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TMCNet:  State House Notebook: When a mole unearths a memo

[January 21, 2013]

State House Notebook: When a mole unearths a memo

Jan 21, 2013 (Portland Press Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Last week, the progressive blog Dirigo Blue got its hands on a juicy internal memo from Gov. Paul LePage's political adviser, Brent Littlefield.


Progressive activists immediately mobilized to promote the memo. However, that it was leaked to Dirigo Blue -- presumably by a Republican -- may have been more noteworthy than its contents.

Littlefield, who acts as the governor's "outside" political adviser and is also involved in his re-election committee (and the group People Before Politics, which is intertwined with both), sent the memo to the Republican State Committee. The idea was to equip Republicans, and presumably lawmakers, with talking points about the governor's budget proposal.

As recent news stories have shown, the governor's budget is controversial. Littlefield was attempting to blunt the opposition, particularly that protesting the governor's proposal to suspend municipal aid for two years.

Littlefield encouraged members to take the information and send it to friends and family, post it on Facebook, write letters to the editor in weekly newspapers and "make comments below on-line news stories that challenge the Governor's opponents and set the record straight." Some may find Littlefield's attempt at message coordination and amplification surprising.

But it happens all the time.

In October, the Portland Press Herald reported that the campaign operatives for U.S. Sen. Angus King had directed volunteers to post online comments on newspaper stories. Reporters have long suspected that political campaigns do this, but proving it was difficult given the sworn secrecy required by operatives. The King campaign simply got caught, thanks to a mole who leaked inter-campaign emails.

In 2011, a mole also leaked Dan Demeritt's infamous "11,000 bureaucrats" email to legislative leaders. In the email, Demeritt, LePage's former communications director, laid out a detailed "incumbent protection" plan designed to coordinate messaging with state agencies and to make sure Republicans lawmakers were present for big announcements.

Demeritt took a lot of heat for the email, but privately, political operatives were more stunned that he put the plan in writing -- making it subject to Maine's Freedom of Access Act -- what is in many ways standard practice.

If it sometimes seems like politicians are parroting the same talking points when a policy debate surfaces, it's because they are. At the State House, the trick to getting a candid answer from lawmakers is talk to them before they're dragged into their respective communications office for reprogramming (communications people call this "briefing"). Message consistency is a big part of a spokesperson job.

Politically, and practically, coordination makes sense: The policy message is repeated in the media, it presents a united front and protects against contradictory statements that can exploited by opponents.

For that reason, Littlefield's memo generated some buzz among Maine political junkies, but not enough to last beyond a day or so.

Perhaps more noteworthy was that the memo was leaked. After all, Littlefield specifically asked committee members not to circulate the message.

"I would ask that no one post this entire memo on a blog, webpage, Facebook page, etc -- even if it is a closed group," Littlefield wrote. "Our goal is to begin establishing a communication protocol with members of the Committee. That can only be possible if we have the ability to communicate as a group." Either Dirigo Blue's source was offended that Littlefield had asked him or her to echo talking points, or he or she didn't agree with them.

ABSENTEE VOTING ROLLBACK The last Republican-controlled Maine Legislature moved the deadline for most absentee voters back to the Thursday before Election Day, a move the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association cheered.

With the new Democratic majority, at least two bills have been submitted to undo that -- one more radical than the other.

One proposal, sponsored by Rep. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, would make the deadline for absentee voting 8 p.m. on Election Day, the same as the deadline for in-person voting. Before the Republican-sponsored law, that's what Maine did.

Another, sponsored by Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, would move the deadline to a municipal office's close of business on the Monday before Election Day.

Expect a fight along party lines: The Republicans' bill from the last Legislature carried no Democrats in either the House or Senate and only two Republicans in both Houses broke ranks to join Democrats.

But a 2011 Portland Press Herald story quoted clerks as saying that absentee voting in the two days before Election Day created logistical problems for them. At times, one clerk said, lines were longer on Friday and Monday than they were on Tuesday. Sponsors said the bill was intended to reduce clerks' workload.

What they didn't say is there's a lot of politics involved in this on both sides -- political scientists say Republicans generally benefit when there are fewer voters; Democrats benefit when there are more.

One of these bills may easily pass now that Democrats are in control. Civil rights groups would like that. Clerks wouldn't.

BIPARTISAN COMMITTEE FORMED The two majority leaders in both legislative houses have announced they'll head up a new bipartisan committee aimed at "developing legislation to strengthen Maine's workforce, capitalize on our state's economic engines, and help Maine's small businesses thrive." A Thursday news release said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, will co-chair the Joint Select Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future, established by a legislative joint order Thursday.

The release said the committee will have three goals: "addressing the workforce skills gap to better connect the needs of workers and businesses," "investing in places like downtowns and Main Streets," and "strengthening Maine's small businesses to help them compete in today's economy." BILL DETAILS COMING As of 4 p.m. this past Friday, legislators, with some exceptions, are barred from submitting any more bills due to cloture. That deadline doesn't apply to the governor's office.

Suzanne Gresser, the state's revisor of statutes, said historically 25 percent of all bills for a given session come in on cloture day.

"You can always hold out hope that that's not going to happen this time," she joked Friday morning.

Gresser's office will be processing the last bills over the upcoming days, so we'll get a look at lawmakers' intentions when they're printed. Democrats' ideas, as they have the best chance of passing, will likely be most relevant.

But the bills that are assured not to pass are often the most interesting.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: smistler@mainetoday.com twitter/stevemistler ___ (c)2013 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Visit the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at www.pressherald.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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