On Maine Politics

January 20, 2013

LePage consultant's talking-points memo de rigueur in Maine politics

Bills seek to extend absentee vote deadline; across-aisle committee formed to improve business climate; cloture-day bills being processed

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

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 advisor and is 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 protests aganist 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 intra-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 in writing — making it subject to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act — what is in many ways standard practice.

If it sometimes seems as though 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 talking 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 news media, it presents a united front and it protects against contradictory statements that opponents can exploit.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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