Maine Republican group attacks one of its own for ‘race baiting’

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan

Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan

A Republican group that is trying to re-orient the direction of some Republicans in Maine has called out Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, for “race baiting.”

The group, which calls itself Get Right Maine, is run by Bobby Reynolds of Manchester and Lance Dutson of West Falmouth, both of whom are former staffers for Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Since its founding over the summer, much of the group’s activity has been focused on criticisms of Gov. Paul LePage.

Stetkis was one of the Republican lawmakers — including LePage — who held a press conference Wednesday at the State House in opposition to Question 1 on the November ballot, which would provide more funding for the Maine Clean Election Fund, adding transparency requirements and increasing penalties for campaign finance law violations.

In a comment in an online forum that has now been taken down, Stetkis referenced a woman named Maulian Smith, a member of the Penobscot Nation who is involved in trying to convince Skowhegan High School to eliminate “Indian” as its mascot.

“Would you want $15,000 of your hard-earned tax money to be given to someone like Maulian Smith to run as a candidate for the State Legislature or $60,000 for the Senate?” wrote Stetkis, according to Get Right and news reports.

When asked Thursday by WMTW reporter Paul Merrill what he meant by the comment, Stetkis said he referring to a particular quote. When asked to specify the quote, Stetkis said, “I don’t remember.”

Smith told the Bangor Daily News on Friday that she thought Stetkis’ comments about her were “unethical.”

“It is extremely troubling to me that Mr. Stetkis would drag my name through the mud for an unrelated political agenda,” said Smith. “Slurring my name [in the online post] may have been an easy and obvious play for him to find supporters for his cause by taking advantage of their constant negative posts about me. I feel it was inappropriate on his part and I would rather not have my name associated with his campaign.”

Smith says she has no intention of running for the Legislature.

In a news release, Get Right said it opposes the principle of providing more taxpayer money to fund elections, but said Stetkis’ comment went way too far.

“Using reason to win the day will bring relevance and respect back to the Maine Republican Party,” reads the release, which was circulated Friday morning. “When we stray from that we must call foul on our own team. … Stetkis’ behavior should not be tolerated by anyone, and as Republicans we need to be extra vigilant that members of our team are held accountable when they cross the line.”

Stetkis reacted strongly in a written statement to the Bangor Daily News.

“This is nothing more than a disgusting attempt to silence my opposition to Question 1 by using Washington, D.C.-style politics,” wrote Stetkis, whose statement did not address his post about Smith. “The Maine people deserve better. Despite these attempts to hide the truth about Question 1, I will not be intimidated and I will continue to fight for hard-working Maine families.”

The Question 1 campaign, which has been heating up in recent days as opponents have become more vocal, was the subject of a sort of mini-debate Thursday in Brewer between Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, and former Republican Sen. Ed Youngblood of Brewer.

The arguments for and against the measure have been solidifying behind the notion on one side that taxpayer-funded elections keep special interest money out of elections and allow Mainers from any financial means to run competitively for office, and on the other side that taxpayers should not foot the bill for political campaigns and that the money could better be spent on other programs.

Get Right Maine is trying to bridge an ideological rift in the Republican Party between hard-right conservatives and more moderate — or at least less bombastic — lawmakers. That rift has been growing for years in Maine and across the U.S. Republicans in Maine have seen increasing success at the ballot box in recent years, especially in 2014 when Gov. Paul LePage was re-elected and the GOP took a commanding 20-15 majority in the state Senate.

Since then there has been major infighting in the GOP, particularly between Senate Republicans and LePage, who has repeatedly singled out fellow Republicans and vowed to campaign against them in next year’s legislative elections. The situation — and a series of controversies involving LePage — threatens to unravel recent Republican successes, which is something Get Right is intent on avoiding.

Here’s what Dutson told State & Capitol in July:

“It’s a different ballgame now that Republicans know we can win and be competitive. It requires a much longer-term perspective. With a lot of what’s going on in Augusta, we’re seeing an all-or-nothing attitude about things. Republicans would serve themselves better to take a breath and think more than one election cycle ahead.”

Get Right isn’t the only Republican group criticizing fellow party members. In June, a “Declaration of Outrage” rally was held at the State House, organized in part by Cushing Samp, a long-time Republican from Saco who is calling for impeachment proceedings against LePage. Samp turned up in opposition to LePage again on Thursday when she testified at a Government Oversight Committee hearing about LePage’s role in forcing Good Will-Hinckley to cancel an employment contract with Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves.

“This governor has violated his oath of office. He has spat in the face of our constitutional officers,” said Samp. “The people of Maine elected a governor, not a demagogue. It is up to this committee to do something about it.”

LePage’s office has not responded to questions from the Bangor Daily News about Thursday’s hearing.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.