Democrats and Republicans criticized the head of the Republican Party in York County on Thursday for an email that they say denigrates an openly gay lawmaker as part of an effort to recruit a candidate to run against him.
An email bearing the name of York County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Booth refers to Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, as “Little Justine” on two separate occasions. The email then states “there is a lot of HATE” for Chenette and urges someone to step forward to challenge the Democrat in the Senate District 31 race. It was unclear Thursday how widely the email – addressed to “Dear Fellow Republicans” – was circulated.
“Currently our old friend Little Justine Chenette is running unopposed!” the email reads. “We need someone to step forward by July 25th 5:00 pm. There is a lot of HATE for the Democratic nominee. But, we have no one as yet to take Chenette on. His liberal agenda must be stop (sic) NOW!”
The Portland Press Herald obtained a screen grab of the email, which concludes with “Thank you, Jim Booth YCRC Chairman,” but doesn’t show the address from which it was sent.
Booth did not respond to calls or an email seeking comment Thursday.
Chenette, who was the nation’s youngest openly gay legislator when he was elected in 2012, said he was upset by the email’s tone and the message it conveys to members of Maine’s LGBT community.
“I’m not necessarily angry. I’m just disappointed,” said Chenette, who represents part of Saco in House District 15. Chenette said he regards the email as emblematic of a “dangerous vein in the Republican Party” that he believes is aimed at rolling back anti-discrimination protections and equality gains for LGBT individuals.
“I don’t understand why, in 2016, we are still talking about this,” Chenette said. “I wish we were talking about substantive issues.”
The chairman of the Maine Republican Party, Rick Bennett, denounced the email.
“We find that type of language completely inappropriate and unfortunate,” Bennett said in a written statement.
Chenette is currently the only declared candidate in the Senate District 31 race to replace veteran Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who is retiring. Chenette defeated fellow Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, for the Democratic nomination during the June 14 primary. A previously declared Republican candidate, William Gombar of Old Orchard Beach, withdrew from the race this month.
At 25 years old, Chenette is among the younger members of the Legislature, but is often an active participant in policy debates both on the House floor and in committees. He was the first student member ever appointed to the Maine State Board of Education, at age 17, and launched his bid for the Legislature while still a college student. He has been vocal on LGBT issues inside and outside of the Legislature.
Valentino, who has personal ties to Chenette and has shared an office with him, denounced what she called “homophobic comments,” and added that the repeated references to “Little Justine” were “pathetic.” Valentino, who has been publicly backing Chenette to succeed her, said she hoped the email did not encourage “an extremist” to run.
“I do not think his comments reflect the views and values of the Republicans that I know,” Valentino said.
Booth, an Arundel resident, serves as chairman of the York County Republican Committee and is a former city councilor. He ran unsuccessfully for the Maine Senate District 32 seat in 2014.
Rep. Donald Marean, a Hollis Republican who also represents parts of Saco, had not seen or heard of the email Thursday afternoon but said he “would be furious” if such a message was sent out by someone in his party. Marean called it inappropriate and credited Chenette for his work in Augusta.
“We have a very good working relationship,” Marean said. “He works very hard.”
Matt Moonen, executive director at EqualityMaine, an LGBT advocacy organization, said he was disappointed to read the email.
“The voters of Maine have rejected homophobia several times very loudly and clearly, and this seems like a stupid political strategy given how voters feel on homophobia and issues of LGBT equality,” Moonen said.
Chenette had not heard from Booth or any Republican leaders as of Thursday night.
“What I’m really looking for moving forward is some sort of apology from the York County Republican Committee,” Chenette said, adding that he hoped such a gesture would show a recognition that “words do matter.”
BY KEVIN MILLER STAFF WRITER
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: email@example.com