LEWISTON, Maine — Building owner Joe Dunne says he was fighting back against mayoral candidate Ben Chin’s accusations he was a slumlord. That’s why he put up two signs attacking Chin during the weekend.
The signs, which read “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin; vote for more jobs not welfare,” were spotted on Main Street and Pine Street buildings. The Main Street sign was removed Monday morning. The bright red and yellow sign includes hammers and sickles and a cartoon caricature of Ho Chi Minh.
Dunne said he removed the sign from 134 Main St. after tenants complained.
The signs do not have any disclaimers identifying where they came from, but tenants of the building at 134 Main St. said they were put up by building owner Dunne. Dunne and two other downtown landlords have been frequent targets of Chin and the Maine People’s Alliance this year.
Dunne said Monday that he was hitting back at Chin for the MPA’s criticism of Dunne and other downtown landlords.
“My point is that the guy is out there slamming me all over the place, putting pamphlets in people’s doors calling me a corporate slumlord, putting my home address out there and going into the schools to tell my daughter her parents are slum lords,” Dunne said. “He’s been kind of abusive to me, so I figured I’d fight back a little bit.”
Lewiston’s incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald, who is running for re-election against Chin and three other candidates, said he learned of the signs about a week ago and asked those responsible to not put the signs up.
“I asked them, ‘Please don’t do this,’ and told them it is only going to come back on me and people are going to think I’m responsible for it and I am not, ” Macdonald said. “The person responsible for that is also supporting another candidate and it’s not me.”
Attorney Matthew Mastrogiacomo, whose office is located in the Main Street building, declined to comment to the Sun Journal, but he did put a statement on his law firm’s Facebook page. A sign advertising Mastrogiacomo’s law firm is located directly below Dunne’s sign targeting Chin.
“Please be aware that I did not place the sign there, do not own the building and have no control over what is placed there,” Mastrogiacomo wrote on Facebook. “Please also understand that the opinions on the sign do not reflect my opinion or my views.”
Accountant Larry Campbell said he asked Dunne to remove the sign for business reasons. Campbell has the office next door to Mastrogiacomo and described himself as a friend of Dunne’s.
“People don’t know it’s Joe Dunne’s building,” he said. “They see Matt’s name up there and they may assume it’s his building. They don’t know, and it’s bad for business. So that’s what I said to Joe. I asked him to take it down because it’s inappropriate and a bad reflection on Matt.”
“The future of Lewiston is too important to be sidetracked by filth like this,” said Chin in a statement from his campaign. “It will only make me fight harder to bring people together to revitalize Lewiston and improve our city’s reputation.”
Former Lewiston Police Chief Bill Welch, who owns and operates the restaurant Pedro O’Hara’s in the front portion of the building 134 Main St., said he had no involvement with the sign and didn’t agree with its sentiment.
“We had nothing to do with it nor do we agree with that kind of political sign,” Welch said, noting several people had asked him about it and he wanted to make it clear he had nothing to do with it.
He said the portion of the building his restaurant is in has a different owner than the one where the sign attacking Chin was installed.
Dunne said he will put the sign back up someplace else. “I’ll put them back out someplace else, just not where it offends people who rent from me,” Dunne said.
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, sent a tweet Monday morning calling the signs disgusting and denounced them “in the strongest possible terms.”
Meanwhile, a social media group on Facebook, Lewiston Rocks the Vote, was planning a 5 p.m. rally against the sign, according to a post on the group’s page.
State lawmakers from Lewiston also denounced the signs Monday.
“It’s trying to tie [Chin’s] Chinese-American background to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union. It’s completely unacceptable,” state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said in a text message to the Sun Journal. “We are a better city than that.”
Zach Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Dunne was within his constitutional rights of free speech.
But Heiden also denounced the message on the signs as “obviously racist and xenophobic.”
Heiden said the signs were reflective of “the racism and xenophobia that’s come to infect political debate in this state. But I think he would have a defense under the First Amendment for hanging these signs.”
“It’s encouraging how broad the criticism of these signs has been,” Heiden said. “And we hope that people will freely denounce them.”
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills did just that Monday as well.
“We abhor the message and the type of shady campaign tactics which these signs represent,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “We encourage the author of these hateful and untruthful messages to disavow them and take them down immediately so that the voters may focus on the real issues in the campaign.”
Mills also said those who are concerned the signs may violate state campaign laws should file a complaint with Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Practices.