LEWISTON, Maine — For now, his signs are down, but Lewiston landlord Joe Dunne promised they’d go back up somewhere in the city, probably on a vacant lot.
“They will go back up, and they will be visible,” Dunne said Monday.
His bright red signs were meant to point out that Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin’s ideas were too far left for Lewiston, Dunne said.
They featured yellow, Soviet-style hammers, sickles and stars, and a cartoon caricature of Ho Chi Minh with the caption “Don’t Vote for Ho Chi Chin. Vote for more jobs not more welfare.”
Dunne said the signs were not racist. “Ho Chi Minh may be Vietnamese, but really, he was a staunch advocate for communism,” Dunne said. “I thought people would get the message that this stuff he’s trying to promote is pretty close to communism.”
By 1 p.m., he’d removed both signs, and local political activists and residents called them out as racist. By sunset, a group of 150 rallied along Main Street across from Dunne’s building, chanting “We will not tolerate hate.”
Lewiston’s officially nonpartisan mayoral race has been drawing statewide attention, from a city which has been changed by immigration like no other place in Maine over the last decade, with 7,000 Somalis now living in the region.
Chin is a progressive political activist seeking to unseat two-term incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald, a former police officer who’s known for making controversial comments about welfare recipients and immigrants — or both.
In late September, he made headlines again after calling for a state website listing the names of welfare recipients and the lengths of time they’ve received aid, along with their addresses.
Dunne said he paid a Bethel sign-maker up to $500 to make the three signs. Two were posted this weekend on buildings he owns at 134 Main St. and at 101 Pine St. Both were removed Monday afternoon because of a massive local reaction, with opinions about the signs dominating social media in Maine.
Speaking at Monday night’s rally, Chin said there is no doubt the signs are racist — and they hit close to home.
Chin said his grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from China at 9 years old. He worked hard and was able to graduate from college, serve in World War II and build a business.
“But as soon as that business was successful, the U.S. government began to investigate my grandfather, during the McCarthy era, accusing him of being a communist,” Chin said. “This is the same ‘Yellow Peril’ that has been a part of American history as long as Chinese people have been in the U.S.”
Chin’s mayoral campaign platform has called for more resident-owned housing downtown, a Lisbon Street redevelopment effort, a city office to help new Mainers, immigrants and refugees settle in, and an effort to promote the solar industry.
But Dunne and downtown landlords Ted West and Rick Lockwood have been regular targets for Chin and his employer, the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive political advocacy organization. Chin is political director for the group that labeled the three men Lewiston’s worst corporate slumlords in August.
Chin also has called out Dunne in other public forums, notably the mayoral debate hosted by the Sun Journal on Oct. 5.
Dunne said the signs were a reaction to that.
“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 slumlords,” Dunne said. “He’s been kind of abusive to me, so I figured I’d fight back a little bit.”
The signs didn’t seem to be welcomed by anybody in Lewiston. Dunne’s Main Street tenants urged him to take them down. Members of the Maine GOP, who created an anti-Ben Chin blog last week, and Chin’s mayoral rivals all said they were in bad taste.
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.”
Macdonald said he learned of the signs about a week ago and asked those responsible to not put them 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.”
Zach Heiden, the 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.”
Dunne said Monday he is not supporting any particular candidate and that he likes Macdonald and another candidate, Steve Morgan.
“Anybody but Ben Chin,” Dunne said.
Chin said he would continue to target slumlords.
“I am completely undaunted by this,” he said. “It just makes me more eager to get out and talk to voters. I think people are tired of these antics, and I think they are tired of watching people profit off of destroying our city.”