The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta, shown in this December 2017 file photo. Credit: Darren Fishell / BDN

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

It’s October. Surprise!

With just a few weeks before the election, the Government Oversight Committee of the Maine Legislature has voted to sue the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for failing to turn over documents.

The substance of the dispute centers around a longstanding investigation into one of the most horrific of situations: a string of deaths of Maine children. It is incredibly important work, and it cannot be something that devolves into partisan rancor.

This is not a new issue. It has been ongoing for years.

But the timing is simply bizarre. Let’s put this in context. The Democratic-led legislative committee has begun a lawsuit against the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. With less than three weeks to Election Day, while she is locked in a fight with former GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

The other shocking news this week came from the Maine Wire, an outlet of the right-leaning Maine Policy Institute. They unveiled what they say is a student’s secret recording of a resource room teacher in the Gray-New Gloucester school system making a litany of blatantly political remarks to an eighth grader, who asked the teacher questions. The audio is reportedly from April of this year and begins mid-conversation.  

It has not been reported on by any other media outlets, but the school board chair has disavowed the comments, according to the Maine Wire.

Now, the teacher’s remarks are not really any different than you normally see in Facebook political debates. It sounds like she clearly didn’t think highly of Donald Trump — not an uncommon sentiment, although calling the University of Pennsylvania a “low-level college” seems to miss the mark. And if the same statement occurred in the Bangor Daily News’ online comments section, it likely wouldn’t merit any further notice.

But that isn’t what happened.  

Instead, she spent part of a study hall, according to the Maine Wire, apparently denigrating Trump to at least one eighth grade student, while praising Democratic politicians. I cannot come up with a scenario where these remarks are appropriate. And this isn’t a partisan issue; if she had lambasted President Joe Biden with accusations commonly seen online — like he’s senile or he touches people in creepy ways — it would have also been wrong.

Kids are required to attend school by force of law. Teachers and administrators are authority figures. Ideally, students hold them in high regard. So having them engage in unabashed political advocacy, as this one teacher appears to have done, breaches the trust placed in them.

The idea of an “October surprise” is a common one in politics. And while the economy is clearly taking center stage this election cycle, policies dealing with young Mainers may be what makes or breaks the candidates for the Blaine House.

The recording of the teacher apparently first arose back in April. The student’s family claim they held it for several months in order to avoid reprisals. But releasing it just a few weeks before the election makes it a clear “October surprise” of the more intentional variety. The recording was apparently sent to the school in September, but was only made public by the Maine Wire this week.

Democrats on the Government Oversight Committee agreeing to sue the administration of Gov. Mills is an unexpected surprise. And the reality is that the executive branch may ultimately end up winning in court based on the laws at play. But two political branches of government, controlled by the same party, entering into litigation shortly before an election is – in anyone’s book – a “surprise.”

I predicted more than a year ago that Lewiston would be the bellwether in the battle for the Blaine House. I still think that holds true. Yet the “swing voters” most likely to decide the election are suburban mothers.  

Will abortion be the issue that moves them? If so, Janet Mills should prepare for her second term. Or will fears about school staff playing politics push them to the GOP and back to Paul LePage?  

Do they care whether Democrats are voting to sue Democrats about child protection documents? Will the “Zoom school” hangover from COVID move the needle?

Buckle up. The next two weeks probably have a few more surprises in store.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.