January 20

State House Notebook: Will Americans Elect be a savior for Cutler?

Campaign finance disclosures reveal connections that suggest the independent candidate could get a boost from the well-heeled group.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If there’s truth to the “six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by six links – then it’s probably true that political players conduct their business in a much smaller world.

Like a fish tank.

Take independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and the well-heeled national nonprofit Americans Elect.

Americans Elect is the spin-off group of Unity 08, originally formed and supported by independent and self-described moderate politicians like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. In 2012, Americans Elect had a more ambitious goal of nominating a bipartisan presidential ticket.

After gaining ballot access in the states – an expensive endeavor financed by $8 million from Peter Ackerman, founder of the investment firm Rockport Capital – the Americans Elect experiment failed when no viable candidates made themselves available for the “online convention.”

The group was also dogged by campaign finance watchdogs for operating as nonprofit, which could shield its donors while it engaged in political activity that strained the legal limits of its tax-exempt status (Democrats and Republicans use nonprofits in similar, more prolific ways.).

So what’s any of that have to do with Cutler?

For starters, Cutler was a board member of Americans Elect. He held that position until he became co-chairman of King’s 2012 Senate campaign. Americans Elect was largely dormant during the summer of 2012, but it awoke when King, sans party apparatus, was pummeled by big ad buys from Republican groups. Americans Elect spent more than $1 million to buoy King with political ads. Bloomberg chipped in $500,000 for the effort; Passport Capital’s founder, John Burbank, contributed $750,000. Ackerman, who bankrolled the Americans Elect ballot drive, contributed $500,000.

Time will tell if the group will assist Cutler with a King-like money dump, but there appears to be a bit of cross-pollination between his campaign and the Campaign for Maine, the political action committee supporting his bid. (Although Cutler has sworn off PAC contributions, there’s nothing in the election law to prevent one from spending money on his behalf.)

The first clue came in Cutler’s first finance report in 2013, when he received a $500 contribution from Kahlil Byrd, the former CEO of Americans Elect. Then there were a bunch of pro-Cutler tweets from Cara Brown McCormick, who is listed as an Americans Elect board member. McCormick, it turns out, is on Cutler’s campaign. Additionally, Cutler’s most recent finance report shows that Ackerman gave $1,500.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, members of the Maine media received a press release from a political consultant based in Pacific Palisades, Calif., announcing a press conference in Portland held by two Maine state senators, one out of office.

The consultant setting up the event was Ilena Wachtel, the former spokeswoman for Americans Elect.

The press conference was set up to blast EqualityMaine’s recent endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud. Cutler, who donated a lot of money to the group, was extremely unhappy with the snub.

Cutler’s campaign said it didn’t arrange the Portland presser and didn’t know about it until one of the participants gave the campaign a courtesy call. (Coordinating campaign events between PACs and candidate committees is illegal.) Contacted on Jan. 6, Wachtel wouldn’t say who asked her to set up the event but said the individual was from Maine.

The recent campaign finance disclosure for the pro-Cutler PAC the Campaign for Maine reveals a potential clue as to who requested Wachtel’s services. The PAC, run by Betsy Smith, the former head of EqualityMaine, shows a $2,500 expenditure for Wachtel for communications consulting. To be clear, that expenditure may not be for setting up the Portland presser, which was held several weeks after Watchel was paid. It’s also possible that Wachtel received an advance payment for an ongoing consulting role.

(Continued on page 2)

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