LEWISTON, Maine — A former communications director on the re-election campaign for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins denounced a Maine GOP-sponsored blog that has provided fodder for attacks against Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin.
Lance Dutson, who was once the chief executive officer for the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center, called a recent post questioning whether Chin is a Christian “one of the lowest and stupidest things ever done in Maine politics.”
Using information from the GOP’s blog page, state Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, attacked Chin on Facebook, writing that Chin was an “anti-Christian bigot. Chin hates America, hates Americans, and hates Christians, and he wants to allow noncitizens to vote.”
Chin, a Democrat and an Episcopal lay preacher who frequently offers sermons at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lewiston, has drawn criticism from the Maine GOP as he hopes to unseat Lewiston’s incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald, a Republican.
Chin faces Macdonald in a runoff election on Dec. 8.
Dutson, along with Bobby Reynolds, Collins’ former political director, launched the group Get Right Maine in July in an effort “to refocus Maine’s Republican Party on the core traditions of relevance, reason and respect.”
The group was formed, in part, to repudiate some of the inflammatory rhetoric from far-right Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage, whom Dutson and others believe are pushing more moderate Republicans away from the party.
Dutson’s message, which was emailed to GOP members statewide, took a clear shot at Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett for condoning the practices that led to Lockman’s inflammatory comments.
“What is happening here?” Dutson asked in his message. “Why is the Maine Republican Party acting this way? Attacking someone’s religious beliefs is not a Republican value. Being dishonest is not a Republican value.”
Dutson later said he discovered the blog post took segments from three sermons that are publicly available on the church’s website and strung them together.
“To make it sound like this Christian pastor hates Jesus — it’s just really bad,” Dutson said.
But Bennett defended the blog page again Thursday, saying it was only highlighting Chin’s views on issues in his own words. Bennett said the sermons were public speeches and fair game in politics.
He said readers of Chin’s statements, “some of which are pretty extreme,” could draw their own conclusions.
“I’m not going to take responsibility for somebody else’s conclusion about quotations that were posted on our website,” Bennett said. “But I certainly do not condone passing judgment on people’s faith and/or their commitment to America or anything of that nature.”
Bennett also said he could not be expected to keep track of every politically incorrect, racially charged or religiously biased statement posted on social media by members of his party or others.
“It’s not my role as the chairman of the party to comment on and pass judgment on every asinine statement that a Republican in Maine may make and, frankly, it’s not my role to hyperventilate about every outrageous thing a Democrat may say, either,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he didn’t agree with Dutson’s notion that the state GOP should take responsibility for rogue statements made by individual party members acting on their own accord. But he did agree that there have been incidents in which GOP staff took something too far.
“Since I’ve been party chair, during a couple of occasions, during the heat of a campaign, staff members who work for the Maine Republican Party have gone too far, have gone overboard and I’ve reeled them in,” Bennett said. “And I do take responsibility for the party and my staff’s actions. I take that seriously, but I’m not going to take responsibility for everything any Republican in Maine may be saying.”
Dutson said Bennett may be missing the point and should just make clear what the party does stand for and why it disagrees with attacks like the one against Chin.
Dutson also said the GOP should remove the blog page attacking Chin from the party’s website.
“His primary job is as a representative of the ethos and core of the Maine Republican Party, and if we as a party can’t say no to bigotry, what are people supposed to think?” Dutson said. “I just think it’s outrageous.”
Dutson said it would take Bennett five minutes to do the right thing and show party members the leadership they deserve.
Asked why, if the Maine GOP were opposed to Chin becoming Lewiston’s next mayor, it didn’t use some of its resources to help highlight Macdonald’s positives, Bennett said that was a possibility that may unfold in the days ahead.
And while Bennett would not dispute Lockman’s statements about Chin, the Rev. Steven Lane, the Episcopal Bishop of Maine, did.
“Spirited public discourse is an important part of our civic life,” Lane said. “Personal attacks on the character, ethnic origin or religious beliefs are not. I call on all public officials and those seeking elected office, regardless of party or affiliation, to act in a way that reflects respect for every human being.”