Gov. LePage Takes Role in New PAC Formed to Support Low-Tax Candidates

AUGUSTA — Organizers of a brand-new political action committee that has quickly attracted some of Maine’s largest donors revealed Wednesday that one of the PAC’s officers is perhaps the most well-known man in Maine: Governor Paul LePage.

The ICE PAC, which registered last week with the state’s Ethics Commission, vaulted into the election season with an impressive $130,000 war chest raised from just six donors. The group amended its registration late Wednesday to include LePage as an officer of the PAC, listing his role as “fundraiser.”

The PAC was founded by two people who had formerly been part of LePage’s inner circle: Holly Lusk, his senior health policy advisor before she departed for the law firm of Preti Flaherty, and Michael Hersey, a longtime LePage aide who until last month served as director of business development and innovation for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Gov. Paul LePage — Photo Robert F. Bukaty, BDN

Photo Robert F. Bukaty, BDN

Gov. Paul LePage

The PAC’s mission, to support “candidates who are pro-economic growth, and who strive to lower the tax burden on Maine citizens,” reads like a page from the playbook of LePage, who has pushed for reducing or even eliminating the state’s income tax since he came to office. The location of the PAC’s first meeting, on July 26, shows how closely affiliated with the group LePage plans to be: It was held at the governor’s mansion, the Blaine House.

Hersey confirmed that LePage was at that meeting, but declined to identify others in attendance or to offer more specifics about it except to call it a “planning meeting.” Barbara Claudel, the director of the Blaine House, forwarded all questions about the meeting to the Governor’s Office, which had not responded to any questions by press time Wednesday.

Judging by the donations the PAC reported to the Ethics Commission, its fundraising team has already been both busy and persuasive. Bob Bahre, who formerly owned New Hampshire Motor Speedway and was an investor in the Oxford Casino, and his son Gary Bahre each donated $25,000 on July 22, as did Linda and Diana Bean, heirs to the L.L. Bean fortune, on July 27. Paul Fortin, a logger and developer from Madison, wrote a check for $20,000 that same day, and Tim Varney, president of the Varney Agency, donated $10,000 on July 28.

Lusk said Wednesday that while LePage will have a significant role as a fundraiser, he does not control how the PAC spends its money. “We simply felt that with the role that the governor wanted to take with our PAC, we felt that it was appropriate for him to be listed,” she said. “He’s a fundraiser. He does not have a decision-making role in deciding which candidates receive funding from the PAC.”

Hersey said that the acronym ICE stands for “Increasing Citizen Engagement” and that pursuing that mission is precisely what caused him to leave his position at the Department of Economic and Community Development on July 1 in order to start the PAC.

“I left because I was interested in doing this,” he said. “I believed in the mission, and I was delighted to take on this role.”

Paul Fortin said that he received a phone call from Hersey and considered his sales pitch over the course of a weekend. The following week, he wrote a $20,000 check — almost four times the size of any previous political contribution he’s ever made.

“I got involved because I want to see some changes made in state government around the issue of taxation,” Fortin said. “I strongly believe that the taxation issue is the biggest hindrance to business coming into Maine. We’re taxing the people to death.”

Fortin, who has donated to LePage in the past and met him in Augusta once to discuss a mill closure, said that he did not speak to the governor about this contribution. But he said he donated to the PAC because he recognizes that LePage’s influence is ending. “I recognize the fact that he has two years left,” he says. “We have a two-year window. God only knows what will happen after that.”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: pinetreewatchdog@gmail.com. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org.

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