Friday, January 10, 2014

Press Releases: Whining is losing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Eliot Cutler is trying to present himself as a serious candidate for governor, three years after coming in second to Republican Paul LePage, but he and his media team need to step up their game.
Just two months ago, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud masterfully manipulated the state’s media coverage of his announcement that he is gay (see “Getting Spun, by Jeff Inglis, November 15, 2013).
In part because of that news, nobody was surprised when EqualityMaine (the state’s largest group promoting equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Mainers — and one with coveted grassroots energy) endorsed Michaud’s candidacy for the Blaine House last week.
There was no chance EQME would endorse LePage, and the governor’s response to the endorsement reflected mutual disinterest: In typical non-sequitur fashion, it was about jobs.
But Cutler, the independent, was clearly hurt by the choice, issuing a lengthy statement from his campaign’s press office that called the decision “partisan” — as if a political endorsement was supposed to be otherwise! He also enlisted former state senator Dennis Damon (a big player in this state’s fight for marriage equality) to write an opinion piece in the Bangor Daily News extolling the virtues of Cutler’s financial generosity toward that movement and other issues of importance to LGBT people.
And while he told WGAN radio on Monday that he didn’t want to make it a campaign issue, Cutler’s repeated complaints that someone else got an important endorsement seemed to suggest otherwise, though the campaign did distance itself from a Tuesday event set up by supporters to whine some more.
The whole thing was a silly overreaction that promptly got Cutler stung as a weak whiner. Michaud’s spokesman, David Farmer, went straight for the jugular, saying Cutler’s response showed his “true colors” as “a Washington lawyer (who) if he doesn’t get what he wants, he attacks.”
Facebook comments were withering. Even Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, joined a comment thread on Democratic activist Jill Barkley’s page, saying “I have never seen or heard of Mr. Cutler testifying or writing letters or cutting ads on marriage or equality issues (or other issues) over the many years they have been debated, including those early years when only a handful of legislators of either party openly supported the legislation. Mr. Cutler has been out of touch and hors de combat.” (Which, for those who haven’t recently brushed up on their French idioms, literally means “outside the fight.”)
Some might say that in landing the endorsement, Michaud had successfully spun not just the press but also the activist community; that seems unlikely, given the level of vocal debate about the unfortunate truth that during Michaud’s time in the state legislature, he voted 19 times against bills that would have moved LGBT Mainers toward equality.
Rather, the choice seems to have been one based on image for EqualityMaine, and there are three important factors the group must have considered. First, of course, is its relationship with the Democratic party structure, which is pushing Michaud hard as a better-than-Cutler option for anybody-but-LePage voters. Bucking that organization could have been politically expensive.
Second must have been the very fact that Cutler has given EQME thousands of dollars, which certainly would have led to accusations that he had purchased the endorsement if it had gone his way. No group wants to appear as if its support is for sale.
And third is the incredible symbolism of working to elect the nation’s first openly gay governor. (New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey doesn’t count; he came out seconds before announcing his resignation.) There’s simply no way EQME could have been expected to back any other candidate; imagine history’s judgement of a gay-rights organization that didn’t support a gay candidate in such a landmark-possibility race.
Cutler apparently either failed to grasp these basic points, or, more likely, didn’t think of them while tied up in his frustration at not getting the support of a very powerful grassroots organization. Did he think, perhaps, that he should have given EQME more money? Or that he’d wasted what he’d sent?
In any case, his response forgot the first rule of campaigning (“If you’re talking about the other person, you’re losing”) and made him seem petty and hypersensitive. It also reinforced the Democratic narrative that Cutler is a fringe sideshow trying to steal the limelight (and the Blaine House) for his own glory.
But there is a silver lining: If Cutler can’t grow a thicker skin, it’ll be a hoot to watch his reactions once LePage starts campaigning in earnest.