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.