Maine Democrats are asking the Republican Party to retract campaign mailers that they say falsely accuse Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud of sponsoring a bill 12 years ago that laid the groundwork for the loss of jobs at Great Northern Paper. The GOP's position is complicated by the fact that the party's current chairman, Rick Bennett, was the president of the Senate when the unanimous vote was taken.
With layoff notices pending, and the Great Northern Paper Mill in Millinocket facing an uncertain future, Michaud says it's the wrong time for Maine Republicans to be politicizing an economic disaster for northern Maine.
"It's so despicable to see this attack," Michaud says. "The emotions of the people who work in those mills is just unbelievable with what they're doing today, and this is the type of politics that Mainers are tired of."
Michaud is referring to a flyer paid for by the Maine Republican Party that attributes current problems at the mill to legislation sponsored by Michaud when he was a state senator in 2002. Michaud, a former East Millinocket mill worker himself, was president pro tem of the Maine Senate at that time, and the legislation was passed unanimously in the Senate without debate.
The bill was an attempt to keep the mill functional by allowing the owner to sell its dams and hydroelectric power stations. It also included a provision that prevented companies from shutting down production in order to sell the electricity generated by the dams. It was signed into law by then-Gov. Angus King.
Michaud defends the legislation as the right response at that moment in time. "When we did pass the legislation, we did exactly what we had to do to protect the jobs at Great Northern Paper Co. and we did it with strong bipartisan support," Michaud says. "Rick Bennett knows that, he was the president of the Senate at the time. and he supported it because it saved jobs and kept Mainers working."
"You know, I think if I had made a similar bill to help my local community and it turned out to be a failure, I should be held accountable for that," Rick Bennett says.
Twelve years ago, Bennett was the president of the Maine Senate, and today he is the state chair of the Maine Republican Party. Bennett says the provision of the bill that prevented the company from selling electricity turned out to be short-sighted and was later corrected by a bipartisan vote of the current Legislature.
Bennett says he and other state senators relied on Michaud to provide direction on the mill issue and that the under-the-hammer vote in the Senate reflected the degree of faith they placed in his judgment. "In this case it turned out to be injurious," he says. "It turned out to kill jobs, and I think it's very legitimate to raise it in that context."
Jill Goldthwait, who was the independent Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee in 2002, supported Bennett's version of the Senate discussion, saying it was not uncommon for the other members to defer to the senator from the region of interest when taking votes on emerging policy matters. But she also said Republicans failed to challenge Michaud at the time.
"It's true that, generally, the caucuses go over every bill and decide what position they're going to take, and for whatever reason they decided at that time that they were not going to object to it," Goldthwait says. "So it does seem a bit strange that they're objecting now."
Michaud says that as angry as he is that Republicans are trying to blame him for the mill's current economic woes, he's more disappointed in Bennett for failing to tell the whole story behind the bill.
"I know he has his job that he's got to do, but for the Republican Party to send out a mailer that's misleading and false just shows what this campaign is going to be about," Michaud says.
Bennett stands by the mailer, saying voters have a right to know how much of an understanding Michaud has of the private sector economy and the forces that shape it.