Maine Republican officials apologized Wednesday for an incident last week in which party faithful attending the state convention removed a pro-labor poster from a Portland middle school classroom and left behind GOP materials.
The incident involved a group of Knox County Republicans who, like hundreds of others attending the Republican state convention at the Portland Expo, had gathered Friday at a nearby middle school for county caucuses.
That same Knox County contingent later would lead a surprise campaign to replace the generic Republican Party platform with a new — and much more controversial — platform embodying many of the positions espoused by Tea Party activists.
But some Knox Republicans who gathered at King Middle School that Friday apparently were less than enthusiastic about the political overtones of some posters — some created by eighth-graders — and other materials they saw in the social studies classroom.
When the teacher, Paul Clifford, returned to his classroom Monday morning, he discovered that a collage depicting the history of the labor movement was missing. In its place, someone had left a bumper sticker reading: “Working People Vote Republican.”
Caucus members also apparently looked inside a closed cardboard box near Clifford’s desk that contained copies of the U.S. Constitution donated by the American Civil Liberties Union. Clifford later discovered a note left behind reading, “A Republican was here. What gives you the right to propagandize impressionable kids?” according to an account in the Portland Press Herald.
On Wednesday, Maine Republican Party Executive Director Christie-Lee McNally apologized to faculty and students at the school.
“The King Middle School was kind enough to allow the Maine Republican Party to use their facilities, and we are deeply concerned about the lack of respect shown to the faculty,” McNally said in a statement. “The Maine Republican Party does not condone the destruction of property nor does it encourage the lack of tolerance that these people demonstrated.”
The chairman of the Knox County Republican Party, William Chapman, agreed that it was inappropriate for anyone to remove items or leave the GOP materials. Chapman said he was unaware who took the poster or left the sticker. He said he understands the poster would be returned or replaced.
“The school administration was kind enough to let us use the facility,” Chapman said in an interview. “We should have left it in the same condition that we found it.”
But Chapman acknowledged that he and others were disturbed by some of the posters they saw in the room, several of which he said obviously were made by professionals, not students. He described some of the posters as anti-American, anti-free enterprise and anti-religion.
“I saw nothing in the room — and nobody pointed out anything in the room — that appeared to give a more balanced view,” Chapman said.
Clifford and the school’s principal, Mike McCarthy, pointed out in media accounts that the posters were part of projects on freedom and free expression.
“What you saw was a snapshot after school of what was up in the room on that day,” McCarthy, who also fielded calls from angry Knox County Republicans, told the Press Herald. “You haven’t been privy to all of the different ideas that have been talked about in that classroom.”
Also Wednesday, Portland School Committee member Sarah Thompson said she plans to raise the issue when the committee meets on May 19. She has asked Superintendent Jim Morse to contact City Manager Joe Gray so the committee will have a clear understanding of policies and legalities related to the rental and public use of school buildings.
“We allowed them to use the space, and I’m appalled that they would go through a teacher’s things, let alone remove something from a classroom,” Thompson said. “We want the public to use school spaces, but they need to respect that it’s a school and understand that they should leave it the way they find it.”
This is the second time that the small Republican contingent from Knox County generated headlines from the convention. On Saturday, convention attendees overwhelmingly rejected the Republican platform put forward by party leaders and, instead, approved a more conservative platform proposed by the Knox County group.
While the platform echoes many of the issues raised by Tea Party activists, Chapman dismissed any suggestion that it was a “Tea Party platform.” Instead, he described it as “an outgrowth of the dissatisfaction of what is happening in Washington and Augusta.”
“It was democracy in action,” he said.
Portland Press Herald staff writers Kelley Bouchard and Bill Nemitz contributed to this report.