Free Press columnist Becca Shaw Glaser
Free Press columnist Becca Shaw Glaser
I’ve just had such a strange experience. Last week I had contacted Mike Mullins, the Republican candidate for state representative for Rockland and Owls Head, and asked if I could interview him for “Notes from Lime City.” I was curious what a self-described “Progressive Republican” was. What exactly did that mean, and was it even possible right now?

Lately, the candidate and his campaign are everywhere, churning out news-ready PR on a regular basis. In general, Mullins seems to take pains to pump out an image of himself that almost anyone could get behind. He does seem to have an admirable and earnest interest in connecting with people spanning a wide range of political perspectives. So seemingly widespread is the enthusiasm for him that you’ll find Mike Mullins signs planted in lawns in such far-off lands as Camden and Thomaston. But who is he? Why is he suddenly everywhere? And why are so many liberal-leaning people taken by him?

Mullins is hard to pin down. I’ve watched locals repeatedly ask him to clarify his political stances and express frustration with his often-indirect answers: “I asked you who you support for president and didn’t get a straight answer.” “You have been very evasive on some of your answers.” “I’m going to give up and simply think of you as undecided when the choice seems abundantly clear.”

When I asked Mullins if he voted for Trump in 2016, and if he would vote for him in 2020, he would not say. Not only did he decline the opportunity to specifically express anything disagreeable about Trump, but instead, he immediately pivoted to bashing Biden and the Clintons in minute detail.

Looking into his campaign contributions I found it interesting that he, a Republican, had given recurrent contributions to a Democratic Massachusetts congressman, and, in 2016, to Bernie Sanders. These donations seem consistent with his claim of being “progressive.” But what about this? In December 2019, Mullins gave the maximum allowable campaign contribution to Dale Crafts, a far-right conservative who is running to unseat Maine Democratic Congressman Jared Golden. Why is Mullins, who told me “Black Lives Matter” when I asked, who claims to be pro-choice and pro-environment, and whose stated intention is to do “no less than transform the [Republican] Party,” writing huge checks to a climate-change-denying, vehemently anti-choice, anti-immigrant political candidate?

I could have written my opinion column without approaching Mullins, but I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I emailed him and he agreed to answer my questions. But when he saw them, he wrote, “I don’t mind tough questions, I welcome them. But…” Over several days, he tried to get me to agree to this and that, full citations, responses printed in full, etc. I’ve never had a person I was writing about be anywhere near that directive or demanding, and since I work within a limited word count and like the column to take shape organically, I wasn’t going to promise what the column would include, particularly not to a political candidate. I had my editor, the marvelous Ethan Andrews, step in. Ethan tried to assure him that I, as an opinion column writer, work hard to get my facts and context right, and that if Mullins wasn’t pleased with the column, he could respond in a letter to the editor.

When he finally sent his answers, I started working on the column. But a few hours into writing it, a Facebook post from Mullins popped up. There, on my screen, was a grinning photo of Mike Mullins alongside a link to an article: “Notes from Lime City: A Conversation with Becca Shaw Glaser.” Mullins had surreptitiously published our unfinished exchange on his online Penobscot Bay Pilot member page, with zero consultation with me or The Free Press, making it appear as if I had co-authored it. I started to shake, my heart beat loud and fast, and my hands were trembling so much I could barely type. (Yeah, I know I seem like a total badass, but it’s actually really easy to throw me off-balance.) To be clear: Mullins stole my name for the title and byline; he stole our column name, and made it appear as if his Penobscot Bay Pilot post was a “Notes from Lime City” column.

After hemming and hawing and claiming it was his right, Mullins removed the title “Notes from Lime City” and the byline, and, hours later, unpublished the piece. But he continued sending messages to me and my editor, appearing to try to influence the content of my column. He told us “be cautious about using words like theft, steal, and misrepresentation in your published materials and things that you say about me.” I took it as a warning, perhaps even a veiled threat about suing the paper — whether that was his intention or not. Mike Mullins, a candidate for political office, told a newspaper editor and a writer in the United States of America to beware of using certain words related to him, such as “steal.” But if someone took the raw material you were working with for a column, then put it online, using your name in the title, using the name of the column you write for a different local paper, what would you call it?

Some things I gleaned from my exchanges with Mullins: He told me he bought his first house here in 2014 and changed his license and voter registration to Maine in 2016, but he estimates he “began living in Maine more than 50% of the time I am not traveling in 2019, if not earlier.” A person who has been living in Rockland for more than six months of the year only for the past year or so, thinks he should be the next representative for everyone in Rockland and Owls Head? Because of the dangers of the “from away” trope, I would never say someone’s newness to an area makes them unfit for politics, but the truth is that we have reason to be concerned about people who descend on Maine — especially when they ooze money. Money, as they say, is power. And Mullins’ campaign is using a stunning amount, especially for a small-town Maine representative race. As of his most recent filing with the Maine Ethics Commission on September 22, his campaign had amassed $53,325.70, with $46,215.70 coming directly from Mullins’ own pockets. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate is running a Clean Elections campaign and has $5,854. Mullins seemed to want to emphasize his fundraising to me; however, in his campaign disclosures only five people from his district are listed as donating to his campaign; most of the others are from out of state.

Having spent hours trying to decipher Mullins’ claim of “progressive Republicanism,” I’ve come to think that where he is most in line with conservatives is in his approach to money. He favors financial policies that have a documented history of benefiting the wealthy most of all: he opposes taxes on wealth and estates, and proposes a “negative” income tax, even, if not especially, for people with high incomes. And while most progressive Democrats, liberals and leftists think the 2017 GOP tax bill was a huge giveaway to the already-wealthy and mega-corporations, Mullins, though saying he doesn’t agree with everything in the bill, ultimately concludes, “I’ll take it.”

When I asked Mullins about his December 2019 campaign contributions to uber-conservative Dale Crafts, he claimed that he didn’t know about Crafts’ ideological stances and didn’t answer my question about why it was so important to Mullins to get rid of Jared Golden. Really? Mullins was totally innocent to the fact that he was giving two maximum campaign contributions to a Republican congressional candidate about whom Portland Press Herald columnist Greg Kesich said, “if elected this year [Crafts] would be among the most right wing members of Congress. He opposes abortion in all cases, with no exception for rape or incest, would repeal the Affordable Care Act and favors privatizing Social Security”? One has to wonder: are we being played?

Let’s talk about dissent and the right to criticize political candidates and politicians. When Mullins realized I am not the type to write a mere puff piece about his candidacy, he sought to get more control over the final outcome. If he publishes the incomplete questions and answers again, keep in mind that the first version he published did not include any “tough” follow-up questions; he apparently engineered it that way. Mullins has not only attempted to meddle in The Free Press’ coverage of his candidacy, on multiple occasions I have seen him intervene and perhaps try to put a stop to individuals’ public criticism of his actions or policy positions. For instance, a recent letter in local papers endorsed the candidate Mullins is challenging and was critical of Mullins’ candidacy. Mullins commented to suggest that instead of making it public, the letter writer should have approached him in his personal forums. Commenting under her letter, Mullins wrote: “Someone here, who is my friend … is taking a shot at me.” Pay attention to the inappropriately personal nature of his response, how he frames himself as a victim, and the way he describes the letter as a “shot.” Although the letter writer does not mention the terms “Democrat” or “Republican,” Mullins sure does. In his comment, he also cleverly harnesses the partisan myth that Republicans in general are victims: “here you are, endorsing a Democrat, and taking a swing at a Republican.” Political candidates are public figures. The right to comment on and criticize their policy positions and personal actions is one of the most important tenets of a supposedly free society. In these instances, Mullins may not be intending to create a chilling effect on dissent and critique, but that could be the frightening result.