The fruitless effort to primary Gov. Janet Mills

A grassroots effort to challenge the incumbent governor has one problem: Its candidate doesn’t want to run.

by | October 10, 2021

A political action committee tried to convince Maine Senate President Troy Jackson to challenge Gov. Janet Mills, his fellow Democrat, during the primary election. Jackson's team says the effort is for naught as the Senate president is committed to supporting Mills.

A political action committee dedicated to convincing Maine Senate President Troy Jackson to oppose Gov. Janet Mills is dead on arrival. That is, Jackson will not run against her. 

The committee, Run Troy Run, was organized by several labor unions in Maine as a self-described “pressure campaign” born out of frustration with Mills, the current Democratic governor. One particular point of frustration was Mills’ vetoes, said Kate Sykes, whose title for the PAC is “decision-maker.”

The PAC came after a poll that sought to compare Mills’ and Jackson’s odds against Paul LePage, the Republican former governor who is running to reclaim the seat, and a few Bangor Daily News op-ed columns urging Jackson to run — one highlighting the creation of Run Troy Run. 

The committee became an official PAC in late September and, according to its October filing, raised $20,000 as of Sept. 30 — all from unions that support it. Sykes said the group is just “a bunch of normal people” trying to urge a politician they believe in to seek higher office. 

Because political action committees are not supposed to work directly with candidates, Run Troy Run did not speak to Jackson before its launch. That didn’t stop the organizers.

“People should run for office because the people want them to,” Sykes said. “Not the party or some donor, or their own ego or whatever wants them to.” 

But the PAC’s launch did bother Jackson. He sent out a statement, through his spokeswoman Christina Kirby, saying he was “deeply disappointed” and reiterated his support for Mills. Jackson declined to be interviewed. 

Despite Jackson’s frustration, Sykes said the PAC can’t really hurt him, except maybe in the graces of the Democratic party. 

“I’m not sure it can really hurt anything,” Sykes said. “Because certainly, Troy Jackson is someone who will run for other things in the future. And so just getting his name out there is not a bad thing for future runs, you know, if he decides to do another campaign sometime. We don’t feel like it hurts things to say that we support him.”

Pros and cons for Jackson

Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said the group could hurt or help Jackson’s future ambitions. 

“Certainly on the one hand, it raises his profile,” Fried said, adding that with few statewide positions up for grabs in Maine, it’s good to have your name mentioned prominently. 

“On the other hand, it really would be a big deal if he was to challenge the sitting governor of his own party, and probably not be terribly helpful when it comes to future prospects within the party.” 

Prominent members of the PAC include former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and Maine Machinists Council president Mark Vigliotta, who wrote the op-ed for the PAC’s launch. The PAC also includes the Teamsters, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, according to its website. 

While Jackson has publicly spoken against the poll, the PAC and a run for governor, there are aspects of the movement that could benefit his political future. The PAC could keep the list of names, emails and addresses — more than 500 so far — for a future endeavor Jackson (or the group itself) may take on. 

Fried said it’s unlikely the PAC emerges as more than the small grassroots effort it is. 

“I’m not so convinced, one way or the other, it’s going to have any kind of big impact,” she said. “If it really was to grow as an organization, it could matter. But if it stays really just a small group of people, I don’t think it will make that much difference.” 

Even with Jackson pledging to stay out of the race, the PAC could prove confusing for voters, said Jacob Stern, the Maine Democratic Party’s communications director, in an email. Stern reiterated the party’s, and Jackson’s, commitment to Mills for 2022.

“Senate President Troy Jackson and the Maine Democratic Party are supporting the Governor’s re-election,” Stern said in an email. “The senator has publicly stated on several occasions that he has no intention of running.”

Mills’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Sykes said the group wanted to hear directly from Jackson.

“He hasn’t actually said he’s not running,” she said in an interview last week. “So the moment that he comes out and says, ‘I am not running for governor,’ then that’s fine. We’ll back off.”

Since Sykes’ interview with The Maine Monitor, Jackson told PAC leaders directly that he is not running, according to Kirby. Sykes did not respond to a follow-up email about whether the PAC had decided to back off after hearing from Jackson, and as of last Sunday, the group was still posting to social media. 

Jackson has disagreed with Mills in the past, particularly in the last session when she vetoed a number of bills he sponsored. That was a topic Run Troy Run noted as a reason Jackson should join the race and why the group decided to form. Still, defeating LePage is what Jackson and the Democratic Party say they are focused on. 

Fried said the creation of the PAC does indicate some frustration with Mills from the more progressive side of the party. But when it comes to a race against LePage, people will support Mills. 

“So even if there’s some unhappiness in some quarters toward Mills, I think she’ll have overwhelming support from her party,” she said.

Even before the PAC’s formation, Jackson had announced his support for Mills. The night of LePage’s official campaign launch, he was included with other prominent Democrats in a statement praising Mills and criticizing LePage. 

“Though we have had our differences at times, Gov. Mills has proven to be a strong and capable leader, moving our state forward without any state government shutdowns, holding the state hostage over Clean Election Funds or other political antics,” Jackson said in a statement. “Now is not the time to go backward.”

Andrew Howard

Andrew Howard

Andrew Howard covers state government and politics for The Maine Monitor and is a 2021 Report for America corps member. He previously covered politics in Arizona as an intern at two local newspapers. Andrew is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he wrote his honors thesis on the future of nonprofit news websites and was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.


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