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State committee votes to keep Maine GOP chairman Charlie Webster in place despite caucus mess

Posted March 10, 2012, at 3:24 p.m.
Last modified March 11, 2012, at 5:01 p.m.
Phillip Merletti, the co-chair of the Republican Party in Lee, holds a sign as delegates leave a closed-door meeting of the Republican Party state commitee in Augusta on Saturday.
Phillip Merletti, the co-chair of the Republican Party in Lee, holds a sign as delegates leave a closed-door meeting of the Republican Party state commitee in Augusta on Saturday. Buy Photo
Charlie Webster
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Charlie Webster

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster was in the hot seat for most of Saturday’s state GOP committee meeting.

Raised voices could be heard at times from outside the closed-door meeting at the Augusta City Center. At other times, there was laughter.

In the end, Webster came away relatively unscathed.

At the end of the meeting, a majority of the group voted to support the chairman going forward into a crucial 2012 election cycle that will see him play a prominent part.

Webster said he was pleased to have the support of many legislators and that he understood the frustration of some.

“I think the committee was pretty supportive of what we’re trying to do with recruiting candidates and raising money,” he said outside the meeting room. “There’s some frustration with the caucus that happened, but overall the committee was supportive.

“When you are chairman, you try to stay neutral. I did, and obviously you can’t make everybody happy.”

As the outspoken and sometimes polarizing head of the Maine GOP, Webster has been criticized for his role in mishandling the party’s presidential caucuses last month. That criticism bubbled over into Saturday’s meeting, where some attendees wanted Webster to explain himself.

On Feb. 11, the party declared former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the winner of a presidential preference poll and de facto winner of Maine’s caucuses. That announcement was made before all the votes were counted, a move that angered supporters of Ron Paul, who finished a close second.

In the days that followed, GOP officials admitted they made mistakes by omitting certain votes and by not allowing Washington County Republicans to have their votes counted. The Washington County GOP canceled its caucuses on Feb. 11 because of a pending snowstorm.

The Maine GOP later updated its results to include Washington County. It didn’t change the outcome, but it also didn’t eliminate the black eye left on the party because of all the negative attention.

Even before Saturday’s meeting started, Webster was greeted by Ron Paul supporters outside the event holding signs that said “count all the votes” and calling for Webster’s resignation.

Members of the media were denied access to the meeting itself, but parts of the discussion could be heard from the hallway outside.

One unidentified man told Webster that he has two strikes and is still at bat.

“I don’t want to take you out of the game, but you better be careful how you swing at the next pitch,” the man said.

Ruth Summers, vice chair of the Maine GOP, reminded the audience how successful the party has been under Webster’s “reign,” a choice of words that further riled some.

The meeting closed with a motion asking whether Webster would have the party’s support. It wasn’t clear exactly how that vote went. Summers said afterwards that it was unanimous. Others who attended said that wasn’t accurate. A majority supported Webster, yes, but many others did not.

After the meeting, many attendees spilled into the hallway and spoke about what had happened behind closed doors. The synopsis differed greatly depending on who spoke.

Party leaders, including Summers, said the meeting was a chance for Republicans to air concerns and share opinions about a number of different things, including the caucuses that put the party in the spotlight.

Ultimately, she said, the party came out unified and united Saturday behind its chairman as well as the many federal and state candidates that will be on the ballot this year.

Others had an entirely different take.

Matt McDonald of Belfast, a member of the Waldo County GOP, said he thinks Webster should have stepped down and was appalled at the chairman’s behavior on Saturday.

“He once again showed himself to be a bully,” McDonald said after the two-hour meeting. “He yelled at members, he was condescending and rude. Every day he’s chair, he hurts the party going forward.”

The Waldo County GOP had called for a censure of Webster last month, largely for his handling of the caucuses. McDonald said the censure motion was read Saturday but not acted upon.

Mike Hein, a member of the Augusta GOP, echoed what McDonald said about Webster being rude and derogatory during the meeting.

“He’s the opposite of apologetic, the opposite of humble,” Hein said. “He needs to apologize. He has not done that. I think a lot of this would go away if he did.”

Webster has said in the past that he doesn’t care much what people think of him. The biggest thing he heard Saturday was the support he has among lawmakers.

Among them was Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington.

“It was a healthy debate,” he said. “There were some disagreements and some misunderstandings, but at the end of the day we’ll be a united family.”

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, agreed and said things like this need to happen from time to time in order for the party to move forward stronger.

Still, some feel Webster has been dividing the party with his tactics and his rhetoric, even before the caucuses. His role in the discussion over voter fraud last year and the subsequent vote by Mainers to overturn a law banning Election Day voter registration has been cited.

More recently, after U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe announced she would not seek a fourth term and Republicans began looking for candidates to replace her, Webster said bluntly that he didn’t think Scott D’Amboise would be his party’s nominee. D’Amboise, of Lisbon Falls, had been in the race before Snowe dropped out and planned to challenge her in the primary.

D’Amboise attended Saturday’s Maine GOP committee meeting and said he heard a much-needed discussion that will help heal wounds leftover from the caucuses. He also said he doesn’t have any hurt feelings toward Webster for his comments.

Asked whether he thought Webster should resign, D’Amboise said, “I have no comment on that. I hope to sit down with him. Whether he chooses to do that is up to him.”

Donn Chamberlain, a D’Amboise supporter, said, “Charlie Webster is going to kill the Maine Republican Party.”

Going forward, Webster’s biggest assets — his ability to recruit candidates and his ability to raise money — likely are needed by a party that wants to keep its majorities in the House and Senate. Many credit Webster for guiding the GOP to victories that allowed the party to wrest control of the Maine Legislature from Democrats for the first time in decades.

As for changes to the caucuses, Summers said there was some discussion about that on Saturday. She also said there will be plenty of time between now and 2016 to decide whether to consider any changes.

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