city is providing $9 million to help two non-profits, MaineHealth and United Way, build a parking garage on Somerset Street as part of a larger office and retail development in the works, but those funds were from a grant the city received from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A mixed-use development planned for the site that’s alluded to in the insert died due to larger economic issues, not Suslovic’s action or inaction. One could argue that Suslovic could have helped save the development had he been able to convince his fellow councilors to give the developer a big tax break, but there was never a sense that a majority of the Council would have supported that, and such a deal would have constituted the type of multi-million-dollar “cost” to local taxpayers the author(s) decry.
The author(s)’ claim that Olympia “now wants to pay us $11 million less than they agreed to pay last year” is false; Olympia reneged on its pledge to set aside about half that sum to build a large cruise ship berth at Ocean Gateway, but has not suggested further cuts to its project and, according to Leeman, has not requested two additional years to negotiate the project, as the insert claims.
Suslovic did initially block a measure to send state money for a new elementary school to voters for approval, but later relented in the face of public pressure and supported the vote.
The insert contains two quotes from the West End News by fellow councilors, Dan Skolnik and Jill Duson, criticizing Suslovic. Both are backing Waxman’s candidacy. Responding to questions via e-mail, Skolnik said he was unaware of the insert or its content prior to its appearance, neither condones nor condemns it, is unaware who is associated with the PAC that paid for it and does not believe OP is behind it. Asked if he believes any of the claims are true, and if so, which ones, Skolnik wrote that he believes at least one is true, but would not specify which.
Duson said she was also unaware of the insert until today, and does not know who, other than Armstrong, is behind it. But unlike Skolnik, she strongly condemned the piece. “It’s stupid, it’s negative, and we don’t need it,” she said. “It’s ‘sneaky Pete.’ It doesn’t have any honor to it.”
The insert’s appearance is striking, coming just weeks after Suslovic and Waxman had a dust-up over campaign cards Suslovic has been distributing that contain a laudatory quote by House Speaker Glenn Cummings. Waxman brought an ethics charge against Suslovic for using the quote without Cummings’ permission, but the state ethics board dismissed her complaint unanimously last week.
Suslovic said he does not plan to file a complaint over the insert, in keeping with his belief that it is speech protected by the First Amendment.
The insert also calls to mind campaign signs posted around town before last year’s city elections denouncing then-candidates John Anton and Ben Meiklejohn. Paid for by local attorney and Democratic Party activist Tony Buxton, the signs declared “These GREENS cause CHAOS” (Anton and Meiklejohn are both registered Green Independents). Meiklejohn lost his school board re-election bid that year, but Anton won an at-large Council seat, defeating incumbent Democrat Jim Cloutier, and credits the signs with helping boost his candidacy late in the game.
Anton, who is supporting Suslovic’s campaign, said he believes Ocean Properties is behind the insert and that the insert will give the mayor a similar boost among voters turned off by negative campaigning. “I can’t think of a more boneheaded move than what [Armstrong’s] done,” said Anton. “I think the tagline of this year’s election will be the same as last year’s: ‘Thank you, Tony.’”