In Maine, is GOP linked to flurry of anonymous attacks?


Ben Chin, a 32-year-old Democrat, ran away with the preliminary vote in November for mayor of Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine.

But he could not avoid a runoff with City Councilor Shane Bouchard, a Republican backed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Shortly after the November election, an anonymous conservative website called Maine Examiner began hammering Chin as a smug, leftist outsider in a long-struggling city where many residents had resisted an influx of Somali immigrants.

“Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists,’” the secretive site posted Dec. 3, kicking off a barrage of negative stories.


That quote was taken out of context. But nine days later, he lost the runoff by 145 votes — a narrow defeat he and his supporters blame in part on the website’s attacks, many of which were quickly recirculated on Facebook by the state Republican Party.

Fake news — misleading stories that have mushroomed in the age of social media and that became internet fodder during the 2016 presidential election — had found a way into Maine politics, Chin’s supporters said. Of even more concern to some Democrats: It appeared that the GOP was working directly with the site.

“The stories just created so much confusion,” Chin said in an interview. “You had people believing things that were exactly the opposite of the truth.”

The posts also have alarmed state Democrats and media observers, who fear that this type of hyper-partisan, anonymous reporting could be a test run for the 2018 governor’s race.

“It’s very, very troubling,” said Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “There is no real accountability. The average voter and consumer of social media does not immediately recognize that it is fabricated information.”

The state Republican Party declined to comment on whether it coordinated with the Examiner but sharing the site’s stories greatly increased their visibility.

Garrett Murch, the state GOP’s spokesman and political director, also declined a phone interview to discuss the Examiner’s influence. Murch, who joined the state GOP staff in July, worked for five years as a communications adviser for Jeff Sessions when the U.S. attorney general was a Republican senator from Alabama.

But in an email, Murch conceded the site has made a difference.

“I don’t really have much to say,” Murch wrote. “I guess I can give you this: ‘Their stories seem to have often checked out and had some measure of impact.’”

Chin easily outpolled Bouchard in the five-candidate preliminary election, 42 percent to 29 percent. But in a smaller field, Bouchard consolidated support.

The Examiner drew only scant attention after it began posting on Facebook in September — just three likes and five shares until Nov. 9.

But when the state Republican Party posted an Examiner story that day on the potential perils of Medicaid expansion, the website suddenly became noticed. The GOP post on Facebook was shared 58 times. After that, the GOP began to repost the Examiner regularly, including its attacks on Chin.

The state party’s executive director, Jason Savage, also puts Examiner stories on his personal Facebook page, sometimes shortly after the original post. Savage could not be reached for comment.

The Examiner has been cloaked in anonymity. Nearly all of its articles carry a byline of “administrator,” and its ownership is not divulged in the registry of Internet addresses. A Globe request for comment was answered with a brief, anonymous email.

“We are not interested in interviews at this time,” it read. “Thank you.”

The Examiner’s campaign against Chin, a Bates College graduate, began Nov. 28 when it posted a story — picked up from a national right-wing site, The Daily Caller — that accused Chin’s campaign of retaining a convicted pedophile as a volunteer. Chin said that the man had been known as a Lewiston activist but that he did not participate in the campaign and had been asked not to attend any campaign events.

Its Dec. 3 post reported that Chin had complained to his staff “that voters in Lewiston’s Ward 6 are racists,” citing a leaked campaign email. Read in its entirety, the email indicates that Chin was not referring to Ward 6 as a whole.

Chin wrote that on June 15, he knocked on 64 doors and had 47 conversations with prospective voters, 32 of whom were strong supporters or leaning toward him. He also mentioned speaking with two African-American families, one potential volunteer whose sister died of an overdose and a woman who had supported the lame-duck Republican mayor “but is coming our way.”

At the end of the summary, he wrote, “bunch of racists, too.”

Four days later, the Examiner cited “multiple sources” in reporting that Chin’s car had been towed because of “years of unpaid parking tickets.” However, police told the Sun Journal in Lewiston that the car had been towed but that the tickets dated only to September.

One constant in the Examiner’s reporting is that the target of the story is not given a chance to comment.

Anonymity and mystery also extend to Maine First Media, another right-wing website that was created a year ago.

Matthew McDonald, a Bangor resident who founded the site, sold Maine First in November but would not divulge its new owners, except to say that they have connections with Nebraska and Maine.

“The people that bought it would prefer not to talk about that,” McDonald said.

On Jan. 4, Maine First Media posted a story that read, “EXPOSED: Open-Border Leftists Plot to Invade Rural Maine with Muslim Refugees.”

On Jan. 3, another Maine First story carried the headline: “Mainers Paying the Price for Mass Immigration, Refugee Racket Expansion.”

Trained as a clergyman, McDonald said that anonymity allows Maine First the freedom of uninhibited expression by unpaid writers who don’t use bylines. When he served as editor, he largely concerned himself with grammar and punctuation, he said.

“I didn’t care what they were writing about. My concern was never the story, per se,” but rather “just make sure where to put your semicolon,” McDonald said. “It’s kind of new media, right? We really just opened up the box and let people glow.”

The purpose, he said, was to credit the achievements of President Trump and his America First agenda. “I just couldn’t find a fair and balanced media source,” McDonald said.

The sites are clearly affecting state politics, but they lack any traditional sense of accountability, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.

“When you have an anonymous website, who knows who’s bankrolling it?” Brewer said. “I think all Mainers not only should know but deserve to know. They can publish whatever they want, but it would be helpful to know who’s paying for the information.”

Brewer’s concerns were echoed by Judith Rosenbaum, a University of Maine communications professor who specializes in social media. Hearing new voices is important, she said, but such a platform comes with responsibility.

“My biggest concern is: Do we have a citizenry that is able to discern credible news from news that is really rumors and gossip?” Rosenbaum said.

State Sen. Justin Chenette, a Democrat from Saco who has been targeted by the Examiner, said he may request a state ethics inquiry into whether the Maine Republican Party has collaborated with the Examiner.

“Hey, let’s put the cards on the table. Is the state GOP secretly funding this site?” Chenette said. “There’s clearly a connection. Why are they sharing these fake news articles?”

Chenette accused the website of recklessly suggesting Dec. 21 that he had received commissions from personal campaign ads, paid with taxpayer funds, that he placed in the newspaper where he works as an advertising representative.

The Examiner wrote that its reporting raises “questions about Chenette’s use of taxpayer money for his campaign and the possibility of unethical personal benefits Chenette may have received.”

Chenette denied being paid commissions by the Biddeford Journal Tribune, the only daily newspaper based in York County, which Chenette represents.

“This is basically a glorified right-wing conspiracy blog that is disguised and masked as a news site,” Chenette said, adding that anonymity could allow the owners of such sites to skirt campaign finance laws. “So far, it looks like its sole purpose is slandering progressive Democrats like me.”

McDonald, the Maine First Media creator, said the site has a different purpose.

“There was no media platform for people who are looking for a story that puts President Trump in a positive instead of a negative light,” McDonald said. “We built something that changed the culture of media in Maine, and we did it in ways that were outside the box.”

In the end, he added, “people are intelligent enough to make up their own minds about a story.”

This story was re-printed with permission of The Boston Globe.

Lewiston High school students Matt Hird and Mya Letourneau, both at right, serve as moderators for the Lewiston Mayoral Debate at the Lewiston Public Library on Nov. 27. Candidate Shane Bouchard is at left, and candidate Ben Chin is second from left. (Sun Journal file photo)

Lewiston mayoral candidates Shane Bouchard, left, and Ben Chin, third from left, greet voters as they make their way into the gymnasium at Longley Elementary School during December’s runoff. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Ben Chin addresses the crowd at the Lewiston Public Library during one of the mayoral debates in October 2017. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo)

  • Danny Fitzsimmons

    Most of us did not need this article to tell us that Chin was a politician who would love nothing more than to turn Lewiston into a sanctuary city, driving up already some of the highest property taxes in the state. Now he and the democrats whine about the loss, they have not figured it out yet time and time again they refuse to follow a solid platform of minimal immigration and tough on illegal immigration, The majority of voters distaste for supporting these while not being able to support themselves to the level of the support they receive such as free housing, healthcare, food, Schooling including college (which many struggle to save to put their own children through) and clothing as well as cars and a licence (when it is quite clear that many of them have never taken a driving test and likely never drove a car) and much more support. These things are NOT FREE someone pays for those things, some go without these things because they are literally forced by the city and state due to politicians of the democratic persuasion for which I was mot of my life until their policy was for every illegal and every immigrant was a vote for the party, and every person they could support financially through freebies was a vote for their party. And this is why I don’t vote democrat and the republicans only wish to take whatever monies the middle and lower class have in order for the top 10% to be richer. And is why every election it is a matter of who is the least of the evils.

    • Rene Veilleux


  • MaineCWP

    Maine Examiner is not anonymous- They investigate and report news.

    If someone got burnt by a little sunshine so be it. Lesson learned?

  • Greg Poliquin

    I’ve been reading the SJ for as long as I can remember. Always enjoyed and trusted it till conservative sources became available. Then I began to realize just how left leaning they were. Since they were purchased by the BDN they don’t lean left they are in bed with them! Oh you’ll get occasional decent reporting but certainly not anything that can be called “Fair & Balanced”.

    However, today they did a wonderful public service by reminding me of two very important websites I need to add to my favorites bar. Maine Examiner & Maine First Media.

    Thank you SJ!

    • Rene Veilleux

      Keep your head buried in 2 feet of crap!

  • publikwerks

    Moral of the story – Dirty campaigns work.

  • bob Mennealy

    Typical GOP dirty tricks!

    • Les Gibson

      Hardly. The Democrat Party, from Phil Bartlett on down, have a monopoly on the dirty tricks playbook!

      It also appears that Maine People’s Alliance operatives Ben Chin and Justin Chennette can’t stand to have the bright light of day shinning on their underhanded dealings.

  • B. Winslow

    Isn’t this exactly what the Democrats do when they play dirty , put out fake media stories and see what happens? but now that it has happened to them it’s the end of the world !! And with just reading all of this, Isn’t it funny how everything that was reported there was an excuse for it ? The car get towed because of some unpaid parking tickets, but not the ones the examiner reported ,, and then the report of the pedophile that worked for the campaign but was told not to attend any more campaign events !? So obviously most of this did happen but not the way the liberals want you to think it did !?! This is how you go around all the talking points ,, this is typical liberal whining and crying , do as I say but not as I do !!!

    • Les Gibson

      Indeed. There’s ample photographic evidence of the convicted pedophile attending Chin’s campaign events and Maine People’s Alliance events, where many small children were present

  • Les Gibson

    Oh the horror! Maine People’s Alliance operatives Ben Chin and Justin Chennette have the bright light of day cast on their underhanded dealings by an independent news site and their response is to jump up and down and throw themselves on the floor in a temper tantrum while screaming ‘fake news’!
    Sorry, but I have no sympathy. It’s long last time that these leftist whiners got a dose of their own medicine.

    • Rene Veilleux

      Crackpots! Right wingers, I mean. Stay on WLOB or whatever crackpot station you get this crap from.

      • Les Gibson

        That’s a completely unhinged comment… But it’s nice to know that you think the socialist Maine People’s Alliance Chief executive Ben Chin is a crackpot because they were his emails and he never denied writing them.

  • RegMainer

    Interesting. Not a word of the Maine Leftist blowhard propaganda site Maine Beacon, run by the Maine People’s Alliance. Another attack on messengers. How about we deal with truth: Chin said those things and had a pedophile on various stages with him. Just check the photos. Chenette bought ads from his employer. As for the Aroostook County refugee invasion? How about some journalist, somewhere, look to see if it’s true. They’ll find it is.

    • Henry Jacobs

      It’s called protecting their own.

  • Henry Jacobs

    Claim: “Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists,’”

    Response: That quote was taken out of context.

    The response in of itself serves as proof that Chin made those comments. How can you take those words out of context?

    You cannot really.

  • Henry Jacobs

    Isn’t it time to remove this stale article for something more contemporary?