The University of Maine College Republicans group that inflamed tensions on campus last fall with a Facebook post condemning Maine’s adoption of Indigenous Peoples Day and later inviting a controversial right-wing speaker can no longer officially claim the “UMaine College Republicans” name.
Instead, another group of UMaine students last month filed papers to take over the group’s name while the previous club lacked official student organization status. The new group’s effort was a response to the series of campus controversies during the fall 2019 semester that escalated tensions between the university and a Republican student club that had come to focus mainly on bolstering President Donald Trump’s “America First” politics and bashing Democrats.
The UMaine student government allowed the new group to become the College Republicans while the Trump-aligned group regained official student organization status, but as the UMaine Constitutional Republicans.
The new 15-member group led by senior Anna Zmistowski, 20, wants to return the UMaine College Republicans to the group’s traditional mission of getting students involved in Maine politics and campaigning to elect Republicans.
Already, the new UMaine College Republicans group has eased tensions with administrators and other political groups on campus. But members of the previous GOP group say the College Republicans name rightfully belongs to them.
A response to controversy
Zmistowski filed papers with the UMaine student government to incorporate her group as the UMaine College Republicans six days after the old group hosted right-wing speaker Michelle Malkin in Sabattus, creating a media stir.
Malkin has written that it’s “of questionable wisdom” to allow Muslims to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military and called Lewiston a “refugee dumping ground.” Malkin has also praised Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, who is prominent in right-wing circles. Three venues withdrew from hosting the speaker, with the first withdrawing after a UMaine administrator called to clarify that the university had no involvement with the event, prompting complaints that the group, led by students Charlie Honkonen and Jeremiah Childs, had been censored.
Zmistowski and others started thinking about the move in the fall after Honkonen and Childs’ group wrote a Facebook post about Indigenous Peoples Day — which it called Columbus Day — that included images of 15th-century Spanish war propaganda used to dehumanize indigenous people. The post prompted Dean of Students Robert Dana and UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy to send out an email condemning it.
“That’s when a group of us started thinking, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” Zmistowski said.
“That was just so not representative of what we think the Republican Party stands for.”
Zmistowski filed her group’s application with the student government on Jan. 23, the same day Honkonen and Childs, with a new faculty adviser, also applied to restart the UMaine College Republicans. Their organization had twice lost its status in the fall 2019 semester because it had lost its faculty adviser (one quit after the students invited Malkin). The group continued to operate under the name UMaine College Republicans even without official status.
“It’s a name that’s given to a recognized group,” Zmistowski said. “It’s not anybody’s to take. It’s to be granted.”
With both applications in hand, the UMaine student government had to decide which group would become the UMaine College Republicans.
“What it came down to was deliberations in the student organizations committee and within the senate on which organization was going to get which name,” said Vice President Taylor Cray.
The student government decided on Zmistowski’s group because moderate Republicans had complained about a lack of representation on campus, Cray said, and the student government wanted to make sure all voices were heard.
“When we made that decision, it was based on both what we thought would be best for the student body and what would be best for student government precedent moving forward,” she said.
Dana said UMaine administrators played no role in the decision.
Childs and Honkonen’s group is now recognized by the university under the name UMaine Constitutional Republicans and is advised by Leonard Kass, an associate professor of biology. However, the group continues to use the name UMaine College Republicans on Facebook and Twitter and in all other public communication. Honkonen signed an email with “President, Real UMaine College Republicans.”
“We’re still the University of Maine College Republicans. That’s not going to change,” Childs said. “The new group is fake. The university does not get to pick who the college Republicans are.”
A more traditional mission
The newly designated UMaine College Republicans have been active in the month since gaining official student organization status. Members have canvassed for Garrel Craig, the Republican candidate in a special election to represent Brewer in the Maine House, and they’ve hosted former Gov. Paul LePage and Dale Crafts, a Republican candidate in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, on campus.
They’re advised by the same professor who quit the previous Republicans group after its members invited Malkin to speak: Amy Fried, who chairs UMaine’s political science department.
“They just seem more consistent with what you really see with the College Republicans of the past and other groups like that,” said Fried, who is also a progressive Bangor Daily News opinion columnist. “If I thought that they would have supported these groups or speakers that had connections with anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, white supremacists or Nazis, I would not have supported it because that’s a line for me.”
Dana said the new group under Zmistowski’s leadership is helping ease the tension that had built up between the previous College Republicans and other political groups on campus, including the UMaine College Democrats and the Young Americans for Liberty, a group of conservative students less intent on causing campuswide controversy that splintered off from the old Republican group. Fried advises both of those groups, too.
“I think they’re promoting a more engaged discussion,” Dana said. “It’s not just ‘you go in your corner, I go in mine.’ It’s free-flowing dialogue.”
The UMaine College Democrats have welcomed their new Republican counterparts.
“We strongly believe that under the new leadership, the College Republicans will represent the views of the majority of conservative students on campus in a way that reflects their morals and values without getting bogged down in hateful rhetoric,” said Liam Kent, the College Democrats’ chair. “Young people are disaffected with the current political system and we are glad to have a new group to help engage college students in the governmental process.”
But Childs said his group is looking into taking legal action against UMaine and the student government.
“We’re the only voice on our campus for conservative students, and they want to end this,” he said. “They tried to steal our group in an effort to shut us down because they think we’re some sort of hateful group because we’re conservative.”
Dana and Fried said they did not believe the group, which has the same rights as any other campus group under its new name, the UMaine Constitutional Republicans, has been silenced.
For her part, Zmistowski said she has met with a lawyer to discuss sending Childs’ group a cease-and-desist letter to get the students to stop using the College Republicans name in its communications.
Dana said the university does not plan on intervening in the old group’s continued use of the UMaine College Republicans name. But he welcomes the improving relationship among the other campus political organizations.
“This is a place where every voice is welcome and in a college community, you want people to engage all sorts of different views and opinions,” he said. “And I think to get people to do that, the messaging has to be delivered in a way that people can hear it and not just react against it. I think we’re getting there.”