Political signs displayed on Main Street in Orono. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Top Democratic lawmakers accused a prominent progressive activist of unsavory political tactics while endorsing his opponent on Wednesday, complicating the party’s primary for an Orono-area Maine Senate seat with less than two weeks until Election Day.

Abe Furth, co-owner of Orono Brewing Company, is facing activist Mike Tipping in the June 14 primary for the new Maine Senate District 8, which spans roughly two dozen towns in Penobscot County, including Orono and Old Town. The primary winner will be the favorite in the general election as Democrats outnumber Republicans in the new district.

Top legislative Democrats, led by Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash, released a statement on Wednesday endorsing Furth and accusing Tipping of “gutter politics.” It is notable because party leaders rarely endorse in contested legislative primaries here and the leaders alleged Tipping had fabricated endorsements without saying who the fake endorsers were.

Tipping, who is well-known in Maine political circles through his work with the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, denied the allegations and said he was targeted because he was not legislative leaders’ “hand-picked” candidate.

He had released a long list of endorsers on Tuesday including the Maine State Nurses Association, Maine Service Employees Association and current and former lawmakers including Rep. Laurie Osher, D-Orono.

In a statement released through Furth’s campaign on Wednesday, Jackson, along with Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, and Assistant Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said that Furth was the “best candidate running in this race.”

“When we hear from people in the district that any candidate, even a Democrat, is fabricating endorsements and illegally placing signs in voters’ yards, we have no choice but to speak up,” the lawmakers said.

Tipping denied claims that he had fabricated endorsements or illegally placed signs, saying he was “disappointed” in Senate leadership.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they’re chosen to go negative at the end here, but I think it’s really a sign they know I’ve done the work and talked to more people,” Tipping said.

Jackson said in a phone interview that the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm had heard of people who had been named as Tipping endorsers but had not backed the progressive activist. But he directed questions about who that was to the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, which declined to answer questions about it on Wednesday. Furth directed questions back to leaders.

Tipping said he had sent a follow-up email to endorsers last week to confirm they still backed him and that — while it was possible some had changed their minds — he would have removed them from the list if they had told him that. The endorsement controversy followed allegations about yard signs that first emerged on social media a few weeks ago.

Alice Kelley of Orono said she and her husband had come home from a trip a few weeks ago to find a Tipping sign in their yard. She recalled talking with Tipping and said she agreed with aspects of his politics but had not agreed to support him or requested a sign. She said after that she cast her absentee ballot for Furth, whom she had already been leaning toward.

Tipping said signs were only delivered to voters who had requested them, but some voters who had requested a sign in the fall had likely forgotten or changed their minds by the time they were delivered in May. Megan Smith, the chair of the Milford Democratic Party and a volunteer for Tipping’s campaign, said she had met people who had requested a sign before they had realized there was a primary and declined after learning that.

In cases where voters were not home, he left a note with his personal cellphone number offering to remove the sign if the resident no longer wanted it, Tipping said. Leo Kenney, an Orono town councilor, said he found a Tipping campaign sign on one of his properties on Main Street in Orono, accompanied by a flier.

Kenney said he thought it was strange because he supports Furth, citing the brewery owner’s contributions to revitalizing downtown Orono. Tipping contested Kenney’s specific case, saying that while Kenney had not requested the sign, one of his tenants had. Kenney said he had asked his tenants about the sign, but they said they had not requested it.

Cheryl Robertson, an Orono town councilor, said the allegations about signs did not fit with her experience campaigning there, saying “if people don’t want signs in their yard, you just call the candidate and they’ll come get it.”

Robertson said she thinks both Furth and Tipping are good people but is backing Tipping because his experience with testifying on legislation better equips him to serve. She said the progressive activist was “trustworthy and honest.”

The signs controversy, she added, was “just too stupid for me to think about.”