Campaign to curb Portland rent control contracts with firm that’s boosted far-right candidates

An apartment building in Portland, Maine. | Elliott Tell, Creative Commons via Flickr

In deep blue Portland, a landlord-led campaign to weaken the city’s rent control law has run up a $125,000 debt to a marketing group that has aided Republican candidates who subsequently championed Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ and helped GOP officials who have engaged in what critics characterize as voter suppression. 

On June 13, Portland voters will consider a referendum spearheaded by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, previously known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The proposed referendum would change part of a 2022 rent control law passed by Portland voters — namely, a provision that established 5% as the maximum rent increase a landlord can impose on a new tenant after a previous tenant leaves voluntarily. If the landlords’ referendum is approved, property owners would instead be able to increase rent as much as they want in such situations. 

Tenants’ rights advocates have argued that the referendum would gut Portland’s rent control law and is especially egregious given that Southern Maine in particular is facing an affordable housing crisis.  

In an effort to win support for their proposal, landlords have poured money into the referendum campaign. As of May 8, the Committee to Improve Rent Control — a group associated with the Rental Housing Alliance — had raised more than $76,000 in cash to push the ballot measure, the Portland Press Herald reported, far more than opponents of the referendum had gathered.  

A recent financial disclosure revealed that as part of those efforts to promote the measure, the Committee to Improve Rent Control incurred a debt of $125,000 — that as of April 20 was unpaid — to a group called Access Marketing for campaign-related assistance. 

A major client for Access Marketing over the years, according to an investigation by Mother Jones from 2021, has been the National Association of Realtors (NAR). According to the reporting, Access Marketing has often worked with the trade industry group to help “the Realtors elect Republican state officials, including controversial GOP candidates.” 

Access Marketing’s work to boost Republican candidates is contentious in some circles because of the firm’s close ties to a massively influential data group, TargetSmart, that pledges to only work with Democrats. However, the nature of some of the Republicans that Access Marketing has worked with is also notable in and of itself.

In Arizona — where since 2017 Access Marketing has received more than half a million dollars from NAR and its state affiliate to help 14 legislative candidates, 12 of whom ran as Republicans — the firm has in some cases worked to promote office-seekers who have taken fringe, anti-democratic positions. 

For example, Mother Jones reported that, “Several of the Arizona Republicans aided by Access Marketing Services championed Trump’s Big Lie that he lost the election due to massive fraud.” And one such candidate boosted by Access Marketing actually attended the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Another candidate the group helped in the state has, according to a Reuters report, expressed “views linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which casts Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals.” 

Given that activity, opponents of the landlord-led Portland referendum criticized that campaign’s involvement with Access Marketing. But ultimately, they said the investment fits with the thrust of the effort to curb rent control in Portland. 

“It’s not surprising that a firm that boosts far right politicians is involved in supporting Question A,” said Rose DuBois, chair of the Campaign for a Livable Portland, an initiative of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which is opposing the landlords’ referendum. 

“Over the course of this campaign, and previous ones, we have frequently heard landlords portray themselves as staunch liberals and even progressives,” DuBois added. “Yet the involvement of both Access Marketing and a Republican state representative goes to show this is anything but liberal — it is a conservative, reactionary attempt to strip tenants of their rights.” 

Arizona is not the only place where Access Marketing has been involved in aiding right-wing figures, according to Mother Jones‘ reporting. The firm was paid by the National Association of Realtors Fund to create ads and mailers supporting then-Georgia Secretary of State and now-Republican Governor Brian Kemp in his 2018 race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. 

That 2018 race, which Kemp narrowly won, was marked by accusations that the Republican engaged in voter suppression efforts, including allegations of the improper purging of 340,000 people from state registration rolls. After becoming governor, Kemp ultimately signed a voting bill that Democrats argue disproportionality disenfranchises people of color. 

Access Marketing has also worked to help some Republican candidates pushing far-right agendas in Texas. Mother Jones reported that in the 2020 campaign cycle, the Texas affiliate of NAR paid Access Marketing over $670,000 to do work for 12 candidates for legislature, 11 of whom ran as Republicans. Eight of those candidates ultimately co-sponsored a bill that Democrats criticized as a voter suppression effort, and those eight members of the GOP also backed a law prohibiting abortion after six weeks that reproductive health advocates have labeled as extreme

In response to a Mother Jones’ inquiry, an owner of Access Marketing noted that the group doesn’t do any direct work for Republican candidates. But as the magazine pointed out, the firm has been paid by the real estate industry trade group to engage in efforts that have often promoted GOP candidates. 

Engaging the services of a group that has provided marketing help for far-right Republican candidates calls into question whether the values of the landlord-led Committee to Improve Rent Control match the values of Portland’s voters, DuBois argued. 

In Portland, just 15.6% of voters backed Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The municipality is known to be one of the most progressive in Maine, sending exclusively Democrats to the state legislature this session and hosting rallies in support of abortion rights and against voter suppression

“A progressive city like Portland shouldn’t let these right wing forces influence our elections, and this is yet another reason why the voters should reject Question A,” Dubois said. 

The Committee to Improve Rent Control did not respond to a request for comment from Beacon.  

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