BELFAST, Maine — Less than a month after the Crosby Center in Belfast hosted the controversial “Arise USA! Resurrection Tour,” the city dropped the center as one of its municipal voting locations.
Belfast City councilors decided at Tuesday night’s regular meeting to move the downtown voting venue from the Crosby Center to a Main Street building owned by the Tarratine Tribe No. 13. At the meeting, councilors did not mention the July 27 event, which was organized by conspiracy theorist Robert David Steele and described by some as a union of COVID-19 denialism and far-right extremism. Nevertheless, it was a factor in the decision, according to Councilor Neal Harkness.
After the event, city officials heard from a number of residents who said they would no longer feel comfortable about voting at the Crosby Center, which is privately owned, he said Thursday.
“We did get a fair number of complaints from people who felt … that they had a partisan political rally at a polling place, and people were uncomfortable about that,” Harkness said. “And also regarding the virus. People wanted to make sure that this would be a safe place [to vote].”
In addition to the criticism sparked by the “Arise USA!” event, there had been some other concerns about the Crosby, including complaints about parking, accessibility and dim lighting inside the venue, he said.
On Tuesday, councilors were asked to choose between the Tarratine Tribe building, which is known as Redmen or Redmen’s Hall, and the Hutchinson Center, located a couple of miles out of town on Route 3. They unanimously voted to have residents of Wards 3 and 4 vote at the Tarratine building.
They liked that the Tarratine Tribe building is in downtown Belfast, which makes it easy to reach for those who like to walk or bike to the polls. It also is large, has ample parking and is accessible, Harkness said.
For the coming November election, the city will once again use three polling places. Residents of Wards 1 and 2 will vote at the Belfast Boathouse, residents of Wards 3 and 4 will head to the Tarratine Tribe building and residents of Ward 5 will vote at the Methodist Church at Mill Lane.
Two years ago, city officials also had considered renting the Tarratine Tribe building to use as a polling place, but that conversation ended differently. Then-Mayor Samantha Paradis told the council and city residents in May 2019 that she found it problematic that the building is known as Redmen’s Hall.
Its owners, Tarratine Tribe No. 13, call themselves the Improved Order of Red Men. The national group describes itself as America’s oldest fraternal organization and traces its origins to 1765 and the Sons of Liberty.
“The group that leads this organization are not Indigenous,” Paradis said then. “I would want to be sensitive about the language that we use and have respect for our Indigenous neighbors and think about a better title and name for this building.”
Although councilors discussed possible solutions, including reaching out to Maine’s Wabanaki community to get their take on a respectful way to refer to the building, ultimately they went in a different direction and rented space at the Crosby Center.
This week, there have been no complaints yet about the city’s decision to use the Tarratine Tribe building as a polling place instead of the Crosby Center, Harkness said.
“I have to this point not received any blowback, any complaining or any objections,” he said. “There are things that were recommended guidelines that the Crosby didn’t meet.”
Kiril Lozanov, the owner of the Crosby Center, said this week he was surprised by the city’s decision.
“I am disappointed that the city council did what they did, without even calling me and saying ‘Hey, this is what we plan to do,’” he said Thursday. “I’d have liked to have somebody talk to me about it.”
He feels that the people who opposed the “Arise USA” event were misinformed about what it was and why it was held.
At the event, speakers included Steele, who has been upfront about his admiration for Holocaust deniers and embraced false theories, such as one stating that NASA runs a child slavery colony on Mars. Other speakers were retired Yarmouth gynecologist Christiane Northrup — who has become one of the nation’s leading spreaders of COVID-19 conspiracy theories — and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founder Richard Mack, who appeared via Zoom.
Mack is a former Arizona sheriff who believes that county sheriffs’ authority overrides federal law.
In addition, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, spoke about the need for a “forensic audit” of Maine election results, feeding into unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential race.
“I was at this event,” Lozanov said. “The part I was there for, everything was peaceful, loving and respectful. In my opinion, the people who were judging had no right to judge anything.”
He also disagreed with the other criticisms of the venue, saying that it is handicap accessible, there is plenty of parking and he has added more lighting.
During the November 2020 election, it was dim enough inside the Crosby Center that reporters had to use cell phone flashlights in order to read the vote tallies.
“If somebody organizes the event, they set up their protocols,” Lozanov said. “I think it was a good venue for the elections. If the town doesn’t want to have it here, that’s really their choice. I know a lot of people would like to have it here, but the negative people are usually the loudest ones and they get their way.”