Mendros wages long-shot bid to return to Legislature

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At the counter, the group of mostly older men was more interested in talking about the Red Sox. When Stavros Mendros came over and offered them flyers, no one reached to take one.

Mendros is not known widely, either by face or name, in the northern York County district where he is running for the state Senate.

Given his history in Maine politics, though, that might work to his advantage.

The Republican, who until recently lived nearly all his life in Lewiston, has a lengthy history, first as an elected official and then as a petition signature gatherer. In nearly all of his endeavors, controversy has followed.

On paper, Mendros has just two official violations: By the Maine Ethics Commission in the late 1990s for filing a late campaign spending report when he was running for a legislative seat, and a misdemeanor conviction in 2007 for failing to properly administer an oath to several petition gatherers who worked for him.

But he has been involved in numerous other questionable campaigns, and often has been scrutinized for his signature-gathering practices.

Two years ago, he was hired by controversial casino developers Shawn and Lisa Scott. This year, he collected signatures for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Max Linn, many of which were later determined to belong to dead people.

He has developed a reputation — even among those in his own party — as someone to avoid in business. In 2015, the Androscoggin County Republican Committee ousted him from a leadership role over his handling of a report of missing funds.

Still, he gets work.

Now, he wants to return to the Maine Legislature for the first time in 16 years — albeit to represent a district in which he has lived for about four months.

Senate District 31 includes Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and part of Buxton. It is a solidly Democratic district, according to the most recent registration data from the state. Of the nearly 35,000 registered voters in the district, 35 percent are Democrats, compared to 26 percent Republicans.

Mendros knows it is a long shot.

“They needed a Republican to run and no one else was willing to do it,” he said.

Mendros, 50, is challenging Sen. Justin Chenette, a Democrat from Saco who was elected in 2016 after serving two terms in the House. At 27, he was the 127th Legislature’s youngest state senator.

Chenette said in every campaign he’s run to date, he has respected his Republican opponent.

“In this case, I do not respect my opponent,” he said of Mendros. “I feel like for someone who is running for office, having an ethical conscience should be a bare minimum.”

Mendros acknowledges his past problems, but also has an answer for every question — often one that casts himself as the victim.

He insists any controversy has been caused by the company he has kept. Petition-gathering is hard, thankless work, he says, and he simply goes where the money is. As an example, he has at different times worked for both pro- and anti-casino groups.

Still, he said when he moved to Hollis in June and agreed to step in as a replacement candidate for that Senate seat, he wondered if people might recognize his name.

“I thought there might be a little blowback,” Mendros said, “but people have been great here.”

Many decline to talk

Mendros was one of four kids born to John Mendros and Florentia Poulikakos, Greek immigrants who settled in Lewiston in the late 1950s.

His father was a physician who operated a medical practice for more than 40 years, before his death in 2001. The family was heavily involved in the city’s Greek community and its cultural hub, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. Mendros served on the church’s parish council for many years, following in his father’s footsteps.

He left Lewiston in the early 1990s to attend the University of Maine. He majored in creative writing but was involved in student government. One of Mendros’ college associates was Brent Littlefield, who served as his vice president when Mendros was president of the student senate.

Littlefield is widely known in Maine politics, too. He has served as a top political adviser for Gov. Paul LePage, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and, most recently, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Shawn Moody.

Littlefield declined an interview request to talk about Mendros.

That was also the case for six other Republicans who have worked with Mendros in the past. They did not want to be mentioned in the same story as him. Others simply did not return messages.

Mendros returned to Lewiston after college and a stint with AmeriCorps, and, after serving for a few years on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, ran for a state House of Representatives seat in Lewiston, which at the time was a reliably Democratic district. When Mendros won in 1998, it was just the first time in nearly 100 years that a Republican had won that seat.

Early in his career, Mendros stood out as an unconventional legislator, both in style and substance. He wore shorts and T-shirts sometimes instead of suits, and bucked his party on some key issues, including advocating for marijuana legalization at a time when no one was.

He served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which he parlayed into a second term and then, in 2001, a run for the U.S. House of Representatives. He wound up finishing third in a four-way Republican primary.

After that, Mendros lowered his sights and was elected to the Lewiston City Council.

Larry Gilbert, who was Lewiston’s police chief for many years and eventually became mayor, said Mendros was a good councilor because he listened to constituents and kept an open mind.

“We got along,” said Gilbert, now retired and living in Florida most of the year. “I don’t like the way he operates, but he was nice to me and I was nice to him.”

Even then, though, there were signs that Mendros was prone to “cutting corners,” as Gilbert termed it.

“I think he was willing to not always follow the rules,” he said.

According to a story in the Sun Journal, Mendros’ City Council candidacy was questioned because residents complained that he did not live in the ward he was elected to represent.

Mendros served two terms on the council before shifting his focus to more behind-the-scenes work. He found a niche in petition gathering.

‘Olympic Consulting’ is born

Mendros led a petition drive in 2005 to repeal a state budget that included a new tax on cigarettes. The effort was unsuccessful. Of the more than 55,000 signatures gathered, approximately 17,000 were deemed invalid by the Secretary of State’s Office.

It didn’t matter, though. Olympic Consulting, Mendros’ petition-gathering company, was born.

Since then, he has been hired numerous times to gathering signatures for various petition drives. There aren’t a lot of companies that do that type of work and it has been used increasingly by various groups that try to effect policy change outside of traditional legislative means.

In 2005, he was hired by faith-based groups to gather signatures for a citizen’s initiative to ban slot machines. The very next year, he was hired to gather signatures for a tribal casino initiative. Both efforts failed.

The next year, he assisted in the petition for a casino in Oxford County. That effort made it to the ballot, where it was defeated in 2008. Two years later, a similar initiative passed, paving the way for what is now Oxford Casino.

While he was working on the first Oxford County effort, he was charged by the Maine Attorney General’s Office with misusing his notary powers. He was accused of not being present while administering oaths to petition circulators. He ended up pleading guilty and paying a fine of $2,000.

Petitions and investigations

Work kept coming, though, for Mendros.

He was involved in a couple of failed signature-gathering efforts in 2006 and 2008, to allow home sellers to bypass real estate agents and to impose mandatory minimum sentences on adults who rape children.

In 2009, he was hired to gather signatures to repeal a tax reform plan that had passed through the Legislature. Voters did end up repealing that tax reform.

In 2011, Mendros again was hired by casino backers, this time in his hometown of Lewiston. Mendros worked with another local man, Peter Robinson, on that effort.

The referendum was fraught with problems, but it did go out to voters, who rejected it soundly.

The effort drew attention from the Maine Ethics Commission, which launched a lengthy investigation into whether Mendros and Robinson intentionally misled Mainers about the source of the funding for the campaign.

The commission indeed faulted Mendros and Robinson, leading to a consent agreement in which Mendros admitted no fault but required the PAC he worked for to pay a $15,000 fine.

Mendros continued to serve on the Lewiston School Committee during much of this time, and work still found him easily.

He was involved in 2015 with a short-lived citizen petition drive to veto a controversial bill that extends General Assistance benefits to some immigrants for up to two years. That failed.

He then was hired in 2016 to gather signatures for a York County casino. Again, the backers of the initiatives went to great lengths to hide their identity from Maine people. Mendros was accused of failing to pay signature gatherers, but he says he wasn’t paid, either.

It was later revealed that Mendros’ firm was paid at least $755,000 by the casino backers, Shawn and Lisa Scott.

That referendum was disqualified from the ballot in 2016. The Maine Secretary of State’s Office investigated problems with the signatures Mendros submitted but did not levy any charges. A year later, the same referendum successfully got on the ballot, but voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

Mendros was also gathering signatures for the campaign to legalize marijuana in Maine in 2016.

Both David Boyer and Paul McCarrier, who led competing legalization petition drives that were eventually merged, declined to say anything about Mendros on the record.

Said McCarrier: “Stavros is who he is. He has a pretty long public record.”

Mendros’ most recent signature-gathering job was this year, to get long-shot U.S. Senate candidate Max Linn onto the election ballot. Linn was disqualified because his petitions included signatures of dead people, among other irregularities. Linn later blamed Mendros for sloppy work. Mendros blamed another Linn campaign worker, Matt McDonald.

That matter remains under investigation.

Some in GOP are critical

Mendros says he moved to Hollis in June to be closer to his daughter, who attends Thornton Academy Middle School in Saco. He registered to vote June 13, according to voter registration data. He said he had no intention of running, but the party needed a candidate.

The first Republican in the race, Eric Stanton, said he dropped out because he runs three companies and did not think he would have the time needed for campaigning. He said he thinks Mendros was a fine choice to step in, given his history. The district, Saco in particular, has a big Greek community, and Mendros has extended family in the district.

But Mendros also has electability problems, perhaps greatest among members of his own party.

Three years ago, Mendros was removed as chairman of the Androsco ggin County Republican Committee. He says it was because he tried to report missing cash and others wanted to cover it up. Other members dispute that, although the current chairwoman, Patti Gagne, did not respond to calls or emails for comment. The vote to remove Mendros was unanimous.

Even some Republicans are distancing themselves from Mendros. Mike Lachance, a candidate for House District 61, has gone so far as to call for the resignation of the party’s state chairwoman, Demi Kouzounas, for allowing Mendros to be picked as a replacement candidate. Kouzounas and Mendros are cousins.

“Promoting the election of and furthering the political career of such characters as Mr. Mendros is not only self-destructive for the party and an insult to Mainers, but is a slap in the face to every hardworking Mainer who believes in conservatism, good government and ethics,” Lachance said in a prepared statement in July.

Mendros was undeterred by the criticism.

“No-chance Lachance is another in a long line of wannabe politicians suffering from Stavros envy,” he told the Sun Journal.

Mendros seems to be running on two issues — traffic and beach erosion — that appear to be more municipal issues than statewide matters.

But he also wants to return to a less partisan time. He said he’s not afraid to vote with Democrats on certain issues.

“Can Justin Chenette say he’s ever voted with Republicans?” Mendros asked.

Chenette has been a popular representative-turned-senator and doesn’t seem too concerned about his opponent.

“When you think of everything he’s been involved with, it’s almost laughable that this is who the Republicans picked,” he said.

Mendros, though, said he has always been one to speak up and acknowledges he has made enemies.

Brad Littlefield, chairman of the York County Republicans, was asked whether any members had concerns about Mendros’ past.

“Mr. Mendros has never been charged with doing anything illegal when it comes to collecting signatures,” Littlefield said. “To claim otherwise is a reckless disregard for the truth.” 

For his part, Mendros seems overly aware of his own reputation. He often prefaces statements he makes with phrases such as, “I’m not perfect” or “I’ve been sloppy or careless in the past.”

But he also says he is done with that. He said some of the issues to which his name has been attached have been embarrassing for him and his family, and he wants to change how people see him.

“I think I’ve been treated unfairly in some cases because of the company I’ve kept,” he said. “I’m a trusting person. I think everyone deserves a chance.”

Seeking to represent a York County district where he has lived for about four months, Stavros Mendros, 50, a former Republican state lawmaker from Lewiston, campaigns in Saco recently in the Senate District 31 race against Sen. Justin Chenette, the Democratic incumbent from Saco. Mendros acknowledges a political past haunted by controversy. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)

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