Left: The Insider; CMP lobbyist Jim Mitchell speaking at a legislative hearing on a power-line bill. Right: The Outsiders; Sally Kwan and Duane Hanson at the State House (Photos by Lance Tapley)
Left: The Insider; CMP lobbyist Jim Mitchell speaking at a legislative hearing on a power-line bill. Right: The Outsiders; Sally Kwan and Duane Hanson at the State House (Photos by Lance Tapley)
Whether CMP’s unpopular transmission line should be built through the Maine North Woods—a policy question—is being debated widely. But less has been discussed about the politics of the battle. Who’s fighting whom was the subject of Part One of this two-part series. Now we ask: Who is likely to win, and why?

PART TWO:

Insiders Often Beat Outsiders, But ...


He often sits with a group of working-class, middle-aged women and men wearing white “No CMP Corridor” T-shirts. Duane Hanson — thin, longish blond hair, 65, wearing a green-and-black-checked wool shirt — is a fixture at legislative hearings on bills dealing with Central Maine Power Co.’s planned 145-mile transmission-line corridor through the state.

The line would take 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts, cutting across 53 miles of mostly uninhabited North Woods. Theoretically, it would contribute to the Bay State’s turn to renewable energy to help curb global warming. But critics say it’s “dirty hydro” because huge forests were destroyed to provide reservoirs for the Canadian dams. Intact forests absorb from the atmosphere the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

When Duane Hanson testified at one legislative hearing he choked up. “It’s a cryin’ shame,” he said, of the line’s potential environmental damage. He speaks haltingly, but he commands the attention of legislators with his sincerity.

Hanson and his wife Sally Kwan are the ultimate outsiders in State House politics. The only permanent residents of an entire township, they live in the western mountains 25 air miles from Jackman, the nearest town. They eke out a living making ash baskets and forging knives, selling them on the internet. They have a big garden, an ice house, and an apple orchard that Hanson planted himself. He moved to Township 5, Range 7 with his first wife 40 years ago, raising a family there. He grew up in Brunswick but “always wanted to live in the woods.”

Now Hanson and Kwan would be among the most directly affected if the power line were built. It would be visible from their house, he said, and they’d have to cross under it when they go to town.

He told legislators in the hearing that CMP kept secret its acquisition of land for the corridor until it was “a done deal.” Consequently, some people in his part of Maine believed it was impossible to fight, he said, so they needed “to get something” — meaning specifically the handful of businesspeople that joined Western Mountains & Rivers Corporation, set up by CMP to support the corridor and financed with an initial $250,000 for tourism promotion.

Jim Mitchell, CMP’s chief lobbyist, explained in the hearing that there was a need for confidentiality while the company was bidding on the contract to bring hydropower to Massachusetts. Still, he said, there was extensive “public outreach.”

Mitchell, 58, seems the antithesis of Hanson. Dressed in a conservative, dark suit as he answers legislators’ questions, he’s articulate, informed, and unruffled. He’s one of the highest-paid lobbyists in Augusta. His firm also represents Proctor & Gamble, J.D. Irving, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and other large enterprises.

Mitchell is the ultimate insider, Democratic Party corporate division. Former head of the state’s Democratic Party and nephew of former United States Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, he raised funds for Janet Mills in her gubernatorial campaign. (He also ran against her in the 1994 Second District congressional primary. Both lost to John Baldacci, Mitchell’s cousin, who later became governor. The insider tangle can get very knotty.)

Gov. Mills, too, happens to be from an insider family, a “moderate” Republican one. Her father was United States attorney for Maine. Her brother Peter Mills, a former legislator, is Maine Turnpike Authority director. He also was one of the founding board members of Western Mountains & Rivers.

Even more general than the businesspeople-versus-environmentalists, Republicans-versus-Democrats, and urban-versus-rural oppositions discussed in Part One of this series, there are two classes of people active in politics: insiders and outsiders. The insiders are often full-time participants like Mitchell; the outsiders, like Hanson and Kwan, usually participate only when they’re stimulated by an issue.

This couple, of course, constitute a special case. Their throwback way of life and location represent the beauty and tranquility of Maine almost in a symbolic or fantasy sense. But hundreds of regular-people outsiders who want to preserve remnants of Maine’s wilderness have showed up at the official and unofficial forums on the CMP corridor issue.

Who Are the Insiders?

Political insiders are officeholders, political-party leaders, top bureaucrats, and the people who influence them such as lobbyists for powerful interests. Insiders are privy to knowledge that outsiders aren’t. Outsiders and their usually ad hoc groups are in varying degrees the opposite: the unconnected and unconsulted.

There’s constant exchange among insider groups — ex-legislators become lobbyists, lobbyists become bureaucrats, and so on. Taken together, they’re what the Russians under communism called the Apparat, the Apparatus — interconnected people who decide things.

(Sound like “deep state” territory? Discerning readers have noted that by calling my column Deep State I’m having fun with that right-wing conspiracy theory. The Maine Apparat has a resemblance in form to the paranoid fantasy of the deep state, such as in its back-room dealings, but in content it’s largely corporate in orientation — not left-wing. It’s also variegated and not all-powerful. For me, my column’s title signifies my intention to dig deep into Maine issues.)

The Apparatus tends to be corporate because — to stick to local explanations — corporate lobbyists swarm the State House and the rest of state government. There are 249 lobbyists currently registered with the state. There are only 186 legislators. A few years ago, I calculated that, roughly, two-thirds of the lobbyists represented corporations.

CMP has seven that I could find listed with the state Ethics Commission. In the case of the corridor, there are lobbyists for other companies promoting it. And a fair number of lobbyists are working against it. The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), which leads the opposition, has six lobbyists registered, although they’re regular employees, not professional hired guns.

There’s flexibility or fluidity in the Apparatus. Corporate apparatchiks may ally themselves with environmental groups, for instance, as in the case of several Maine energy companies fighting alongside the NRCM to oppose the power line, which if it came to pass could mean disagreeable competition for them.

The insider Apparatus regularly goes in a different direction than “ordinary” citizens want their government to go. The most recent lurid example of how this plays out in Maine occurred in 2017 when the Legislature repealed the citizens-initiated bill that enacted a 3-percent surcharge on household income above $200,000, the revenue to be devoted to public education. The corporate class is not very flexible, it sticks together, when individual bank accounts are threatened.

There also are insider environmental and other groups. A British author, Paul Goldsmith, defines insider “pressure” groups — “interest groups” in American usage — as those “regularly consulted by government departments... The price of this privileged access is restraint: keeping confidences, making sure arguments are well-substantiated, avoiding disruptive tactics and ‘screening out’ unacceptable demands.”

Some environmental groups in Maine are insiders or would-be insiders in the nondisruptive mold. At the moment, they’re not opposing the CMP power line, they say, because it’s more important to bring hydro through Maine to Massachusetts to counter global warming than to be concerned about local environmental destruction.

The leadership of these nondisruptive organizations often is composed of insiders in a social-class sense (family, wealth, education). You can see this, for example, if you look up who’s on the various boards of trustees or advisers of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a New England–wide group active in Maine that endorses the corridor. You will find aristocratic names like du Pont, Cabot, Gardiner, and Hildreth.

(At press time, columnist Al Diamon revealed CLF Maine Director Sean Mahoney’s brother, Scott Mahoney, is senior vice president of CMP’s owner Avangrid, itself owned by the Spanish company Iberdrola. I rest my case.)

Similarly nondisruptive, in the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) proceedings on the corridor currently at center stage — now that the Public Utilities Commission has given its okay — the Nature Conservancy has a “neither for nor against” official status, which effectively means it approves of CMP’s plan.

But its position is, strangely, also a form of self-abuse. The corridor’s giant transmission line would abut the southern border of the conservancy’s 17,000-acre Leuthold Forest Preserve, inevitably changing dramatically the experience of visitors who are welcomed on the conservancy’s website to enjoy the “panoramic views” from Leuthold’s 3,168-foot-high Number Five Mountain, which has a trail to the top.

“The real prize on Number Five is the summit, with wide-open slabs and ledges that provide 360-degree views,” Josh Christie, a Portland Press Herald outdoors columnist, has written. Yet Rob Wood, the conservancy’s energy-policy staffer, said he didn’t “believe there are visual impacts” from the corridor if you were on the mountain.

“That’s a bunch of horseshit,” Duane Hanson told me, via his satellite phone. “You would be looking right at the power line from the top of the mountain.” He lives next to conservancy land two miles from Number Five.

But Wood also told me, “Recreational and scenic impact was not a core concern of ours.” The conservancy is focusing on “biodiversity,” he said, and on minimizing the ecological impact of this 150- to (possibly, eventually) 300-foot-wide cut through the forest alongside the preserve.

He suggested an unusual way to minimize ecological impact: raising “the pole heights” beyond the planned 95 feet to allow bigger trees to grow under the wires. When this idea was described to Hanson, he commented: “That’s total nonsense.”

Jonathan Carter, a past Green Party candidate for governor, decries “rich armchair environmentalists” touting “eco-balancing” in the face of the enormity of climate change.

In contrast to such elite groups as the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Law Foundation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine — though it solicits rich donors — has managed to keep one foot in the outsider camp, connected to regular people. As a result, it leads the fight against the corridor.

Who Will Win?

If the state DEP, the Land Use Planning Commission, or an approving agency on the federal level or in Massachusetts said no, that would probably be the end for the corridor, although appeals are possible.

Jerry Reid, DEP commissioner, decides for his department. Environmental groups supported him at his confirmation, but in practice decisions in state-government departments often go along with the wishes of the ultimate executive authority. Gov. Mills is in favor of the corridor. A decision is expected in the fall.

On the corridor issue, legislators — who tend to be close to their constituents — are in a different place than the executive branch. Combine the dislike of CMP because of its billing and power-outage difficulties and Spanish ownership with the company’s threat to the forest, and many legislators can do the political arithmetic. There’s a chance that the Legislature could pass a bill killing the corridor, particularly since opponents include both Democrats and Republicans.

“This is the first time I feel like I’m talking to people who actually listen,” Duane Hanson told a legislative committee.

Three of the bills — LDs 271, 1363, and 1383 — would allow local control over the corridor. Given that many of the towns the corridor would traverse have voted in town meetings against it, passage of one of these bills might doom it.

The bill that at this point seems to have the best chance of passage is LD 640, which would require an independent study of the project’s “net greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” balancing the positives of renewable power against the negatives of what was done to the Quebec forest to generate it and would be done to the Maine forest to transmit it. No such analysis has been performed.

Its sponsor, Sen. Brownie Carson (D-Harpswell), chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, recently obtained a 10-to-3 committee vote in favor of the bill. Two Republicans voted with all the Democrats in the majority. It now goes to the full Legislature.

I caught up with Carson soon after the committee vote. He was racing from the Cross Office Building to the State House because, he said, he had been “summoned to the governor’s office.”

Any deal with the governor coming down, I inquired?

“We’ll see where we are,” he replied.

“Are you opposed to the corridor?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s the greenhouse-gas issue” that concerns him.

A study is only as good or as independent as the consultant who performs it, and the science of global warming is complex. But if LD 640 passes and its report — due August 15 — says the corridor will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Carson, the former longtime director of NRCM, may be in a position of having to support CMP. This could be true of other legislators, as well.

The next level up is a possible citizens-initiated referendum to block the corridor’s creation. “If we get it to the people, I think our chances are very good,” said an opponent, former Sen. Thomas Saviello, a Republican. It would be easy to collect the signatures for a referendum. Signature gatherers would have to hire people for crowd control.

But if CMP spent millions on an advertising campaign, which it has already begun, would a ballot measure pass? Advertising has sometimes defeated campaigns that started out the gate with public strong support. The Ban Clearcutting initiative in the 1990s foundered after a massive paper-company campaign provoking fears of job losses.

But CMP’s would-be intrusion into the North Woods is not about jobs. It’s possible every CMP television ad would reinforce the opposition. Governor Mills’ continued statements of support, too, could likewise backfire, given that they’ve done her no good so far.

Political scientist Jim Melcher, of the University of Maine at Farmington, called Mills the “most conservative” candidate in the 2018 Democratic primary. To her peril, the Democratic Party is continually moving toward the corporate-critical left — toward where issue polls have for years shown the American people to be. As Bernie Sanders showed in the 2016 presidential race, there’s a large population of disgruntled outsiders susceptible to lefty arguments.

With Mills’ corridor position and her no-new-taxes pledge — firming up Republican former Gov. Paul LePage’s tax cuts for the rich — she keeps risking holding on to the Democrats’ core. With the corridor she also may alienate independents and will further alienate Republicans, since the poll showed they’re even more opposed to the corridor than Democrats.

On the Maine Public show “Maine’s Political Pulse,” reporter Steve Mistler called Mills’ endorsement of the corridor “a real political trap.” He is correct.

Maybe she sincerely believes the CMP corridor is best for Maine despite what Maine people believe. Maybe she can be convinced otherwise. But just looking at the politics, the logical strategy for her is to find a way to get out of the trap. Perhaps the DEP or LD 640’s study will provide her with that.

But she’s the ultimate insider now and has been an insider for a long time — as attorney general, state representative, and maybe even from birth. It might be hard for her to break out. Insiders tend to consult other insiders.

Regardless, on this issue the outsiders have a very good chance.