Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, left, and incumbent Sen. Susan Collins participate in a debate at the Holiday Inn By The Bay, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 in Portland, Maine. Credit: Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald via AP

Welcome to Ad Watch, in which the BDN breaks down who is behind the political ads you’re seeing and whether what they are saying is true.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ campaign is framing votes taken by House Speaker Sara Gideon as a Freeport town councilor in 2010 as an example of defunding police. They were separate moves months apart to consolidate dispatch services and partially forgive a loan to a nonprofit.

The first vote was highly controversial and the second led to criticism of Gideon because she sat on the nonprofit’s board while backing forgiveness. But the episode does not match the politically fraught calls from activists who want to redirect funding from police to social services and the regular police budget went up in the same year.

The ad

Who is behind it

This Twitter ad came from Collins’ campaign. The fourth-term Republican raised $16.7 million compared to nearly $24 million for Gideon, a Democrat, as of June 30, according to federal filings. You can follow fundraising and spending in the U.S. Senate race, which also features independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn, with us here.

The major claims, with context

“Defund the police” has become a rallying cry for activists around protests in 2020 over the killings of Black people by police. The term is used differently, but it generally means reducing police funding to beef up social programs. The phrase itself has polled poorly in national surveys, but some of the ideas have more support, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Gideon and Collins said in a debate last week they oppose defunding police. Gideon said she supports “changes that ensure that people of color do not continue to be brutalized or killed.” Collins cited her endorsement from the Maine Fraternal Order of Police, a 500-member union.

Collins then said at the debate that Gideon has “received $6 million” from groups that want to defund police. That was an oversimplification, but her campaign’s website words it more carefully by referencing two groups “responsible” for that much money in this race.

They are Mainers for Accountable Leadership and NextGen America, both of which have used the slogan. The first group organized a $4 million crowdfund that went to Gideon’s campaign in July, but donations were from individuals. The second group pledged $2 million to benefit Democrats in Maine this year, and did not give it directly to Gideon.

That is the context for Collins’ attention to Freeport votes. The ad says Gideon “cut police funding and gave the money to a nonprofit she helped run.” The moves were separate as Gideon served as a councilor from 2009 to 2012, when municipalities reeled from a recession.

In April 2010, she joined a 5-2 majority to transfer dispatch services to Brunswick. It was expected to save $73,000 annually. The regular police budget increased by $34,000 that year. The shift was contested by residents who said it would erode quality. More than 1,200 signed a petition in a bid to overturn the shift, but the town ruled it invalid. Maine’s high court upheld that in 2012.

In September, the council forgave $117,000 of what was originally a $750,000 loan to the nonprofit Freeport Community Services to construct a new community center. Gideon, who served on the group’s board, joined the unanimous decision of councilors present. The town has routinely provided funding to the nonprofit.

Her vote was later challenged by a fellow councilor. The town attorney said Gideon was not required to abstain, according to The Forecaster. She defended herself by saying she had no financial interest in the group and was backing constituents who use its services. The newspaper later editorialized against her decision to vote.

This and other examples of perceived conflicts of interest led a resident who once worked for Maine’s campaign finance watchdog to push for a better-defined town ethics policy that was debated into late 2012. Gideon was first elected to the Legislature later that year.

Collins’ “defund the police” attack on Gideon puts together actions that came months apart a decade ago. While both led to criticism of Gideon and it is clear why Collins is framing them under present-day calls for controversial changes to policing, the votes were not in tandem and do not compare neatly to those activist calls.

Watch more:

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...