Eliot Cutler's March 25, 2022, mug shot from the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth, Maine, when he was arrested on 4 felony counts of possession of child pornography. Credit: Hancock County Jail

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set news policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Nine thousand, seven hundred and ninety-five.

That’s how many votes separated Eliot Cutler from the governor’s mansion in 2010. In truth, though, the election was even closer than that because if you had found a way to turn votes for Paul LePage into votes for Cutler, it would have only taken 4,898 votes changing for Cutler to have won.

For most of the past decade-plus, I didn’t think of that prospect as all that terrifying. After all, while Cutler was very much on the center-left of American politics, he actually cut a somewhat reformist, moderately conservative profile on fiscal issues. If LePage was going to lose, losing to him wouldn’t have really been that much of a catastrophe, I thought.

That is, until the news broke Friday that Cutler had been arrested on four felony counts of possessing sexually explicit material involving a child under the age of 12. After seeing that, the prospect of Cutler having won that election grew a great deal darker, and more sinister.

To say “I didn’t see that coming” would be an understatement and a sentiment that is shared with most Maine political observers. I’ve known Cutler for years, and always kind of liked the guy. He was smart, accessible, interesting, eager to wade into the depth of policy debates, and had a somewhat gruff personality. I always detected a somewhat ruthless edge to him that might have made me believe he could maybe find himself embroiled in some kind of white-collar corporate or legal shenanigans, but certainly nothing like this.

Let that be a lesson to all of us, though. You can never truly know anyone, particularly in the world of politics, and those with the darkest secrets are often remarkably good at hiding them.

While the presumption of innocence is an important part of our judicial system and our society, in my opinion, the facts as we know them seem to point to Cutler’s guilt. District Attorney Matthew Foster told the Bangor Daily News that police heard Cutler tell his wife Melanie that child pornography would be found on at least one device at his home.

We do not know how long and to what degree this alleged criminal behavior may have been an issue. Statistics regarding child sexual exploitation show how often “first offenders” are picked up on charges like these. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, 72.9 percent of child sex abuse imagery offenders in 2020 had little or no prior criminal history.

This unknown is particularly frightening to consider in Cutler’s case given his immense personal wealth and power, being a prominent and well-known attorney. Worse, though, is to consider what could have been possible if he is guilty and had been elected governor in 2010. The level of access and authority he would have had at his disposal could have caused tremendous harm, again, if he is guilty.

What was most remarkable about Cutler’s arrest, though, was that it took place the same week that President Joe Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was answering questions related to sentencing in child sex abuse imagery cases. In one remarkable exchange, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Jackson about her record on sentencing, after which she defended herself on the grounds that the law does little to differentiate the severity of offenses in the age of the internet.

“With one click you can receive, you can distribute tens of thousands [of images],” Jackson said. “You can be doing this for 15 minutes and all of a sudden, you are looking at 30, 40, 50 years in prison,’ she said.”

“Good,” answered Graham. “I hope you go to jail for 50 years if you’re on the internet trolling for images of children and sexual exploitation.”

A sentiment most Americans would agree with, and one that most Mainers I know would also agree with. First time? Fifteen minutes looking? Just a few images?

Doesn’t matter to me. Does it matter to you? When it comes from sexually exploiting children and consuming the product of their abuse, is any punishment too harsh?

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...