Progressive Portland co-founder steps aside after sharing email list

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PORTLAND — Progressive Portland co-founder Steven Biel left the organization last week, a decision he blamed Monday on “mental fatigue.”

Biel’s leave of absence was announced Oct. 5 by organization co-founder Pat Washburn, who said it will last “at least through Election Day.”

A day later, Washburn declined further comment and said the leave is an “internal matter.” She said another co-founder, Michael Langenmyer, has also left the steering committee.

Biel’s departure came a day after Joey Brunelle, one of three candidates for an at-large City Council seat now held by Councilor Jill Duson, questioned whether a new email list used by opponent Bree LaCasse was, in fact, a Progressive Portland email list provided to her by Biel.

Sharing email lists is not illegal unless it is not listed by the candidate as an in-kind contribution. Updated campaign finance reports are not required to be filed with the city clerk’s office until Oct. 27.

“I received a small list of contacts that belong to Steven Biel personally, and it has been recorded as an in-kind contribution,” LaCasse said this week.

While advocating for the $64 million bond to rebuild four city elementary schools, Progressive Portland, Biel and others have said the group would avoid involvement in three city council elections.

Washburn said that remains the group’s stance, and Biel said the in-kind contribution to LaCasse was not the Progressive Portland list.

“Because it was not the Progressive Portland list, I didn’t discuss my in-kind donation with Progressive Portland Steering Committee,” he said in an email.

Yet in an Oct. 4 phone conversation recorded by Brunelle, Eva Humeniak of the Progressive Portland Steering Committee indicated she was upset the email addresses had been shared, and believed Biel was mixing his support for LaCasse with his advocacy for the school bond.

“This thing with the email addresses was just beyond the pale,” Humeniak told Brunelle. “… I just very point blank said, ‘I think you need to leave Progressive Portland,’” 

Maine law allows one-party consent for recording conversations, although Brunelle said Oct. 6 he did not told Humeniak she was being recorded.

Brunelle is also a supporter of the four-school bond, and said he was alerted the email addresses had been shared with LaCasse when his supporters – who had not been on her campaign email list, but were on that of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools – received emails Oct. 4 about poll results on the referendum question.

Brunelle then contacted Emily Figdor, who leads Protect Our Neighborhood Schools.

“I believe this is an issue between Progressive Portland and Bree’s campaign, not (Protect Our Neighborhood Schools),” Figdor replied to Brunelle in an Oct. 4 email.

Figdor and Biel are married, and LaCasse is one of the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools’ “decision-makers,” listed on its finance documents. Progressive Portland financial support for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools has required the group to file as a ballot question committee, although its wider advocacy for social issues and progressive policies means it is not strictly a political action committee.

Progressive Portland has taken an interest in the at-large race in its polling. In early September, Public Policy Polling asked city residents about the school bond, those results were released last week and show firm support for the four-school bond.

What has not been, and will not be released, is data from the rest of the poll.

West End resident Roseanne Graef said she was polled Sept. 8 and asked her preference in the at-large race. She said she was also asked her opinion on the Fair Rent and zoning referendums, whether her opinions on policy were affected by any support from Mayor Ethan Strimling, and whether she supported Strimling’s initiative to mandate paid sick days for public and private employees.

Washburn, Biel and finance records say the poll was a “vendor relationship” with Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, the Maine Education Association PAC.

A Sept. 6 email from Figdor to the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools Advisory Committee, including Strimling, indicates the MEA commitment was not unconditional, but based only on the school bond responses, which were “included … in a larger poll that Progressive Portland has been working on.”

“The Maine Education Association is interested in helping with our campaign if polling results show that they can make a difference,” Figdor said. “In that case, they’d essentially pay for (and possibly help run) our digital campaign, which is about $9K. They’re also going to pay for the poll, which wasn’t in our budget.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Citing “mental fatigue,” Progressive Portland co-founder Steven Biel has taken a leave of absence from the group.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • JHinck

    Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, these kinds of games are not good for keeping politics clean in Portland or anywhere. I am thankful that the Forecaster is willing to do some digging and report on this stuff.

    • Steven Biel

      Agree. Secretly recording phone calls is slimy and unacceptable.

      • JHinck

        Look. The subject of the story shows up. Too apologize to Portland voters for his ethical breaches? Too swear off gutter politics? No. To go back on the attack. Very Trump-like.

        • Steven Biel

          Joey explicitly told Eva that the conversation was confidential. Then he recorded it and released it to the press anyway. All to shed light on a 100% legal, almost trivially small in-kind contribution that was recorded in campaign finance documents anyway. Come on, John. Your personal disdain for me aside, what Joey did was super duper skeezy. This is James O’Keefe stuff.

          • JHinck

            I know nothing about a conversation between two other people but would not turn to Steven Biel for an accurate account of it. Portland voters should choose among candidates and ballot measures based on the merits, You have brought push polls, intimidation of journalists, elected and hired public officials, money raised under false pretenses and other tactics into the local politics. Your justification apparently is: everything is fair when done for what you deem are “progressive” causes. That, of course, is nonsense. You hurt potentially decent candidates by association. In this election that is Bree LaCasse and the sharing of a list of people who offered up their contact info for other purposes is just the latest scam.

          • Steven Biel

            I have definitely never run a push poll. PPP is the pollster I’ve used and they for sure don’t do them either. And fwiw, I’m pretty sure that David Harry isn’t intimidated by me. 🙂

          • JHinck

            No one thinks you have built your personal contact separate from Progressive Portland, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt corporation, you have set up as your personal fiefdom. We can ask Naomi Schalit, investigative reporter and co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, what she thinks of your approach after you unleashed a string of vicious, personal attacks on her. Your polls are invariably push polls. It sounds like you should look up what the term means (“an ostensible opinion poll in which the true objective is to sway voters using loaded or manipulative questions.”) I agree with you on one thing, David Harry probably is not intimidated but it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t attack him if you thought it would help you gain leverage.

          • Steven Biel

            My lists long predate the existence of Progressive Portland. It’s odd that you of all people think that I didn’t have lists prior to the creation of Progressive Portland in January 2017. Don’t you remember getting email blasted about the 5 cent bag fee? That was what like 4 years ago?

            Progressive Portland is a c4. As you probably know, the way it works is you register as a c3 and then separately apply to the IRS for c4 designation. That usually takes a year, during which time you operate as a c4 and the designation is awarded retroactively assuming you’ve operated as a c4 continuously during that time, which we have. That’s the proper tax designation for an advocacy group.

            I’m not going to fight with you about polling. What you’re saying is wrong, but we can agree to disagree.

          • JHinck

            OK. I’m done with this. Aside from the pernicious impact you have on local politics, you really do not interest me at all. I should tell you, however, that I got about two emails in addition to yours protesting the plastic bag fee. (That small fee, despite your efforts to block it, has been a success resulting in a drop of some 80% of the distribution of wasteful single use plastic bags at the big food stores.) At that time, I believe you were sending appeals via MoveOn.org. Regardless, your protest against the bag fee fell flat. It’s funny to hear that you think it was a big success. Bye, now.

          • Steven Biel

            I didn’t say it was a big success. I wanted a city-directed fee so we’d have money to lower property taxes or pay for free reusable bags for low-income people or to fund parks or repairs to the sewage system created by the plastic bags. But we lost. I didn’t even get a vote. Oh well.

            The Pious Ali campaign… now that was a win! 40 points! Massive blowout. Woo-hoo! Now to fix the schools… I’m off to do doors!

          • Bud Van Lagerman

            “You really think it’s OK to secretly record a conversation and then release it to the press?”

            Yes! And we have that law protecting our freedoms because of people like you.

            You want to avoid that happening? How about you don’t engage in illegal campaign practices.

            If you really didn’t share Progressive Portland’s list, why did you step down from the organization?

            Steve Biel, your chickens have finally come home to roost. A little humility would suit you well right now. The more defensive you are, the more guilty you look.

      • Steph Walsh

        I don’t blame Joey for recording the call. He suspected all parties involved would try to lie or cover up what happened, and I’d venture to say his hunch was correct. Even with proof, someone is still lying. I’m one of the recipients of the email and am on the PP and PONS email lists. I am not, however, a personal friend or acquaintance of yours Mr. Biel. I don’t believe you’d know me from a hole in the wall and would not be in possession of my personal email address to pass it on under the guise of “contacts that belong to Steven Biel personally.” This whole thing is beyond the pale and completely inappropriate. It’s the reason so many people shy away from getting involved in their communities or local elections, believing that all politics are corrupt. It shouldn’t be this way with our local politics and it’s a sad day indeed for Portland voters who are simply trying to elect honest, hard working people to represent us on our council. It’s also a sad day for the 4 school bond, of which I am an ardent supporter. I truly hope the actions of Progressive Portland don’t harm the hard work many parents and other voters are doing to fix all of our schools.

        • Steven Biel

          I do know you! You have a Joey sign and a bond sign on Garrison St. over near Tom Ainsworth and David Silk. Thanks for your support, and I agree I hope this nonsense doesn’t affect the bond.

        • Steven Biel

          Hi Stephanie–I’m a habitual online petition creator and since 2010 have created probably 50 different online petitions, several of which went pretty viral. Everything from “LePage put the labor murals back” to “repeal citizens united.” That’s where the list I own comes from. I try to use it for good purposes, but if you got an email you didn’t want that was unintentional. In any case, thanks for supporting the bond! That’s my #1 priority by far.

      • Mainer1

        Progressives are slimy

  • ForThePeopleByThePeople

    How do you create an oligarchy? One city council seat at a time. Wealth inequality doesn’t happen all at once. It occurs incrementally, as moneyed elites buy small elections in small cities like Portland, and then, before you know it, jobs disappear overseas, prisons are used to warehouse the unemployed, and the journalists who try to report on it all are thrown in jail – just like we’re seeing right now in St. Louis. Big props to the Forecaster for delving into the details of this election and being willing to call out the kingmakers and DC insiders who think they can buy a seat on the City Council so they can continue to green light high-end development, drive property values and taxes up, and push working class people out. Many of these fat cat donors hide behind laudable social causes, but ultimately their interests lie only in their own bank accounts. The days of Kumbaya liberal politics are over, people. We’re taking back power for the 99%. Join the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and find out what the new labor movement is really all about. Next meeting: 10/23 7pm Portland City Hall. We welcome all political stripes.

    • cbtlr

      Well said!

    • markusinger

      The Chamber of Commerce and their lobbyist Little Jimmy Cohen are trying to buy the District Five seat by electing Kim Cook. She is also backing the 4 school proposal. In fact, none of the District Five candidates are backing the 2 school proposal. I guess I’ll have to leave the category blank when I vote.

      • ForThePeopleByThePeople

        It’s a sad state of affairs. The School Bond issue is a an electoral hostage
        negotiation between the state and the taxpayers of the city of Portland with our children bound and gagged in the middle. But using this one ballot initiative as the only litmus test for
        City Council candidates will only result in installing more of the same
        free-market worshipers and neoliberal economics champions in city government that
        got us into this situation in the first place. We need strong Democratic
        Socialist public servants on the council who understand that state government
        is accountable to us, the working class people of Maine, not to developers, business tycoons and shareholders. Marpheen Chann is the candidate with the municipal law
        background, communication skills, and sense of fairness to bring the
        peoples’ voice to City Hall. Check out his plan to build a coalition of Maine towns and Cities to bring the state to task on full funding of our public schools. The future of democratic collective action depends on your vote.

  • Gardner Roberts

    Once again “integrity” takes a back seat in recent Portland politics. This is back room politics at its best by both Progressive Portland and Protect Our Neighborhood Schools. They are joined at the hip. Keep digging Forecaster.

    • YarRes

      He has his fingers into Yarmouth politics too with one of the new members of the Town Council. I saw that in radio yarmouth on facebook

      • Gardner Roberts

        The tentacles are spreading. It’s right out of the Chicago playbook. You better nip it in the bud.