Aaron Harris knew he would face criticism after appearing in a TV ad taking a stand against a hot-button political issue, but the backlash has been more than he expected.
Harris, owner of the A1 Diner in Gardiner, still has no regrets. He would be willing to make another commercial expressing concerns about a consumer-owned utility that would put the infrastructure of Central Maine Power and Versant Power under the control of an elected board.
At issue is the referendum for a consumer-owned utility, Pine Tree Power, that has qualified for the 2023 ballot. It is the latest politically hot issue for CMP, following Maine’s vote in 2021 against its $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine, a project that is stalled in the courts.
The ad started running last week and shows the peril of entering the political arena. Harris said he and his staff received unpleasant calls, especially during the first few days after the ad aired. There also have been bad reviews, including one reading, “This place is terrible. There was a hair in my eggs. Their political views are disgusting.”
“If you open your mouth, you make yourself a target,” he said. “That’s always been the case, but it is so important for small-business people to speak out.”
Supporters of the consumer-owned utility, led by the political group Our Power, contend that the utility would lower prices and improve service. Those against it, led by the major utilities and their political groups, claim the borrowing required to set up the utility would be $13.5 billion and amount to “a government takeover of Maine’s electric grid.”
maine’s fight over consumer-owned utility referendum
Harris echoed those talking points in the ad, which was paid for by Maine Affordable Energy, a group funded by CMP’s parent company. It spent $10.5 million in opposition to the public-power campaign by the end of 2022, while Our Power had only raised $550,000 by that time and is not running TV ads for now.
Harris said he felt he needed to express his opinion, and other small-business owners should, too.
“Ask yourself, who’s picking up the tab between our customers and our staff?” Harris asked in the 15-second commercial. “We’re like family here. I’m worried about this push by Pine Tree Power.”
He said he has heard comments for and against the consumer-owned utility from people of both major political parties. The ad, which runs in several versions on different platforms, set off a flurry of social media comments as well, including from former Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who was an early advocate of a consumer-run utility and a former senior adviser to Our Power.
Pine Tree Power will be financed entirely through its rates, and prohibited from using state tax dollars or state bonds, Berry noted.
“It is less ‘government-owned’ than Versant or CMP, whose owners include the governments of Calgary, Norway, and Qatar,” he said.
In a Facebook post last Wednesday, Berry wrote that Harris did not mention his past business development work at Verrill, a Portland law firm that he said has been paid more than $219,000 by CMP’s owner to oppose the consumer-owned utility.
Berry, who updated the post on Tuesday, said he was speaking only for himself and not for Our Power. He argued the claim in Harris’ ad that the new utility could cost $13.5 billion is false, and that Mainers will save an average of $375 per year from the first day the new utility is in operation.
In his update, Berry said he talked to Harris and believes that he was not paid by CMP or an intermediary to do the ad. Berry also wrote that he would take down his Facebook post if the ad is removed.
Berry said he is not opposed to a businessperson expressing a contrary opinion, but “Maine people deserve to be able to follow the money, wherever it leads,” he said.
Harris said he accepted no money for the commercial, and had to shut down part of the restaurant for three hours for it to be taped.
“I believe what I said,” Harris said. “People should be able to talk in a civil way.”