Portland legislator’s fundraising haul ‘among’ the highest ever for Maine primary

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. (Jen Lynds - Bangor Daily News)

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. (Jen Lynds – Bangor Daily News)

A Democratic Portland legislator raised an eye-popping $89,000 for her June primary for a Maine Senate seat, a haul that state election officials called among the biggest ever at this point in a race.

Rep. Diane Russell’s filing was the highlight of a batch of disclosures due to the Maine Ethics Commission on Friday, covering legislative campaign activities from January through March.

Her Democratic primary against Rep. Ben Chipman and Dr. Charles Radis will all but decide who wins the seat to be vacated by Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond in November because the district is Maine’s most Democratic by voter registration. The winner will face Republican Mark Lockman and Seth Baker of the Maine Green Independent Party in the general election.

Russell supports Democratic presidential underdog Bernie Sanders and has recently gained national attention for her state party resolution to limit the influence of “superdelegates,” the party leaders who can cast national convention votes for any candidate, even if their state voted for another.

Sanders has called for other states to follow Maine’s example. Russell has used those types of buzzy causes — including her pro-marijuana legalization stance — to boost her standing among national progressives, amassing a valuable email list.

For this campaign, she has gotten well over 1,000 contributions from all across the country, with almost all of those donors contributing less than $100. Of her total, nearly $53,000 — or 59 percent — came from donors who didn’t have to give their names and addresses because they gave less than $50.

Maine Ethics Commission Assistant Director Paul Lavin said though the agency doesn’t keep detailed records, Russell’s total is “among” the most ever raised for a legislative primary.

It easily outpaced the rest of the Senate field — the next biggest fundraiser was Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, at just over $23,000. He’s running a Senate primary against Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco.

Russell’s fundraising total also puts her opponents at a huge disadvantage: Chipman is running under the Maine Clean Elections Act, giving him $10,000 in taxpayer money and just over $2,900 in private “seed money.” Radis, who is fundraising privately like Russell, reported receiving just under $13,000.

Campaign finance has been an issue in this race, with Russell and Chipman having complaints filed against them.

In May, a Russell supporter complained to the commission that an invitation to a house party paid for by Chipman supporters violated an exemption in law that allows supporters to contribute up to $250 per election for “invitations, food and beverages” for “candidate-related activities.”

The commission didn’t penalize Chipman, who told them that nine volunteers split the costs of an $1,828.76 invitation, though commissioners may undertake rulemaking to clarify the exemption. But afterward, Chipman said it was an attack designed to distract from past fines for Russell’s political action committee.

This week, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting said Russell’s PAC was the subject of another ethics complaint from Michael Hiltz of Portland, once a Green candidate for the Legislature. Chipman was once a member of that party and a staffer to John Eder, the first Green legislator elected in Maine. The complaint will be heard by the commission after the primary.

While Russell’s numbers could give her organization a boost heading into Election Day, they also could provide Chipman with rhetorical fodder.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.