The Portland Press Herald

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers should resign his job as secretary of state to prevent conflicts of interest and political use of the office, a liberal advocacy group said Thursday.

The Maine People’s Alliance said the fact that Summers is Maine’s top election official and a candidate on the Nov. 6 ballot is a simple conflict of interest. It also said Summers showed a willingness to use the job for political purposes last year when he investigated unfounded voter fraud complaints from the Maine Republican Party during a campaign to tighten voter registration rules.

While the investigation didn’t turn up widespread problems or fraud, Summers sent a letter last October to about 200 Maine college students and told them they should either get a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here. The alliance and other critics called the letter an attempt to intimidate legal voters.

“There’s an inherent conflict of interest when the secretary of state runs for office,” said Mike Tipping, spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance. “Perhaps it can be mitigated, but in this case where the secretary has used his office for voter intimidation, we think it’s absolutely essential that he resign… He used his office to pursue an agenda (of) amplifying these outrageous claims of voter fraud from the chair of the Republican party.”

Summers won the Republican nomination last week to replace Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and said he will keep his job rather than step down to focus solely on the campaign. He has been responding to calls for his resignation since March by saying he will delegate oversight of the election to his deputy and will not campaign while getting paid to work as secretary of state. His salary is $72,727.

“As secretary of state, (Summers) has moved forward on a number of initiatives that he intends to see through, such as teen driver safety and revising the driver’s education curriculum. His responsibilities as secretary of state have been and will continue to be his highest priority, and he has taken specific steps to ensure that his campaign and his position as a government official will not be in conflict,” said his campaign spokeswoman, Jen Webber, in an email Thursday.

Webber also denied that the letter sent to college students last fall was a case of voter intimidation.

“The letter the MPA refers to was non-political. Charlie was simply informing newly registered voters of Maine law and asking them to inform their town if they had since moved,” Webber wrote.

Summers’ two major opponents in the fall election declined to join the call for his resignation.

A spokeswoman for former Gov. Angus King, who is running as an independent, said Thursday she had no comment on the issue.

The Democratic nominee, Maine Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, re-issued a written statement given to the media after the primary election.

“As long as he is working for (Maine taxpayers) full time, and not his campaign, I don’t believe he needs to step down. As the chief election officer in the state and a candidate, he obviously will need to delegate these responsibilities,” Dill said.

Summers is not the first Maine secretary of state to hold the job while running for higher office.

Ken Curtis, a Democrat, was secretary of state when he successfully campaigned to be governor in 1966. Another Democrat, Maine Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, was secretary of state while he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1994.

Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who held the office before Summers, disagreed that there is an inherent conflict of interest.

“I think people are looking at this as if the secretary of state … is actually tabulating the election results. In fact, you have very, very indirect control over those things,” said Dunlap, who last week lost the Democratic primary contest to Dill.

Dunlap also said no one should be surprised that a secretary of state elected by the Legislature would be partisan.

“There’s no prohibition on the secretary of state behaving in a partisan matter. He has an ‘R’ after his name. I had a ‘D’ after mine.”

Of course, Dunlap said, partisan behavior can lead to the kind of criticism Summers is facing now.

“If he’s willing to take the criticism, there is nothing illegal about him being partisan.”

John Richardson — 791-6324

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.