It all began with a very simple Facebook message from Paul LePage:
Dear friends and supporters,
The final phase of the campaign has begun. Already depraved attacks have started and our garbage stolen. Some of our opponents will do anything to win, especially start rumors to destroy my character and integrity. Since they have little to offer, they will go negative, please hang with me. Please stay on message, we cannot do what they do. No politics as usual.
With almost no time passing after the primary, accusations of dirty politics have already been levied. The details of the situation are essentially this: Paul LePage and his campaign team believe that a private investigator – or more accurately “somebody” from another campaign – is trying to “dig up dirt” on the Mayor, and that someone has been dumpster diving and looking through LePage’s trash.
Furthermore, the rumor circulating is that the investigator (who for all intents and purposes could be a paid PI, or just a campaign volunteer for all we know) has also been looking for Waterville City Council tapes that they will be able to cull through and find unflattering video of the Mayor during heated meetings. No Freedom of Information requests have been filed, but none the less it seems somebody is trying to (or already has) collect these tapes and look through them.
To be clear, we are talking here a coordinated research campaign which is looking for any dirt they can find on LePage by doing a number of things, including obtaining tapes of Waterville City Council meetings as well as searching through LePage’s trash for additional, unrelated dirt.
For the record, I do not consider looking at public video of a Council meeting to be dirty – but as the accusation here is that it is part of a deeper dirt digging campaign that includes searching trash, in my mind they deserve to be lumped together. And then there of course there is the potential for hypocrisy – more on that later.
The Facebook status update did not specify who the campaign believes to be behind this activity, but the fingers from LePage headquarters are pointed squarely at Eliot Cutler.
Interestingly, I had not heard a whisper about who they thought was behind this until yesterday, when I received a very stern preemptive denial from Ted O’Meara of the Cutler campaign. The title of this email was “Garbage rumors”:
I have heard from several people in the news media today that there are “rumors” out there that Cutler campaign has hired private investigators to go over tapes of Waterville city council meetings and to go through Mr. LePage’s personal trash. This is absolutely not true.
Whoever is very deliberately spreading these rumors must be trying to cover their own tracks because neither the Cutler campaign, nor anyone working on behalf of the Cutler campaign, has hired, nor will we hire, private investigators, nor do we have any interest whatsoever in going through Mr. LePage’s garbage. We also have not made any FOIA requests for information from the city of Waterville.
We have and will continue to wage a campaign based on Eliot’s plans for Maine and his qualifications to be Maine’s next governor. Like any campaign, we will conduct opposition research based on publicly available information. However, we will not engage in the sleazy tactics like those we are being accused of. If you are presented with these rumors, we hope that you will try to find out who is behind them.
Very strong (yet very carefully crafted) language that interestingly put this story on my radar. This is when I really became interested in what was going on here.
Initially, I suspected that this could be the work of either the Democratic National Committee or the Democratic Governor’s Association, both of which are now fully into general election campaigning mode in Maine, and both of which have the capacity to engage in this type of “research”, as well as a history of doing so. I also considered Libby Mitchell‘s campaign – but I don’t for one minute believe they are organized enough right now to even pull that off.
No, LePage’s people believe otherwise. The phrase “99% sure it is Cutler” was used when this was described to me. They really believe it, and not just as a hunch.
I spoke with a number of connected politicos around the state, and one of the most interesting takes on it came from a former high level staffer from one of the other gubernatorial campaigns that lost their primary last Tuesday. This person claims that a friend recently spoke with Cutler, and that Cutler had told them that he was “not worried about LePage because he has tapes of Waterville City Council meetings at which LePage apparently goes off the rails, and Cutler said the campaign intends to release them.”
The operative then goes on to note that very shortly after hearing this, the denial from O’Meara appeared in his inbox. The denial, however, seemed out of place:
If you parse out these carefully written sentences, you’ll see that O’Meara is saying they didn’t hire a private investigator or use the FOI laws to get the video tapes. It doesn’t really say that the campaign doesn’t have them. Which, according to the horse’s mouth, they do. A classic non-denial denial. Why didn’t they just put out a press release that said, “The Cutler campaign denies today that it has videotapes of Waterville City Council meetings at which Mayor Paul LePage loses his shit and completely bugs out. And anyone who claims otherwise is a liar.
Indeed, the release does seem to tap dance around a few things. It says that no “private investigators” were “hired” to go through the Waterville City Council meetings and that no FOIA was filed, but no denial was made that the campaign has in some way obtained the tapes and is going through them to find dirt on LePage. At the end, O’Meara acknowledges that the campaign will “conduct opposition research based on publicly available information”, which seems to suggest that they have no problem doing opposition research on LePage, which would of course include Waterville City Council meetings that have been taped.
Even the trash digging question wasn’t denied out of hand – only that the campaign didn’t hire a PI to do it. That does raise the question if this is simply clumsy language, or if it is a rhetorical tight rope. At this point I would not feel comfortable accusing the Cutler campaign of dumpster diving and using sketchy tactics to obtain video of the Council meetings and I have no proof that they did that. So until and unless I obtain any more corroborating evidence to the contrary, I will move forward with the assumption that it is clumsy language.
However, the nugget I did find most interesting in O’Meara’s release was the part where they said they would be fine conducting opposition research on their opponents via publicly available records. I find this curious, mostly due to the reaction from Cutler and his campaign over the use of a tracker to video tape his public appearances.
He objected – in the strongest of terms – to out of context “gotcha” politics. He aggressively came out and condemned the RGA – and by extension the poor tracker just trying to earn enough money to buy herself some Ramen noodles for dinner (trackers do not get paid a lot folks) – as “politics as usual” dirty campaigners who wanted to record him, take something out of context and use it against him in an attack ad. From his release at the time:
While I realize that the RGA – or any other group – has every right to stalk candidates with a video camera, I have to confess that I find both the practice and this manner of doing so highly objectionable,” Cutler said. “Its only purpose – starting in March, no less – is to hopefully capture a few seconds of some ‘gotcha’ moment that can be used in a 30-second negative ad this fall.
I have to ask, if Cutler’s campaign is willing to go through opposition research – which I would have to assume includes video of LePage at the Waterville City Council Meetings, among other things – and then use that against him “as any campaign would”, how does that differ from video of Cutler from his public appearances being used by the RGA’s Independent Expenditures Division? It seems tit for tat. The moral high ground appears very lost to me here. Public is public and video is video – there is quite literally no difference.
The mystery of who has been going through Paul LePage’s trash and who has been snatching up video of his Waterville City Council meetings remains at this moment unsolved. LePage’s people believe it is Cutler, and Cutler’s people appear to be denying it. Libby Mitchell appears to be asleep somewhere, dreaming of her next cushy government job.
Cutler’s campaign can not be damned for just the accusation, so I would caution any reader to not whip themselves up into a frenzy until and unless any further evidence would prove such an accusation. None the less, this is a narrative making its way through Maine politics, so I couldn’t ignore it. Indeed, if it weren’t for what I would consider rank hypocrisy, I wouldn’t even have a problem with the council footage being used. And of course if Cutler was just digging into the tapes and had nothing to do with the trash searching, that is another ball of wax altogether.
Only time will tell what is really going on. Obviously if the Cutler campaign starts running “contrast ads” against LePage using Waterville City Council video footage (which in a 30 second spot could only be used wildly out of context) or on any personal information like his credit rating, we will know without any doubt who was behind this incident and people like me will scream bloody murder over the hypocrisy.
If we don’t see any of that from his campaign, than we can safely assume that they either weren’t behind it, or they didn’t decide to use anything. Only time will tell where the truth lies.