AUGUSTA — The fact that all three of Maine’s constitutional officers — the secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general — are running in the Republican U.S. Senate primary may be unprecedented.

To some, it’s also unseemly.

“Normally, you look at the constitutional officers as being non-partisan, or less partisan,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford. “I was expecting them to do their jobs full time.”

The unique situation is drawing new attention to the posts and to the men who occupy them. But they aren’t the first politicians to try to use the offices as stepping stones.

“There’s no question there’s a precedent,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who ran for Congress while he was secretary of state in 1994.

All three current candidates — Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Attorney General William Schneider — said last week they won’t allow their campaigns to interfere with their day jobs.

In fact, Summers and Poliquin only answered questions for this article after they had clocked out from work. Schneider did so during his lunch hour at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, just to avoid any confusion, he said.

“I’m going to keep it just strictly completely separate,” Schneider said.

All three candidates said they will use vacation time, evenings and weekends to do their campaigning.

Three at once a first

Six men — all Democrats — have run for higher office in the last 30 years while serving as secretary of state or attorney general. No treasurer has run for higher office in at least 30 years, but it’s unknown if Poliquin is the first ever.

All three running at once is almost certainly a first, said Ken Palmer, a retired University of Maine political science professor.

It’s not clear if the strange situation means the jobs have become more politicized than in the past, or if it is just the result of a historic political opportunity, Palmer said. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s surprise announcement that she won’t seek re-election created a wide-open contest and ultimately led six Republicans and four Democrats to register for the June 12 primary.

The three posts have always been political, but Maine is one of a small number of states where voters do not select the officers through a statewide election. Maine’s Legislature chooses the officers, who are traditionally former lawmakers from the majority party.

“I guess maybe people don’t worry if a congressman is running for the Senate because they figure that’s what they do,” Palmer said. “These offices may be considered a little different (in Maine) because they are selected by the Legislature.”

Being a candidate may be most awkward for Summers, who’s job as secretary of state includes overseeing elections. In fact, the day nomination paper were due for the senate primaries — his included — Summers sent out a news release encouraging citizens to participate in the June 12 primary.

Summers said he has asked his deputy, Julie Flynn, to take the lead on overseeing the primary election to avoid conflicts.

“Given the fact that I’m a candidate, I asked her to step up,” Summers said. “I just need to stay focused on my job as secretary of state, and after hours and on weekends and holidays stay focused on the campaign, and I believe I can do both.”

Patrick, the Democratic senator from Rumford, tried to submit a bill this week to forbid secretaries of state from overseeing and participating in the same elections.

He said Summers has been more partisan than past office holders, and noted that Summers’ wife, Ruth Summers, is also a candidate for the state Senate in Scarborough

Patrick’s bill was aimed only at the secretary of state, but he said he is uneasy about the others taking time from their jobs, too.

‘It’s politics time’

The bill, which needed special approval to move forward so late in the session, was disallowed by the Republican legislative leaders who considered it pre-election partisanship.

“Obviously, it’s politics time and Sen. Patrick is very good at that,” said Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale.

Poliquin, an unusually outspoken and partisan state treasurer, has also been criticized for running.

“It’s pretty clear that the expectation in the constitution is that the treasurer’s job is a full-time job,” said David Farmer, a Democratic political consultant.

Farmer cited a clause in the Maine Constitution that says the treasurer cannot engage in private business activity. The same requirement has led to questions about Poliquin’s ownership of a condominium development and a beach club. In his defense, Poliquin said he doesn’t run his business because he is far too busy with the treasurer’s job.

Last week, Poliquin said he is legally entitled to run and that he can campaign and keep up with his job, too. “I’ve always been a had worker,” he said.

Poliquin said he won’t answer campaign-related questions when on duty as treasurer and has given his staff a written policy about how to handle calls related to the election. “If it’s not about treasury, we cannot answer your question,” he said.

Schneider, meanwhile, said he has several weeks of vacation time saved up to use for the campaign. “When I’m on duty as attorney general, I’m on duty as attorney general,” he said.

Like his friends Summers and Poliquin, Schneider said he didn’t plan on running for higher office before Snowe’s announcement. All three also said they don’t know what they will do about their jobs if they win the primary and become the Republican nominee.

Not all Democrats see a problem.

“That’s always been a jumping off spot for those who want to get administrative experience,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco. What’s different now is that a U.S. Senate seat opened up in the middle of their first two-year term, he said.

Diamond, the Democratic senator, said fewer questions were raised when he was secretary of state and ran in the Democratic congressional primary in 1994. He said he used vacation time, evenings and weekends to campaign. He lost in the primary.

“I think there’s much more animosity now. Much more partisanship,” Diamond said. “These guys have brought attention to themselves in a partisan way. That’s going to put them much more under the microscope.”

Diamond said balancing the campaign and the job will be harder for the current candidates than it was for him. Diamond only had to travel to campaign events around Maine’s 1st Congressional District, which is a fraction of the entire state.

“Running for Senate is different,” he said. “This is a statewide race.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

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