Ethics panel rejects complaint against Falmouth Democrats
FALMOUTH — The state Ethics Commission ruled July 31 the town Democratic Committee did not violate any campaign laws in its endorsement of state Senate candidate Catherine Breen.
Breen won the June 10 Democratic primary in Senate District 25, defeating Yarmouth resident Steve Woods by a 2-1 margin.
Woods filed a complaint with the committee, claiming the support behind Breen was illegal because party leaders violated an agreement they made with him prior to the election. According to Woods, he agreed to drop out of the gubernatorial campaign to ensure an easy primary for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, and in return he said the party leadership vowed to remain neutral in the state senate race.
On June 25, the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices voted 3-2 to investigate. Last week, it unanimously rejected Woods' complaint.
Woods on Aug. 1 said he accepts the panel's decision, wasn't surprised by it, and has no plans to challenge it. He added that more so than anywhere else, Falmouth has a history of very aggressive politics.
"For reasons not entirely clear to me, Falmouth politics have always been very aggressive, very tribal, and very partisan," Woods said. "I don't think this election symbolizes anything other than a pre-existing condition."
Woods said that the aggressiveness in Falmouth politics is limited to a small number of people, but they happen to be the most politically active people in town.
Woods, who owns TideSmart Global, a marketing company in Falmouth, also claimed the Falmouth Town Democratic Committee should have registered as a political action committee when it endorsed Breen.
The staff of the Ethics Commission recommended that the commission rule against Woods, finding the committee's actions didn't constitute a contribution under state election laws. Under the law, a contribution must be money or non-monetary items of value, and excludes volunteer efforts that the candidate is unaware of.
In an email statement, Woods said "Ultimately, while I respect and accept their decision, it doesn’t alter my belief that voters (in Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, Gray, Long Island and part of Westbrook) didn’t 'elect' a primary candidate in Cathy Breen as much as the Democratic Party 'selected' her through a negative and destructive process led by Breen herself, and Falmouth resident/Maine Democratic Vice Chair, Pam Fenrich."
Fenrich on Monday dismissed the charges made by Woods.
"The Falmouth Democratic Committee, what we did was legal, ethical, completely appropriate, and that's what the finding of the Ethics Commission was," Fenrich said. "It was a unanimous vote, there was no discussion."
Woods also accused Fenrich, state Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, and the Democratic Party for short-changing voters. He said their role should have been to remain neutral and get as many candidates as possible involved. Instead, Woods said the party insiders picked the candidate.
"Too often we’re electing people skilled in the dark art of election politics instead of by evidence and standards of relevance; record of achievement, tangible skills, leadership, and vision for the future," Woods said in his emailed statement.
Fenrich said she and the party did not violate any issues of neutrality.
"The Maine Democratic Party doesn't take a position in primary, and I as the vice chair of the party agreed to not take a position as the vice chair of the party," Fenrich said. "But when you're an official with the party you don't give up your individual rights of expression."
Fenrich added that as vice chairwoman of the party she didn't support anyone, but as an individual she was fully free to support Breen.
"As Pam Fenrich, I'm entitled to support whomever," she said. "As the vice chair of the party, I stay impartial from a public standpoint of a position of representing the view of the party."
Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said Woods concerns "relate to the internal governance of the Maine Democratic Party, which is outside the Commission's jurisdiction."
Woods ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate as an independent in 2012, and ran a short-lived campaign for governor as a Democrat in 2013. Following his loss in the recent primary, Woods resigned from the Yarmouth Town Council.
He stressed that he has no problem with the Democratic Party, and that he is still an active supporter of Michaud for governor.
Breen will face Republican candidate Cathy Manchester in the Nov. 4 election.