Judge Sides with Cutler Campaign in Financing Dispute

Aug 22, 2014

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler talks about tax policy at a news conference in April
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler talks about tax policy at a news conference in April
Credit Tom Porter / MPBN

A federal judge has sided with four contributors to independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler's campaign. The four filed suit over a state law that limits the amount of money they can each spend on independent candidates to $1,500 dollars. The judge found that, in this particular election, the four have shown a strong likelihood that they have suffered "unconstitutional discrimination" compared to contributors to major party candidates.

Under Maine law, supporters of gubernatorial candidates can donate up to $1,500 dollars per election. The law defines a primary as a separate election. Democratic and Republican candidates have to undergo primaries. Independent candidates do not. That  makes party candidates eligible for two $1,500 donations - one for the primary and one for the general election, while independents are limited to just one.

But this year, neither Republican Gov. Paul LePage nor Democrat Mike Michaud had a primary opponent. And several Cutler supporters think it's unfair that they cannot donate $3,000 to their candidate, the same way LePage and Michaud supporters can.

Judge D. Brock Hornby agrees, at least in this election where there were no contested primaries.

"Obviously I and my clients are delighted by the judge's decision - it pretty much followed the arguments that we made," says attorney Melissa Hewey, who represents the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "I think it's a happy day not only for my clients but for all Maine citizens who may someday want to support an independent candidate."

But how this decision will affect other candidates and their contributors is unclear. Hornby granted a motion that specifically allows Cutler supporters to double their contributors to the independent candidate. In his 18-page decision the judge said equal protection under the law was at the heart of the matter.

"It should go without saying that if the plaintiffs are not able to contribute soon at the higher level, they will suffer irreparable injury," the judge wrote. "Timing is everything in an election."

Hornby went on to say that the four Maine residents "have shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that in this election they have suffered unconstitutional discrimination." (Italics Judge Hornby).

Jonathan Wayne is the executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, the defendant in the case. "The court is signaling that these four plaintiffs ought to be able to contribute additional funds to help get Eliot Cutler elected," Wayne says, "but we need to confer with the attorney general and confer with other donors, and we'll be doing that in the coming days."

Michaud's campaign manager, Matt McTighe, says he doesn't think the decision will result in more donors opening their checkbooks wider. "I mean, we're talking about a really small number of people, quite frankly, who can afford to give $1,500 dollars," McTighe says, "let alone $3,000."

McTighe says the election won't be decided by a small number of donors who can give the maximum amount, but rather by tens of thousands of supporters and volunteers such as those working on Michaud's campaign and often contributing just $50. Still, the Michaud campaign is asking for clarity about whether the judge's decision also means their donors who have not yet reached the new $3,000 limit in the general election can now choose to do so.

Meantime, plaintiff and Cutler supporter Amy Woodhouse plans to increase her donation as soon as possible. "I've never been so excited about being able to write a check," she says.

Cutler's campaign released a statement expressing gratitude to the citizens who stepped forward to challenge the law and that Judge Hornby saw the merits of their case. A request for comment from the LePage campaign was not returned by airtime.