Reflections on why Chellie is where she is

For most of this campaign Chellie Pingree has held double digit leads in the polls. But suddenly she finds herself in a tight race for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House.

She’s a shoo-in no longer, partly because the public has finally focused on her liberal record in Washington where she is one of only 85 Democrats (plus Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders) who are members of the party’s left-leaning “Progressive Caucus.”

Her drop in the polls also may be related to increasing media and voter interest in the role her fiancé, hedge-fund mogul S. Donald Sussman, a prolific donor to far-left causes, is playing in promoting her political success.

Sussman, his Wall Street companies and his friends have combined to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into Pingree’s campaigns, but until lately that news aroused only chirping crickets in Maine.

Among the chirpers has been the Maine media which had been restrained, to say the least, in reporting on Pingree’s connection to the Wall Street multi-millionaire. The media had found no reason to seriously question why one man was responsible for providing much of her campaign financing. And it obviously had little interest in how she traveled back and forth between Maine and her job in Washington.

Although the Sussman issue had lingered in the background for years, it attracted little media attention except from Chris Busby, publisher of an alternative weekly in Portland, who has written extensively about Pingree/Sussman and whose amusing article “Chasing Chellie” has become something of a classic in Maine political reporting.

Nothing as imaginative took place in the MSM’s coverage of what Pingree was up to in Washington. Instead, the MSM devoted considerable time and space to puffery on her carefully-cultivated background as a simple island girl struggling for success in business and politics.

If attention devoted to a single topic is any measure of media interest, Pingree’s most interesting achievement in 2009 was an appearance on the Stephen Colbert comedy show. Excited television announcers zeroed in on her performance and rated it “thumbs up.” Newspapers also devoted substantial space to the Colbert coverage.

With the media thus distracted, Sussman has become increasingly important to Pingree’s success. As he becomes better known, the media — and voters — are finally taking more interest in his political role in Maine. To the extent that involves his relationship with Pingree, so be it.

There’s no doubt Sussman, who has advanced from boyfriend to fiance status over the past few months, can take credit for a big part of Pingree’s remarkable success thus far at the ballot box. He has indeed made her political life easier by providing her with the kind of jet transportation that she once famously advised members of Congress to avoid. In 2006 when she was the CEO of Common Cause, she said:

“Most Americans never have and never will fly on a chartered jet, much less a fancy corporate jet complete with wet bar and leather couches. So when members of Congress constantly fly around on corporate jets and pay only the cost of a commercial ticket, it contributes to the corrosive public perception that members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us.”

That comment has come back to bite her after a film clip made by a political opponent showed her, along with Sussman, debarking from a private jet on to a red carpet in Portland. That was followed by revelations she had made many flights between Maine and Washington (and elsewhere) on the same opulent aircraft. (Do as I say and not as I do?)

Not everybody in Congress gets to fly amidst wet bars and leather couches although U.S. Rep. Barney Frank made headlines in the Boston press when it was revealed he was given a lift on the same well-equipped plane used by Pingree.

So now more than crickets are chirping.The two largest newspapers in the 1st District have come out in support of Pingree’s GOP opponent, Dean Scontras (better late than never).

All this is causing voters to take a closer look at Pingree and has resulted in a much more competitive race than forecast as voters try to decide whether the Chellie Pingree who champions progressive politics is really the down-to-earth island girl that she has tried to portray.

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