Maine politics was abuzz last week with charges of plagiarism regarding the Alexander Group’s report on Maine’s welfare system. The consultant, whose reputation and work has been targeted for months, was forced to apologize publicly for not properly crediting the work of others.
The merits of the Alexander Report and the alleged political biases of its namesake, consultant Gary Alexander, have been debated and maligned for months. There is little more to be lost or gained for either side from this latest flap, but the less-than-comprehensive attribution still serves as an embarrassing reminder about the importance of offering credit where credit is due.
Michael Cuzzi apparently did not get the message.
As I sat next to Cuzzi at a policy and politics discussion hosted by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine last week my friend and column companion offered, nearly word-for-word, a quip I was preparing to deliver about bumper stickers. But I know he did not steal my line.
The truth is Cuzzi and I are often of the same mind when it comes to political tactics and execution so it is no surprise that we had a similar point of view about the importance of streamlining messages. In that spirit I will offer energy politics advice to the Michaud for Governor campaign that could fit on a campaign button, placard or rear bumper — Beware the Power of Energy Politics.
It is hard to move people on energy politics because there is rarely an opportunity to play the blame game. Clear and accountable villains never present themselves because energy policy is a complicated mix of technology, regulation, market forces, investments, infrastructure and geopolitical developments.
We do know, for instance, that economic expansion in Asia has increased global demand for energy and contributed to higher prices. Despite having a clear culprit, voters are powerless to hold China and India to account in the next election.
While matters of price are a constant underlying concern, it takes dramatic and rarely seen price spikes to capture the attention of the electorate. Short of that, people grumble and gripe but casually adjust their budgets or habits to make sure they can afford the energy they need.
On the supply side, the energy industry is almost infallible when it comes to meeting the needs of consumers. Apart from those few times when Mother Nature has run amok, we have constant access to the fuel and energy we need. Most of us pay our bills and live our lives without worrying how or from where the electrons and commodities we consume get to our homes.
One person who cares an awful lot about the how we source our energy is Tom Steyer, a California billionaire and environmental activist who is planning to spend $100 million to influence the 2014 elections around issues of climate change. Among Steyer’s political targets is Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
If Democratic candidate for governor Mike Michaud is not careful, this billionaire from away could end up being the villain LePage needs to make energy an powerful political issue in the 2014 campaign.
Much of Michaud’s message about energy will sound perfectly reasonable and forward thinking to many persuadable Maine voters. He speaks about cutting Maine’s use of home heating oil in half by 2030, investing in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to create power and jobs in Maine, and about the importance of efficiency and weatherization. As a sitting congressman, Michaud also can take credit for fighting for heating assistance programs in Washington that help needy Maine families weather our long, cold winters.
Part of Michaud’s message about energy also involves the need to address climate change. Earlier this year, he offered, “We all know that climate change is real. We all know about its devastating impacts on the air we breathe, the water we drink, our public health, our lands and oceans.”
This statement is safe and sensible. But the message and the issue could get off the political rail quickly when a privileged, high-profile activist like Steyer starts talking about the changes and costs involved in addressing climate change. After all, Maine is one of the oldest, coldest and most rural states in the country. We also lead the nation in home heating oil dependence. Price matters to most of us.
It took Google a quarter of a second to return 84,000 search results involving the terms “Steyer” and “oil tax.” The very first result was an interesting read about the campaign Steyer is waging to create an oil extraction tax in his home state of California.
It is too soon to know how Steyer’s campaign targeting LePage will play out, but I could see a scenario where LePage counters with an energy price message that vilifies Steyer and resonates with Maine voters. Michaud needs to sharpen his own message about price and maintain distance from Steyer.
If not, watch for bumper stickers this fall that read “Stop Mike’s Price Hikes!”
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @demerittda