Pingree’s Ties to Democrats Criticized

Posted April 2, 2003 at 5:46pm

Chellie Pingree’s recent attendance at various Democratic events around town has prompted some to question whether the new president of Common Cause can effectively lead the nonpartisan organization.

“Obviously, it compromises any sort of nonpartisan, outside, neutral observer status that they think they have,” said Don McGahn, a campaign finance lawyer who works for the National Republican Congressional Committee and numerous GOP Members of Congress.

Pingree, who lost her bid to unseat Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) last fall, was spotted hobnobbing Tuesday night with numerous Democratic politicos at a book-signing party celebrating the paperback release of David Brock’s “Blinded By the Right.”

The invite list for the swanky affair, which took place at Lounge 201 on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, read like a Democratic Rolodex of the rich and famous. Among those in attendance were such notables as Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton; Clinton Special Counsel Lanny Davis; Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.); and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.).

Last week, Pingree attended a fundraising dinner at the Women’s Democratic Club for the 21st Century Democrats, a national organization that provides grassroots field organizers to progressive Democrats for federal, state and local offices.

Pingree received support from the organization in her Senate race last fall.

At the event, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) trumpeted Pingree’s work at Common Cause but said he’d prefer to see her get back into the political game. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We’ve got to get people like Chellie Pingree in the United States Senate,” Harkin said, as Pingree sat at a table beneath the podium.

In an interview Wednesday, Pingree seemed surprised by the attention she has received since taking the helm of the organization in early March.

“I’ve gotten a lot of interest since I came into town. … For a woman from Maine, I’m flattered for the interest,” she said.

Pingree defended her recent activities and vowed that any ties to Democratic groups or friends would never compromise her work or the work of Common Cause.

“There’s no secret that I’m a Democrat,” she said. “I ran for the U.S. Senate and everybody knew that. And I have a tremendous number of friends who are Democrats.”

Pingree said people should know that regardless of her personal political philosophy, she plans to stand behind Common Cause’s tradition of taking strong stances on issues of government accountability, and her ties to Democrats will not jeopardize that mission.

“I took this job because I have a strong belief in government accountability and watchdog issues and involving people in the process,” she said, adding that she “did so knowing that some of the issues on which we take a stand … don’t sit well with my Democratic colleagues.”

Pingree pointed to a recent Common Cause report on how three major business coalitions that championed a secrecy provision in a recent Homeland Security Act were generous donors to Members of Congress.

The report stated that Sen. Mary Landrieu, (D-La.), a sponsor of the secrecy provision, received more than $300,000 in donations from the three coalitions.

“You know, I love Mary Landrieu and think she’s a great Senator, but think it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about a Democrat or to talk about a Republican,” Pingree said. “We haven’t stopped that.”

Moreover, Pingree was unapologetic about attending the 21st Century Democrats dinner last week, stating that the group had “worked so hard” to help her during her campaign last year that she wanted to “say hello and see them.”

Pingree said Common Cause encourages its members and staff to “get involved in the process” and attend things around town, regardless of the party affiliation.

“We have specific policies,” she explained. “I’m not endorsing a presidential candidate and we don’t speak on behalf of anybody, and I never want to change that.”

Matt Keller, a lobbyist for Common Cause, defended Pingree’s credentials.

“It doesn’t particularly matter what the person’s political affiliation is at the helm,” Keller said, “because the institution at its core is nonpartisan.”

But McGahn and others said they find Pingree’s activities troubling.

“They won’t disclose their donors but at least they’re disclosing their party affiliation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the IRS takes a second look at these guys,” he quipped.

Republican campaign finance lawyer Cleta Mitchell said she and other conservatives have always disputed “Common Cause’s claims that it’s nonpartisan.”

“It was started by John Gardner, a lifelong Democrat. … [Pingree] was the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Maine. She’s very partisan, and the person who preceded her was Scott Harshbarger, an unselected Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts,” Mitchell remarked. “They claim they’re nonpartisan, but none of us who fight with them ever thought that for a minute.”

Despite the criticism, Pingree said she looks forward to continued opportunities to attend both Democratic and Republican events.

“It’s a small town, and these provide a good chance to engage with people,” she explained.