I first met “Zen” Ben Meiklejohn in the late 1990s, when he walked into Casco Bay Weekly’s office on Congress Street to give me a handful of nails. I’d written a short piece in that week’s issue about the live music at Granny’s Burritos, a little hippie joint then located in Portland’s Old Port, and my remarks had been blunt: it sucked. Meiklejohn was one of the performers, and now here he was in the lobby, with his piercing eyes and ponytail, clearly agitated.
“Since you tried to crucify me in print, I figured I’d help you finish the job,” he said, and he handed me the hardware — about half a dozen bent, rusty slivers of metal. These aren’t even good nails, I thought, but I kept that observation to myself as Meiklejohn stalked out the door.
The brief encounter obviously made a lasting impression on me. Here was a man, then in his late 20s, with an exceptionally large ego and little regard for propriety. That first quality would serve him well as he launched a series of campaigns for public office, including two successful runs for Portland’s school board. The latter quality has now most likely destroyed his career in politics and education.
By the time I met him, Meiklejohn had already lost two campaigns: a bid for an at-large seat on the Portland School Committee as a write-in candidate, in the spring of 1998, and a run — this time on the ballot as a Green — for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives that fall (he got about a quarter of the vote).
After another unsuccessful run for the school board in 2000, Meiklejohn, a bachelor with no children in the district, won the at-large race the following year, becoming the first Green elected to public office in Portland (school board races are officially non-partisan, but in practice most voters know the candidates’ political affiliations). He was reelected to another three-year term on the board in 2004.
As Mainer’s predecessor publication, The Bollard, reported during those years, Meiklejohn was a major force behind the Green Party’s remarkable rise in city politics. With his help as a grassroots organizer, Greens made additional gains on the school board and the Portland City Council, threatening local Democrats’ long-held majorities in both bodies. At the state level, John Eder had become the first Green elected to the Maine Legislature, in 2002, and he’d won again in 2004, despite Democrats’ efforts to redraw his district’s lines so as to exclude his apartment in Portland’s progressive West End neighborhood.
But the third party’s fortunes began to wane in 2006. Eder lost his second reelection bid that November. Although, by virtue of his seniority on the school committee, Meiklejohn was in line to become chairman of the board that fall, Democrats blocked him and chose one of their own in a vote that fellow Green school board member Jason Toothaker called “utter partisan malarkey.” A month later, Toothaker was arrested for stiffing a cabbie after a night of heavy drinking; he resigned his board seat in disgrace a few weeks later.
By the fall of 2007, the Dems were in open war with the Greens. A major Democratic Party donor, lawyer and lobbyist Tony Buxton, paid for campaign yard signs targeting Meiklejohn and John Anton, a Green on the City Council, declaring “These GREENS Cause CHAOS.” Meiklejohn finished last in the five-way race for his at-large school board seat that year. In the fall of 2008, he made another run for the Maine House, this time as a write-in candidate. Five people wrote in his name.
So it’s fair to say the winter of 2008 was a low point for Meiklejohn, politically. Personally, he sank even lower.
During this period, Meiklejohn was living in a barely habitable apartment on Exchange Street owned by notorious Old Port slumlord Joe Soley. When it rained outside, it also rained inside that building. Meiklejohn and I had moved past our first encounter and were on friendly terms, as I was one of the few reporters in town sympathetic to the Greens’ political movement. I recall meeting Meiklejohn in his Exchange Street crash pad on at least one occasion, and we probably smoked some weed there that night.
The Old Port has long been a loitering destination for hippies, addicts, drunks, runaways, travellers and other “transients,” as the cops call the unhoused. Into this milieu came a very troubled teenage girl whom we’ll call Nicki (Mainer does not name underage victims of sexual abuse or assault). Nicki, who turned 16 in December of 2008, was already a rape victim by this time. Her home life was dysfunctional, and she often escaped that stressful environment by joining the ragtag bands of outcasts on the streets of Maine’s largest city.
During a phone interview this February, Meiklejohn acknowledged that he knew Nicki, calling her a “friend” of his “neighbors” in the dumpy Exchange Street flophouse. What Meiklejohn refuses to acknowledge is the fact that in early 2009 — when Nicki was just weeks beyond the age of consent in Maine (16), which defines when sex with a minor is statutory rape — he impregnated Nicki. Nicki was compelled, under the circumstances, to abort the child, and may have paid a portion of the procedure’s cost herself.
Meiklejohn, who was almost 40 years old by then, subsequently harassed Nicki, repeatedly sending her messages in an attempt to maintain their relationship, at least as friends. One day, not long after the abortion, he cornered her at a bus stop, tried to kiss her, and asked for a “four-hundred-and-eighty-five-dollar hug,” in reference to the cost of the abortion. She rebuffed his advances.
These details are documented in messages between Meiklejohn, Nicki, and one of her family members, obtained by Mainer this year. When, during our phone conversation this February, I stated to Meiklejohn that he impregnated Nicki, he replied, “I don’t condone that statement,” and “I don’t acknowledge that it’s true.”
“I respect you as a reporter, but I think you’re chasing a rabbit hole here,” he added. “I’m not going to want to participate in a false story.… You’re chasing a nothingburger here.” He declined to answer additional questions about his relationship with the teen.
On April 23, 2009, at 11:27 p.m., a member of Nicki’s family messaged Meiklejohn. That message reads, in full, as follows:
So [Nicki] might be too nice to tell you to leave her alone, but she’s expressed to me several times that she doesn’t feel close to you, ignores your text messages, wishes you would leave her alone and thinks you’re a creep. At what point in time did you think it was a good idea to fuck a 16 year old? You obviously have a lot of delusions about the nature of your relationship with her. And you were on the fucking school board? You piece of shit. She has been through a lot, and the last thing she needs is a 38 year old taking advantage of her. And I’m sure you think that she’s mature enough to handle it and that she said yes, so it’s ok. But she’s sixteen, you fucking asshole. She had to have an abortion at 16 years old. And you have the audacity to try and kiss her afterwards? To ask her for a “485 dollar hug”? You fucking prick. Not that you have a reputation to ruin, but if you ever talk to her again, I’ll make sure that everyone knows what you did you fucking pedophile.
The next day, in a message sent to this family member, Meiklejohn did not deny that he impregnated the sophomore, who had been attending one of Portland’s three high schools. But, cannily, neither did he explicitly acknowledge that he got her pregnant, or even that he’d read the message to which he was responding.
“[Nicki] indicated to me that you sent me an angry message which I’ve deleted instead of reading,” he wrote. “I do know that misunderstanding and misconceptions usually account for most of the reasons a person would get angry at another.
“I met [Nicki] this year and think she’s a bright, informed and socially aware person who has a lot to offer,” he continued. “We’re not close by any means, but I’ll always be there to be supportive of her as a friend.… I take my friendship with her seriously and if there’s anything that jeapordizes [sic] our friendship, I hope that she would address it to me as I would her, even if we don’t hang often and might not necessarily be best buddies.”
“You may think otherwise, but her best interests are a concern for me,” Meiklejohn continued. “I also hope that you won’t harbor continued anger towards me, even though I’m aware that things have been difficult for her lately.”
Before signing off with “Sincerely, Ben,” Meiklejohn contradicted his earlier claim that he didn’t know why this family member was mad. “I know why you’re angry at me,” he wrote, “and please take this note as an olive branch offering to let you know I care.”
In a message sent to Nicki the same month, Meiklejohn apologized for trying to kiss her at the bus stop and for making the remark about the $485 hug. “[S]ometimes I say things that don’t come out right or they’ll make the wrong impression, and after I said that [about the hug], I thought it seemed insensitive. I was actually just trying to shed some light-hearted humor on the situation, but it was an inappropriate situation to do so in, it wasn’t funny and it came out sounding like ass.… I didn’t mean to come across callously while you were going through that.”
“Also, I get that you need space and I don’t want to cramp you,” he continued. “I’m sorry if I over-stepped my boundaries. I realized then at that moment when I went to kiss you on the cheek that day and you froze up and became frigid, that you didn’t welcome it but it was too late. I wasn’t really thinking romance at that moment, I felt like I was just letting you know that I care, like I would peck my own sister on the cheek.”
“[I]t’s not beyond me how big of a decision and experience it must have been for you,” Meiklejohn wrote, apparently in reference to the abortion. “Really, we don’t know each other all that well, but I hope that we can always be friends.… [T]he reality is that I was thinking about you and concerned for your health everyday for weeks. I wish I could’ve been more supportive of you but I also got the sense that you didn’t want much interaction from me so I tried to lay off.”
In conclusion, Meiklejohn told Nicki, “Feel free to call or stop by anytime you need to chat about things, and know that you’ll always have a friend in me.”
Nicki did not continue to have a relationship with Meiklejohn of any kind. Although the trauma he caused her was just one of many horrors she endured as teen, it led her further down the path to self-destruction. In the months and years that followed, Nicki dropped out of high school, became homeless, sank into addiction, stole to support her habit and was incarcerated for those crimes. Now in her late 20s, she’s finally gotten her life on track — no thanks to “Zen” Ben.
Predator in the classroom
Meiklejohn’s actions may not have met the legal definition of statutory rape, but in this reporter’s opinion, he raped that girl.
Given Nicki’s age and life circumstances, including the sexual violence she’d already endured, it’s not reasonable to assume she consented to have unprotected sex with Meiklejohn in the same way an adult can give or withhold consent in such a situation. Also, it’s unclear whether drugs and/or alcohol were a factor, but both were defining aspects of that social scene, so it’s not unlikely that one or both of them were thus impaired at the time of intercourse.
Meiklejohn’s actions were those of a sexual predator. Like the priests in the Catholic Church’s child-sex scandal, he knew Nicki lacked a stable home life or parents able to protect her and bring retribution upon him for his acts. By 16, she was already engaging in self-harm, and the fact her “friends” were occupying the same flophouse Meiklejohn lived in was an unmistakable indication that she was an “at-risk” teen.
His secret safe with his traumatized victim, Meiklejohn continued to run for public office. In 2020, he sought a Maine House seat representing Mount Desert, an island town to which he’d only recently moved. He got about 15 percent of the vote.
On Valentine’s Day this year, he announced a run for the Maine Senate to fill the seat vacated upon the resignation of Democratic Sen. Louis Luchini. Meiklejohn has vowed that if he wins the special election on June 14, he will not run again this November to retain the post. In the e-mail announcing his candidacy, he argues that as a member of Maine’s Green Independent Party he’ll be able to block the Legislature from convening a special budget session this summer if lawmakers fail to allocate what he considers an appropriate amount of funding for Hancock County communities like Mount Desert.
“It’s time to mix things up,” Meiklejohn is quoted as saying in the press release. “Voters are feeling a lot of fatigue as the major parties solidify increasingly cultish qualities.… Democrats and Republicans spend too much time alienating and shunning each other. It’s not healthy, it’s toxic.” Meiklejohn, the release states, “hopes to reach the ‘disenfranchised and alienated’ voters, to ‘give them a voice.’”
Meiklejohn has also continued to hold leadership positions within the Green Independent Party. For at least the past five years, he’s served on the Maine Greens’ four-member executive board as the party’s Secretary.
More problematically, Meiklejohn also began teaching in public schools after he impregnated and harassed Nicki. In a work history posted on his Facebook page, Meiklejohn lists a stint as a substitute teacher in Portland schools from February 2013 through June of that year. From October 2016 through June of 2017 he was a music teacher in the public school system in Madawaska, a tiny community in Aroostook County that’s considered the northernmost town in the lower 48 states.
In January of 2017, Meiklejohn made national news when he arranged to have Madawaska’s middle and high-school marching band, the Pride of Madawaska, perform in celebration of Donald Trump’s victory during inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C. Two notable members of Maine’s Green Independent Party, Tom MacMillan and Seth Baker, quit the party in protest, and at least one member called for Meiklejohn to be removed from the Greens’ executive board, but he retained his position. (In 2018, Meiklejohn also worked as a legislative aide in Augusta for the Greens’ office at the State House.)
The Portsmouth Herald quoted Meiklejohn saying he is not a Trump supporter and did not consider his band’s participation in the inaugural celebration a political act. “Everybody pretty much unanimously was able to disassociate politics with a historical event and realize how beneficial it is to perform in the event regardless of what the politics are,” he said.
Meiklejohn resigned as Madawaska’s music teacher after only one school year, in part, reportedly, because the position was expected to change to one that would also require him to teach in other regional school districts. “While I resign by my own free will, it is important to know that sometimes the choices we make can only be made in the context of circumstances that are beyond our control,” he told the local news website Fiddlehead Focus. “It was never my intention to use Madawaska as a stepping stone to get experience and then move on to another district.”
If Meiklejohn is surprised that a sex act committed 13 years ago is now coming back to haunt him, he shouldn’t be. Meiklejohn is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by a former public servant who’s angry that a newspaper published allegations of sexual abuse he allegedly committed decades prior.
From March of 2013 to September 2017, Meiklejohn was a reporter for the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier, a community newsweekly. During that time he authored articles about accusations against former Biddeford police officer Norman Gaudette. Two named sources accused Gaudette of sexual abuse that they claim took place in 1990, and other media outlets also covered the scandal. But Gaudette’s lawyer claims the Courier falsely reported that the Maine Attorney General’s Office investigated his client, among other allegations of shoddy reporting.
The trial, in which Meiklejohn’s editor and the paper’s parent company are also named defendants, is expected to start March 14. This February, Meiklejohn posted a query on his Facebook page jokingly asking friends which hair style is best for a court appearance — as if cutting off a ponytail ever kept anyone out of trouble.