Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling has been keeping mum on his future plans since placing third in his re-election bid three weeks ago.

He has not responded to requests for interviews about issues facing the council or about what he might do after his term as mayor ends Monday. But over the last week, Strimling left some clues about those future plans. And he’s raised new questions at the same time.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

The former Democratic state senator sent out a series of fundraising appeals under the banner of a group called “Swing Hard. Run Fast. Turn Left.” The appeals ask for donations to support the pursuit of an ethics complaint that his campaign filed against Unite Portland, a political action committee that opposed his re-election. And the appeals include repeated references to Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is preparing to run for re-election next year.

Strimling did not respond to requests for information about the group and the fundraising effort. People who were associated with his campaign said they aren’t involved and don’t know about the fundraising group.

Strimling used similar fundraising messages to help raise over $160,000 toward his re-election bid – far more than any other mayoral candidate in the four-person field. The latest round of emails indicates more money is needed to support Strimling’s efforts to hold Unite Portland accountable for what he says were violations of campaign finance laws.

That complaint is tentatively scheduled to be reviewed by the Maine Ethics Commission in December. Strimling’s fundraising emails all mention a preliminary analysis by ethics commission staff that Unite Portland could be fined $7,000 for filing two finance reports late.

The commission also is scheduled to take up a counter-complaint filed by Unite Portland against Strimling’s campaign and the Progressive Portland advocacy group. Ethics commission staff said a preliminary analysis found that complaint appeared to be unsubstantiated.

Strimling’s emails suggest his ethics complaint has implications for Sen. Susan Collins because Unite Portland hired a consultant who also works for the Republican senator.

But it’s not clear whether the focus on Collins means the group receiving the money will also work against Collins’ re-election, or if it is simply intended to tap into progressive anger directed at the senator as a way to raise money to pay legal expenses associated with the ethics complaints.

Collins has yet to formally launch her re-election campaign but factors heavily into the messaging of the fundraising appeals, which are all signed by Strimling. One email suggests a donation to the group’s legal fund would “deal an early blow to Team Collins.”

The first email says a PAC that opposed his re-election “was run by a Susan Collins’ (sic) operative,” a reference to Lance Dutson, a former campaign staffer for Collins, who has continued to provide consulting services to the senator. Unite Portland hired Dutson to do videography and consulting work, although the primary decision-maker listed on the PAC’s registration was Dory Waxman, a Democrat, former city councilor and small business owner who was treasurer of Strimling’s 2015 mayoral campaign.

“If a Collins’ operative can get away with breaking the law attacking the sitting Mayor of the largest city in Maine, imagine what they will do to those trying to unseat her next year,” Strimling wrote.

The second email, titled “Team Susan Collins dirty tricks,” explicitly asks for donations to support the group’s “legal efforts to hold Team Collins accountable for their illegal dirty campaign tricks.”

“Wanna know how Susan Collins has gotten re-elected in a blue state year after year?” Strimling said. “Dirty tricks. Deception. And a lot of money from special interests.”

And the third email, “Don’t let Team Collins get away with it,” also asks for money for their legal team “so we can deal an early blow to Team Collins.”

“We understand why Team Collins doesn’t want a progressive firebrand leading Maine’s largest city going into Senator Collins’ re-election year,” Strimling wrote about himself. “She and Mitch McConnell need Maine cities like Portland to forget her votes supporting Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.”

Kevin Kelley, spokesman for the Collins campaign, dismissed the effort to connect the senator to Portland’s internal politics.

“Senator Collins had absolutely nothing to do with the election for Mayor of Portland,” Kelley said in an email. “It is interesting that Ethan would complain to progressives about Senator Collins’ ethics ‘year after year,’ when he actually personally invited her to be speaker at the LearningWorks graduation when he was the head of that organization in 2014.”

It’s unclear who else is involved in the group cited in the fundraising emails, which is using an online fundraising platform, ActBlue, to process donations. ActBlue gives people four options when registering to use their platform: political candidate running for local, state or federal office; a political organization (such as a PAC); a charitable nonprofit, or 501(c)(3); or a social welfare/advocacy nonprofit, or 501(c)(4).

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office said no group has been incorporated under “Swing Hard. Run Fast. Turn Left.” Filing articles of incorporation is typically the first step toward establishing either a charitable or social welfare nonprofit. No political action committee has been registered under that name with either the city of Portland or the state.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the fundraising effort is unusual.

“The Commission staff can’t recall seeing other fundraising solicitations to finance legal costs of pursuing a campaign finance complaint,” Wayne said. “Based on the limited information available to us, this fundraising activity would not be prohibited under state campaign finance law.”

Portland Elections Administrator Melissa Caiazzo said groups must hit a certain fundraising or expenditure threshold before being required to register. Those thresholds are $1,500 for an organization whose major purpose is to influence candidates or ballot question elections, or $5,000 for organizations which participate in candidate elections, but whose major purpose is something other than influencing candidate elections, she said.

Stephanie Clifford, Strimling’s partner and campaign manager, declined to provide information about the group, or say whether Strimling established it. “I haven’t been involved,” Clifford said via text.

Clifford said Monday that Strimling was unavailable because he was visiting friends and was “totally off the grid” without WiFi. Later that day, Strimling sent another fundraising email for the group.

Steven Biel, founder of Progressive Portland, which helped raise money for Strimling’s re-election and solicit for volunteers, said he was not involved with the group. And Emily Figdor, a school board member who was involved with Strimling’s campaign, said she did not know who was involved.

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