The vast majority of Republicans I know in Maine are not racist, and they aren’t swayed by race-based politics. As a longtime Republican activist, however, I’m deeply disturbed by a growing pattern of race baiting emerging from a small but highly visible group of Republicans that threatens to tarnish the reputation of our party.

The term “race baiting” describes the cynical use of racial fear and anger for political expediency. It is an abhorrent practice used by both Democrats and Republicans as the ethical fabric of our national politics continues to fray.

In 2013, Gov. Paul LePage told a group of supporters at a fundraiser that President Barack Obama “hates white people.” The governor, quite plainly, called the president a racist. He made the statement to incite anger from the group of white Republicans, to create the idea of racism and leverage the fear and anger that it typically elicits.

I have spoken with at least a half-dozen Republicans who were there when the governor made this statement, and most were outraged by his words. None, however, called him out on it.

This year, a Democratic activist uncovered a long history of racially charged online postings from a Republican member of the Maine Senate. The posts were standard online race-baiting fare: allegations that President Obama was a Muslim and intimations that this (false) religious affiliation was dangerous.

What stunned me in the days after this scandal broke was the social illiteracy displayed by many of the senator’s strident defenders who failed to grasp that using a major world religion as a pejorative is not OK. While not an attack on the president’s skin color, it is bigotry toward the nearly one-third of the world’s population who peaceably practice Islam, including more than 5 million in the United States.

In just the last several weeks, we’ve seen additional cases of Republican race baiting.

The Maine Republican Party published a website attacking Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, a Maine People’s Alliance employee, for a position that the alliance took several years ago advocating for voting rights for noncitizens. The position is a highly unpopular one and warrants scrutiny in a political campaign. The party, however, sank to new lows in presenting the issue to voters.

A party-sponsored website features Chin’s face superimposed on a photo of a burning city in the midst of riot. The absurd imagery suggests Chin’s election would somehow result in the destruction of Lewiston at the hands of angry immigrant rioters. The entire website is meant to stoke anti-immigrant fears and exploit the xenophobia that has been a central point of contention in Lewiston over the last several years.

To add to this, several signs have now appeared on buildings in Lewiston referring to Chin, the grandson of Chinese immigrants, as “Ho Chi Chin” and depicting him in a racist caricature.

Republicans leading an effort to defeat Question 1, the “Clean Elections” referendum, also waded into race baiting last week. Republican state Rep. Joel Stetkis, of Canaan, the standard-bearer of the No on 1 campaign, inserted himself into a discussion about the controversial effort to rename the Skowhegan High School mascot.

Members of Maine’s Native American community express offense at the use of “Indians” as the school’s mascot, and the debate continues to cause tensions in the community. In a comment that has since been taken down, Stetkis posted to an online forum, invoking the name of a member of the Penobscot Nation who opposes the 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?” he asked.

When asked by a TV reporter what he meant by “someone like Maulian Smith,” Stetkis was at a loss for words. But how Stetkis would explain this phrase is immaterial. He decided to leverage the racially charged anger about the Skowhegan mascot controversy to his political advantage. Stetkis wanted voters angry with the Native American activists to transpose that anger onto the Clean Elections referendum. In its plainest sense, that is cynical, reprehensible race baiting.

Based on my experience working with Republican candidates and voters across the state, I know the vast majority of Republicans in Maine are not racist, and reject this kind of intentionally divisive, racially charged politicking.

Even so, the increasing commonality of this abhorrent practice within the party and from its leadership threatens Republicans’ ability to attract quality candidates, diminishes its reputation among voters and myopically undermines hard-fought political gains and future viability for short-term electoral expediency.

Just as in Washington, Republicans in Maine have allowed a fringe minority to define our party, and the moderate majority must put an end to it immediately. As the party of Lincoln and in a state known for the courage and moral clarity of our past Republican luminaries, it is our responsibility to speak out against the moral ugliness of race baiting, regardless of the political consequences.

Lance Dutson of Falmouth is a longtime Maine Republican political operative.

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