More video: Joe Dunne explains why his signs are personal, not racist.| Ben Chin talks about what the signs mean to him. | Rally gives people a chance to talk about hate in the community.

LEWISTON — For now, Joe Dunne’s signs are down but the landlord promised they’d go back up somewhere in the city, probably on a vacant lot.

“But they will go back up and they will be visible,” Dunne said Monday.

The bright red signs were meant to point out that mayoral candidate Ben Chin’s ideas were too far left for Lewiston, Dunne said.

They featured yellow, Soviet-style hammers, sickles and stars, and a cartoon caricature of Ho Chi Minh with the caption “Don’t Vote for Ho Chi Chin. Vote for more jobs not more welfare.”

Dunne said they were not racist.

“Ho Chi Minh may be Vietnamese, but really he was a staunch advocate for communism,” Dunne said. “I thought people would get the message that this stuff he’s trying to promote is pretty close to communism.”

By 1 p.m., he’d removed both signs and local political activists — both right and left — and local residents called them out as racist.

By sunset, a group of 150 rallied  along Main Street across from Dunne’s building, chanting “We will not tolerate hate.”

“It’s a shame, because Lewiston was just coming off of a nice, positive weekend with the Dempsey Challenge,” Steve Johndro said Monday evening at the rally. “And then Monday, we have this.”

Dunne said he paid a Bethel sign-maker up to $500 to make the three signs. Two were posted this weekend on buildings he owns at 134 Main St. and at 101 Pine St. Both were removed Monday afternoon because of a massive local reaction, with opinions about the signs dominating social media in Maine.

Speaking at Monday night’s rally, Chin said there is no doubt the signs are racist — and they hit close to home.

Chin said his grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from China at 9 years old. He worked hard  and was able to graduate from college, serve in World War II and build a business.

“But as soon as that business was successful, the U.S. government began to investigate my grandfather, during the McCarthy era, accusing him of being a communist,” Chin said. “This is the same ‘Yellow Peril’ that has been a part of American history as long as Chinese people have been in the U.S.”

Chin’s mayoral campaign platform has called for more resident-owned housing downtown, a Lisbon Street redevelopment effort, a city office to help new Mainers, immigrants and refugees settle in, and an effort to promote the solar industry.

But Dunne and downtown landlords Ted West and Rick Lockwood have been regular targets for Chin and his Maine People’s Alliance. Chin is political director for the group that labeled the three men Lewiston’s worst corporate slumlords in August.

Chin has also called out Dunne in other public forums, notably the mayoral debate hosted by the Sun Journal Oct. 5.

Dunne said the signs were a reaction to that.

“My point is that the guy is out there slamming me all over the place, putting pamphlets in people’s doors calling me a corporate slumlord, putting my home address out there and going into the schools to tell my daughter her parents are slumlords,” Dunne said. “He’s been kind of abusive to me, so I figured I’d fight back a little bit.”

The signs didn’t seem to be welcomed by anybody in Lewiston. Dunne’s Main Street tenants urged him to take them down. Members of the Maine GOP, who created an anti-Ben Chin blog last week, and Chin’s mayoral rivals all said they were in bad taste.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, sent a tweet Monday morning calling the signs disgusting and denounced them “in the strongest possible terms.”

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said he learned of the signs about a week ago and asked those responsible to not put them up.

“I asked them, ‘Please don’t do this,’ and told them it is only going to come back on me and people are going to think I’m responsible for it and I am not,” Macdonald said. “The person responsible for that is also supporting another candidate and it’s not me.”

Dunne said Monday he is not supporting any particular candidate and that he likes Macdonald and Steve Morgan.

“Anybody but Ben Chin,” Dunne said.

Morgan said he didn’t approve of the signs at all.

“There were more diplomatic ways to go back to the fact that (Chin) has used (Dunne’s) name outright in numerous publications and debates,” Morgan said. “He could have just used the words ‘corporate slumlords’ — as much as I hate the phrase — but (Chin) didn’t have to make it personal. And Joe Dunne is not the kind of diplomatic guy who’s going to handle it.”

Mayoral candidate Luke Jensen condemned the signs but attacked Chin.

“I condemn these attack signs, and their content, in the strongest manner possible,” he said in a written statement. “However, I give no sympathy to Benjamin Chin. As the political director for the Maine People’s Alliance, his day job is to create attacks just like the ones being used against him now.”

Chin said he would continue to target slumlords downtown.

“I am completely undaunted by this,” he said. “It just makes me more eager to get out and talk to voters. I think people are tired of these antics and I think they are tired of watching people profit off of destroying our city.”

State lawmakers from Lewiston also denounced the signs.

“It’s trying to tie (Chin’s) Chinese-American background to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union. It’s completely unacceptable,” Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said in a text message to the Sun Journal. “We are a better city than that.”

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, also denounced the signs.

“This is disgusting and embarrassing for our city,” Libby said.

Signs’ legality

Zach Heiden, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Dunne was within his constitutional rights of free speech.

But Heiden also denounced the message on the signs as, “obviously racist and xenophobic.”

Heiden said the signs were reflective of, “the racism and xenophobia that’s come to infect political debate in this state. But I think he would have a defense under the First Amendment for hanging these signs.

“It’s encouraging how broad the criticism of these signs has been,” Heiden said. “And we hope that people will freely denounce them.”

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills did that Monday.

“We abhor the message and the type of shady campaign tactics which these signs represent,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “We encourage the author of these hateful and untruthful messages to disavow them and take them down immediately so that the voters may focus on the real issues in the campaign.”

Mills also said those who are concerned the signs may violate state campaign laws should file a complaint with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Practices.

The signs did not contain a disclaimer, identifying Dunne as the one who purchased them and put them up, and that could contravene Maine’s political sign rules. City Clerk Kathy Montejo said she spoke with Dunne on Monday and he promised to add a disclaimer to the signs before he posts them in public a second time.

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