Here in Maine, we have a tradition of civility in our politics, especially at the legislative level. Even those negative ads that are sent are generally rather tame, highlighting legislators’ votes rather than attacking them personally. When either party does cross the line, they are frequently called out, often by their own supporters.
Last week, we saw this happen again. Unfortunately, this time it wasn’t one of the two parties. This time it was a shadowy non-profit with secret funding and its own agenda.
The Maine People’s Alliance, a radical left-wing group that serves as the ground forces of the Democratic Party, targeted Republicans who opposed Medicaid expansion with a vitriolic mailer. The ads, dressed up as a mock prescription, diagnosed these Republicans with “No heart” for opposing Medicaid expansion and “No spine” since they “Failed to stand up to Gov. LePage’s bullying.”
This sort of attack is out of bounds, since it characterizes someone as a coward merely for taking a contrary position on policy. It’s an ad-hominem attack disguised as a valid point, launching a personal insult against someone because of his views. That, in itself, should have no place in Maine politics. Interviewed Tuesday, state Rep. Terry Hayes, a Buckfield Democrat and former assistant Democratic House leader, agreed.
“I thought it was an unacceptable personal attack regardless of who the target was,” she said. “This approach does nothing to advance public policy and discourages public service, whether that was intended or not. It’s important that we recognize legitimate disagreements and that our colleagues have other points of view.”
However, even if one has no problem with this sort of gutter politics, the MPA faced trouble here because one of the Republican legislators the group targeted, Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon Falls, is confined to a wheelchair. Giving credit where credit is due, MPA spokesman Mike Tipping immediately apologized, though he refused to identify the staffer responsible or say whether that staffer would face any kind of discipline. In his apologies, Tipping also said it was an error or oversight, which implies that whoever crafted the mailer had been unaware of Craft’s disability.
It is clear, though, that Crafts’ mailer was specifically modified, raising the question of whether the MPA staffer writing it did, indeed, know that he was in a wheelchair. All of the other mailers appear to have merely read “No Spine — failed to stand up to Gov. LePage.” The mailer targeting Crafts read “No Spine — failed to stand up to Gov. LePage’s bullying.” This made it ever so slightly less literal, perhaps in an attempt to avoid offense.
Even before this, Democratic lawmakers — including Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, and Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, to their credit — had been distancing themselves from the Maine People’s Alliance. However, we have yet to hear from Senate President Justin Alfond, Speaker of the House Mark Eves, or U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, whom the MPA endorsed for governor. Perhaps after the revelation that this was no mistake, they’ll find their courage.
It’s all too easy for groups like the MPA to engage in these kinds of attacks and evade responsibility. Their funding is completely secret, since the MPA is a 501(c)4 rather than a political action committee or political party. In a very real way, the group is answerable only to itself, not to the voters, not to candidates, not to its volunteers, or anyone else.
It’s time we act to hold these groups accountable, whether on the left or on the right. Their brand of politics is poisoning our democracy, and enough is enough. It’s up to legislators to speak out against this kind of personal attack if they disagree with it — and if they don’t, it’s up to us as voters to hold them responsible come November.