Molly Gray and Scott Milne continue to squabble over two super PACs supporting their campaigns for lieutenant governor, criticizing one another this week for benefitting from "dark money" outside influence peddlers.
While Gray and Milne have sparred over the topic for several weeks, the latest exchange began on Wednesday when a super PAC supporting Gray filed a mass media report showing it had sunk $30,000 into television advertisements mentioning only Milne.
The expenditure came about two weeks after the same super PAC — the Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund — leveled an attack against Milne's voting record that turned out to be partially false.
"I have just been notified that an outside group associated with Molly Gray’s campaign is preparing to run negative ads against me — the first attack ads in this race," Milne wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday afternoon. "Too bad this is where the Gray people had to take it, especially after all her dishonest posturing about how she is committed to a positive campaign and falsely attacking me for being a negative campaigner when all I have run are positive ads."
Milne's comments were rich, because while it may be technically true that he has not run any negative television ads, his campaign has seemed quite at home in the trenches ever since the primary ended.
It has repeatedly attacked Gray over her lackluster voting record and has posted a handful of videos on its YouTube page with titles such as "Molly Gray Won't Tell Us How She'll Pay" and "Molly Gray Repeatedly Evades Reporter's Question About Campaigning On The Taxpayers' Dime." (Gray actually told the reporter — who asked her on Monday about tweets sent during what would typically be working hours for the assistant attorney general — that her campaign staff has access to her Twitter account.)
Still, the more substantive part of Milne's tweet — an allegation that Gray was somehow affiliated with the PAC — was notable, since it is against the law for political candidates to coordinate with such groups.
Gray has dismissed this claim, saying that she doesn't know anything about the PAC. And the fund's director, Ashley Moore, recently tweeted that she had never even met the candidate.
Yet the Milne campaign doubled down on the comments Thursday, noting in a press release that several people associated with the super PAC have either donated to Gray’s campaign, endorsed her or, as with Burlington attorney Jacob Perkinson, given her legal advice.
Perkinson, the former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, authored a legal opinion that Gray's campaign has given to media outlets to answer questions about whether her 15 months living in Switzerland in 2017 and 2018 disqualified her from holding the office of lieutenant governor.
Perkinson filed paperwork to incorporate the Alliance for a Better Vermont 501c4 in 2018 but told Seven Days on Friday that he informed the organization shortly afterward that it would need to find other legal counsel and that he does not "have anything to do with them at this point."
He said he made that decision because he wanted to have the flexibility to work directly with campaigns and avoid the types of accusations now coming from the Milne campaign.
“Any allegation that I participated in any coordination between the Alliance for a Better Vermont super PAC and the Molly Gray campaign is unequivocally and absolutely false, and any suggestion to the contrary is reckless,” Perkinson said.
It is common for donors or supporters of a candidate to run super PACs benefiting that candidate's campaign. But Milne again pressed the issue when the two debated Thursday on NBC5, asking Gray whether she would request that the super PAC reveal where its money is coming from.
That has turned out to be a difficult question to answer. Though the super PAC filed campaign finance disclosure forms with the Secretary of State’s Office on October 1, it only listed two donors: a separate Democratic super PAC and the 501c4 nonprofit Alliance for a Better Vermont. When asked by Seven Days whose money was being funneled through the nonprofit to help make the advertisements possible, Moore would not say.
Gray responded to Milne's request by saying that not only can she not control what outside organizations do, but that she did not even know which PAC he was talking about.
When Gray wasn't on the defensive, she was attacking Milne for his own super PAC support, noting that the Republican State Leadership Committee recently dumped more than $200,000 into television advertisements supporting his campaign.
Gray has criticized Milne for welcoming the “special interest, dark money,” though only half of that is true. Unlike the super PAC supporting her, the RSLC makes its donors public. They include cigarette giant Altria Group, Koch Industries and the Judicial Crisis Network, which is currently spending millions to convince Republican lawmakers to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The same supporters that support Donald Trump are moving money into the state right now to defeat me, a 36-year-old Vermonter,” Gray said.
Milne said at a previous debate that he is happy to have the RSLC's support since its backers "only do this for people that they think are going to win." He appeared equally unbothered by Gray's line of attack on Thursday, pointing out that the PAC is only running positive ads supporting his own campaign. (The RSLC hasn't always stayed above the fray; two years ago, it spent $186,000 on ads attacking left-leaning Vermont candidates).
Gray sought to end the back-and-forth by asking Milne to pledge with her then and there to cease all negative attacks for the final three weeks of the campaign. "No more nasty tweets. No more nasty press releases. No more nasty emails,” she said as the broadcast cut to a split-screen shot of the two candidates. “Nothing but the issues for Vermonters facing our state. Join me?"
Milne declined the olive branch. "A convenient request since you've got your friends launching a negative attack through a super PAC that you claim not to control — even though you have people on the board of the PAC doing endorsements for you on your website,” Milne shot back.
“I'm looking forward to a robust dialogue about facts,” he said, adding, “you know, sometimes the truth hurts.”
The volleys continued after the debate as the two campaigns sent out dueling press statements.
“In their final debate, Milne avoided answering basic policy questions on issues of police reform, systemic racism, and climate action, instead, echoing partisan charges against his opponent or deferring to his campaign website,” Gray’s campaign wrote. It then attributed a quote to Gray that said her opponent and the GOP “clearly have not learned that blank checks and tired, old partisan attacks are not the way to earn the support of Vermonters.”
Milne’s camp had a different takeaway. In a two-paragraph statement, campaign manager Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) wrote that Milne won the debate because he continues to offer “real, affordable and achievable solutions, and honest answers, not bumper sticker sloganeering and political-speak."
"Tonight, Molly Gray refused to call for the disclosure of donors to the Super PAC run by her friends,” Parent wrote. “Her dodgy response and thin excuses ring hollow. There is nothing stopping her from calling for full disclosure except an unwillingness to be honest and transparent with Vermonters, which has become the hallmark of her candidacy.”