On June 21, I set up a Facebook account under the nom de plume Gary Johnson. This was the initial step in a months-long effort to infiltrate the Maine First Project, a white-nationalist group run by Larry Lockman, the Republican state lawmaker from Hancock County who’s become notorious for his anti-Muslim, misogynist and homophobic provocations.
Over the course of the next 4o days, I built a convincing, albeit banal, Facebook timeline, complete with photos of an orange cat named “Mustard” and the camper in western Maine where Gary was supposedly spending the summer. I posted pictures of sausage on the grill, the raspberries I picked, and a selfie wearing a red MAGA ball cap. Along the way, I “liked” random pro-Trump posts and joined several right-wing groups that subsequently showed up in Gary’s newsfeed. Most importantly, I gradually built a list of 139 “friends,” many of whom are members of the Maine GOP’s Tea Party/Patriots wing. Anyone vetting Gary’s profile would see that he and Lockman had 69 mutual friends — more than enough proof (by social-media standards) that we shared similar political views.
My first goal was to gain admittance to the Maine First Project’s Activist Training Course, an invite-only event held at various locations around the state every month or so. In early June, Lockman had bragged about thwarting attempts by “Left-wing lunatics” to infiltrate and disrupt the course he’d led in Rockland — “the Maine First Project leadership team outsmarted and out-manuevered [sic] local Lefties in a psy-ops war game,” he tweeted. Naturally, my interest was piqued — as a journalist who’s been investigating hate groups in Maine for decades, I took that as a personal challenge.
My second objective was to determine the connection between the Maine First Project (MFP) and Maine First Media (MFM), a burgeoning “news” website launched last year. MFM publishes posts, usually anonymously, bashing Democrats and promoting the far-right nationalistic policies of Gov. Paul LePage and President Trump, with a special emphasis on stories that demonize Muslims, immigrants and refugees in Maine. One recent headline: “EXPOSED: Open-Border Leftists Plot to Invade Rural Maine with Muslim Refugees.”
My ultimate goal was to gauge how dangerous the Maine Firsters are, how much influence they have in our state, and what they plan to do in the future. The white-nationalist violence that led to the tragedy in Charlottesville last year was stoked by racist websites like MFM. And there’s strong reason to believe MFM’s fear-mongering was a factor aggravating racial tensions that resulted in the death of a Lewiston man following a street fight last June.
I won’t keep you in suspense: I did garner an invite to the MFP activist training course. And, to my surprise, Gary was quickly welcomed as a member of the MFM news team, on the strength of an amateur video I created especially for them.
My conclusion: We’re lucky the Maine Firsters are poorly funded and incompetent. Because if they had talent, and some cash, they might tilt an election or foment violence on a much larger scale.
Gary Johnson, Filmmaker
In early August, Maine First Media put out a casting call in search of a host for its online “news” programs. MFM was also seeking contributors to join the crew and “help shape the coverage.” They offered technical training and mentorship to any aspiring conservative journalists.
The rules of the casting contest were simple: “Grab your cell phone or webcam. Find a story on our site. Record yourself introducing the article and summarizing the most important points. Email us your video. We will pick the best video from the open auditions and invite the winner to join the Maine First Media team!”
On Aug. 21, Gary Johnson submitted a 3:15 minute video that MFM later titled “Fake News Paper Napkins.” (You can view the video at this link.) Between swings of his wood-splitting maul, Gary badmouthed the state’s daily newspapers and praised Maine First Media for its coverage of “Gideongate,” the short-lived controversy over whether Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon knew of allegations of sexual impropriety by fellow Democratic state lawmaker Dillon Bates before The Bollard broke that story in early August. (Gary also managed to slip in a compliment for this publication’s scoop, remarking in his thick Maine accent, “Even a blind hog sometimes finds an acorn.”)
The Maine Firsters loved it! A couple days later, MFM asked permission to post the video across their various social-media platforms, which Gary readily granted. Then Lockman tweeted praise and a link to the video from his personal account.
In an e-mail to MFM accompanying the video submission, I explained that I wasn’t interested in the host gig or on-camera work. Instead, I offered to lend a hand with video editing in order to “learn more about journalism and how to use videos/slideshows to drain the swamp.”
My offer was graciously accepted. Via a series of e-mails, an unnamed MFM staffer
“By the way,” I asked, “who are you? I never see names in the MFM stories.”
“The site is anonymous for now, for a variety of reasons,” the staffer replied. “Between you and I, my name is Mike, and I’m a nobody really.”
Over the next couple months, I had meetings, interviews, phone calls and e-mails with Mike and other Maine Firsters. Grateful to have another soldier in the battle, they were eager for me to understand their views and strategy.
Here’s what I learned: Maine First Media wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Lockman, but Mike actually owns and edits the site. Lockman helps steer coverage and uses the MFM website as his personal megaphone, thus avoiding the fact-checking he’d be subject to if he expressed his views through the mainstream press. MFM and the Maine First Project work together to take frequent shots at Lockman’s political targets, like Portland City Councilor Pious Ali (a.k.a. “Pitiful poor pathetic Pious,” as Lockman described him in September) and Somali student-activist Hamdia Ahmed, whom Lockman called a “racist, America-hating ‘new Mainer,’” in a recent tweet.
Ironically, none of the four white nativist men who comprise the Maine First team were born in Maine, and half of them don’t live here.
Maine First Media’s slogan is “Real News for Real Mainers.” Yet Mike LaFave, the owner, editor and chief writer of MFM, doesn’t live in Maine. Never has. In fact, his paid association with Lockman is the dude’s only connection to the Pine Tree State.
LaFave resides on the south side of Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife, a dog and a cat. Thirty-five, short, bald and bearded, this lifelong professional wrestling fan started listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show when he was six years old. LaFave claims to have been a journalist for “almost a decade,” though his online resume lists only four and a half years of TV news experience, starting in his hometown of Utica, New York (where he graduated from Utica College in 2008), followed by short stints in Monroe, Louisiana and Reno, Nevada.
In 2013, he left broadcast news and embarked on a career as a political operative. Over the next four years, he plied his craft in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Washington state, mostly as part of phony grassroots (or “AstroTurf”) groups promoting “right-to-work” (anti-union) legislation.
In 2014, a political consultant from Danvers, Massachusetts named Zach Gelpey, who knew LaFave through their mutual antagonism for organized labor, introduced LaFave to Lockman. In April of 2015, the three men formed the New England Opportunity Project, a non-profit “social welfare agency” — designated by the IRS as a 501(c)(4) — that later changed its name to the Maine First Project. Gelpey is currently listed on tax documents as the executive director of MFP.
By early 2017, LaFave had moved to Nebraska, where his wife has a job in health care and a house. In February of that year, he formed a limited-liability company called Civic Sector Solutions that offered consulting and advocacy services for conservative organizations. Apparently business was slow, so LaFave filled his days writing a “Nationalist-Populist” blog called The Loop, in which he heaped fan-boy praise upon political strategist Steve Bannon and wrote mostly glowing takes on the Trump Administration’s performance.
By October of last year, it seems business still hadn’t picked up, so LaFave was all ears when Lockman called him with an idea. The founder and then-owner of Maine First Media, Bangor resident Matt McDonald, had approached Lockman hoping to make a deal: the MFM domain name, website and archives in exchange for a couple thousand bucks. Lockman, who has zero journalism experience, wasn’t interested in running the site, but he thought of LaFave, who accepted the offer. The cornhusker stopped updating his Loop blog and began boning up on Maine politics with guidance from Coach Lockman. LaFave updated the design of the MFM site and fine-tuned its agenda. On April 29 of this year, the website was re-launched with a lighthouse logo and a fresh focus on local news from the nationalist perspective.
These days, LaFave is super busy. In addition to being the editor and anonymous staff writer for MFM, pumping out as many as 10 posts per week, he’s also responsible for both the MFM and MFP Facebook and Twitter accounts and YouTube channel. He writes the weekly MFP fundraising e-mail, which always quotes and links to MFM stories. And he’s Lockman’s ghostwriter and media consultant, penning most of the Maine lawmaker’s speeches and op-eds, and advising him on how to handle pesky reporters. LaFave does all this from the comfort of his home office in Nebraska’s state capital, in the flight path of the southern approach to Lincoln Airport.
LaFave also takes credit for being the idea-man behind Lockman’s Activist Training Courses. In his role as “cofounder and consultant for Maine First Project,” he occasionally flies to Maine to deliver a Saturday morning sermon to activists and prospective candidates on the importance of “messaging and branding.”
Busy as he is, LaFave still has time for long talks with curious conservatives like Gary Johnson. During over two and a half hours of phone conversations, LaFave rarely stopped jabbering. He enthusiastically revealed the inner workings of MFM and expounded upon MFP’s politics and plans.
LaFave was eager to diss McDonald, the previous owner of MFM, for “doing national and international news and very little Maine news,” which LaFave, speaking on a private line from an undisclosed location 1,700 miles away, “found backwards for a company named Maine First Media.” McDonald went on to work for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Max Linn, who was disqualified last spring after his campaign admitted to signature fraud. A May 10 MFM post about this reads: “One of the suspects in the fraud is staffer Matt McDonald. In the interest of full disclosure, McDonald used to be associated with MFM, but following many disagreements has been out of the picture for about half of a year now.”
LaFave also said McDonald’s content drew an overly racist crowd. “It was attracting an element, the kinds of people who would celebrate what happened in Charlottesville,” he said. “It was a bit on the white supremacy side for me.”
On LaFave’s side of the racist spectrum is publishing content like the MFM post in August about a prostitution sting in Lewiston that nabbed a man with dark skin and an African name. The story included the suspect’s mug shot but neglected to mention that eight other people, all white, were busted during the same undercover operation.
“I would consider myself a nationalist,” LaFave said. “And I happen to be white, but I’m not a white nationalist, if that makes sense. … I believe there is a systematic attempt to undermine white men in the country, and I have no problem calling it out, but I don’t think whites are actually better than anybody else. It’s kind of a subtle difference.”
LaFave feels like he’s been ripped off in the MFM deal. “[I] got sold a bill of goods on the profitability of Maine First Media when I took over,” he complained during our first phone call, in September. “They weren’t making any money, and neither am I.”
LaFave claims to be pocketing only about $5 or $10 a month for all his hard work. And that’s when the site gets 20,000 unique monthly visitors. In July and August, MFM’s web traffic was a lot slower, he said, though he’s been seeing an uptick in traffic as Election Day approaches. LaFave said he won’t make any real money until he finds some Maine businesses or organizations willing to advertise on the site, which currently generates nickels and dimes from Google AdSense ads.
“Luckily, my wife has a good job,” he told me. “She’s kinda the breadwinner right now. She sees the potential … so she’s very supportive of me working on this and trying to grow it and blow it up into something big.”
The Phantom Attack
On May 24, LaFave posted a 1:24 minute clip of cell-phone footage on MFM titled, “Gang of Somali Kids Attack Park Goers in Lewiston.” In the accompanying story, written anonymously by LaFave, he claimed “boys and girls as young as nine years old, brandishing wooden bats and other objects … attacked the two non-Somali defenders.”
MFM and its readers shared the story numerous times on multiple social-media platforms, where it was picked up and re-shared by various nationalist, neo-Nazi and racist websites. It’s hard to accurately estimate how many times the “Attack” video was viewed, but at least 100,000. That isn’t very viral by Internet standards, but to LaFave it was huge. “That’s the biggest story I’ve ever done,” LaFave crowed over the phone. “In terms of drawing people in, [the video] did way more than even the Giusti story.”
Donny Giusti had been trying to straighten out his life, to stop fighting and raising hell. That’s what people who knew him said after the 38-year-old Lewiston man died on June 15, three days after he was struck in the head, reportedly with a brick, during a brawl near Kennedy Park in Lewiston. His death is still under investigation, so the cops have revealed very little, though they have said the incident involved as many as two dozen kids (teens and pre-teens) and three adults (Giusti and two friends, according to media accounts).
Tensions and altercations in and around Kennedy Park had been rising in the weeks before Giusti’s death, residents said. It’s not known whether Giusti saw MFM’s “Attack” video during that time, but it seems likely he would have at least heard about it, since it generated a lot of buzz in the city. Details in media reports about the June 12 altercation are sketchy and unconfirmed, but some sources said Giusti’s companions that night had been in a feud with local youth that spring, and that the threesome had been out looking for trouble on the night of the brawl; there’s also been talk that the teens had a BB gun and may have fired it.
The blurry video footage MFM posted in May was shot on a shitty camera–phone, in portrait mode, by a shaky hand. In early October, LaFave sent me the original video file. I’ve viewed the clip about a hundred times, treating it like the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. I’ve run the footage through various filters to brighten and enlarge it, and scrutinized it frame by frame, forward and in reverse, tracking the actions of each of the dozen participants.
My analysis: no one was injured, relatively few punches were thrown, and of those, fewer still connected. Contrary to the MFM story, there were no bats. There was one “weapon,” which appeared to be a seamstress’ wooden yardstick, and the stick never made contact with anyone. “Attack” is not a word I’d use to describe this video. It was more like a kerfuffle. Only 25 of the 87 seconds of footage showed some degree of physical conflict. But between LaFave’s obsessive re-posting of the clip, without context, and its being shared among alt-right trolls, it turned into a murder (some re-posters claimed the kids’ actions resulted in a death) and “video evidence” that Muslim hordes were terrorizing this city of the Androscoggin.
In fact, crime stats indicate that Lewiston is safer than it’s been in decades. After Giusti’s death, a curfew was imposed in Kennedy Park and Lewiston police temporarily increased their presence there (the park is across the street from LPD headquarters). A community-watch patrol — made up of new and native Mainers — replaced the cops, and the area has been fairly peaceful for the past four months.
What actually caused the fracas on the video? I thought the woman who filmed the incident might have some answers, so I asked LaFave if she’d be willing to talk. “She’s not an ideal candidate to speak to,” LaFave replied in an e-mail. “She’s not well spoken or groomed. And she actually defends the Somalis. Will go on and on about it not being an immigration issue — her bigger beef is with the Lewiston police.”
So even the eyewitness doesn’t think the incident was significant, but LaFave sees the world through a different lens. “If I were still in television,” he said, “it would have been leading my news that night.”
LaFave is always on the lookout for another “viral” piece of footage. That’s why he’s trying to expand the MFM news team. “I’m looking for young [contributors],” he said, “because I can’t pay. So I’m trying to appeal to younger kids who would like some practical experience and [to] have a résumé builder.”
“And,” LaFave added, “I want the host to be an attractive conservative female. Call me crazy,” he said with a creepy laugh. “I tend to think that’s gonna be best for business.”
Of the three volunteer reporters he hopes to have, one’s job would be to attend as many public events as possible, video camera in hand, put on by so-called “social justice warriors” like the Maine People’s Alliance, Somali activists, and groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It’s a faux-journalism technique called “shadowing” that’s more commonly practiced by political operatives. “Rarely does a week go by where these guys aren’t out there doing something stupid,” LaFave said of the “SJWs.”
He’s also been looking for someone to produce weekly “man-on-the-street” segments. And he’d like a third reporter to pose online as a liberal in order to secretly monitor the social-media accounts of Democrats and insufficiently doctrinaire members of the GOP (“Republicans In Name Only,” or RINOs) serving in the Legislature. No viable candidate for any of those jobs had yet materialized.
Then Gary Johnson appeared, eager to help make videos. LaFave had a very special project for me: shoot, edit and produce a 10-to-20-minute documentary depicting Lewiston as a hellhole besieged by Somali refugees determined to institute Sharia law in Maine’s second-largest city. “People are going to immediately call us racist about this, but skin color should really never ever come up in the entire documentary,” LaFave told me. “It’s not about blacks versus whites. It’s about refugees who were welcomed to the community and have totally taken it over. And how they are trying to implement Sharia law. And how it has changed the community.”
LaFave suggested I could interview police and nurses, and expressed hope I’d be able to find someone who’s fled the city to avoid living under an Islamic code of justice. He also provided some pointers on how and where to shoot “B roll” footage: in Kennedy Park, in Somali neighborhoods, in the downtown business district and at Lewiston schools, parks and playing fields. “I’d like to get some shots of the [school] soccer team,” he said. “Lewiston can’t field a golf team, their football team sucks, but they have the state champs in soccer. [That’s] multiculturalism changing the landscape.”
“You know,” I said, sensing an opening. “I should really interview Larry Lockman. For background. Like a historian.”
LaFave agreed, and gave me Lockman’s personal contact info.
That’s how I found myself, on a sunny Saturday morning in late September, driving on Route 9 to Lockman’s hometown of Amherst, a tiny community (pop. 258) half an hour east of Bangor, in northern Hancock County. My costume for the interview: a gray suit coat, gray shirt, and hand-painted black tie. And, of course, an American flag pin stuck in the left lapel.
In the back seat were cameras, tripods, MP3 recorders and microphones. The gear was all for show. I certainly wasn’t gonna make a film for these knuckleheads. I just wanted to extend the charade to learn as much as possible.
Larry Lockman, racist
“This has nothing to do with race,” Larry Lockman said. “Islam is not a race, for one thing. It’s about Sharia law, a primitive totalitarian ideology that has no place in our society. And people who subscribe to that shouldn’t be welcome here.”
Lockman, the three-term Republican state lawmaker, sat across from me in the corner booth at the back of the Amherst Country Store on Route 9. As he pontificated about the Muslim invasion of Maine, I pretended to shoot the interview for Gary’s Maine First Media documentary about Lewiston’s transition from city to caliphate.
Good thing I wasn’t actually making a film, because this footage would’ve been useless. First of all, the threat of an Islamic takeover is about as real as the threat of a Martian invasion. Like “widespread voter fraud,” the Sharia ruse is a ridiculous racist delusion propagated by political opportunists who’d rather sow irrational fears than tackle actual problems.
Secondly, Lockman was supposed to be providing an air of legitimacy to the documentary. But he looked and sounded like a nutjob. On the floor of the Legislature and in the glare of TV lights, Lockman usually wears a well-cut suit and tie and dark dress shirt. Today he was sporting a gray Maine First Project t-shirt that read “Rinos and Donkeys and Aliens Oh My!” on the back. His head was cleanly shaved, his mustache-and-goatee combo neatly trimmed, and he was bejeweled with backwoods bling: an expensive-looking wristwatch, a wedding band, a large signet ring, and a flashy silver bracelet that dangled dandy-like from his right wrist.
Lockman believes the United States, that bastion of religious freedom and tolerance, should require all refugees seeking safety in this country to pass a litmus test based on their adherence to the tenets of Islamic jurisprudence. “Do you subscribe to Sharia law? Wrong answer to that: Boom. Who’s next?” Lockman slapped the table. “I think that resonates with voters. People understand. When they hear ‘Sharia,’ they know what that means.”
Lockman may not understand the myriad interpretations and applications of Islamic law as it’s been practiced in different cultures over the centuries, but he’s had plenty of practice trying to impose his own ultra-conservative religious dogma on his fellow Mainers.
In the late 1980s, Lockman was focused on demonizing gay people and spreading misinformation about HIV. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, people are dying because of their addiction to sodomy,” he wrote in a 1987 letter published in the Lewiston Sun Journal. “They are dying because progressive, enlightened, tolerant people in politics and in medicine have assured the public that the practice of sodomy is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, rather than a perverted, depraved crime against humanity.” In the 1990s, Lockman cofounded Concerned Maine Families with Portland activist Carolyn Cosby, and worked with hatemongers like Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League to block gay-rights legislation in the courts and at the ballot box.
(Lockman hears from Cosby about once a year. She now lives in Georgia, where she was recently fined $30,000 for multiple campaign-finance violations involving her new political group, Canton Tea Party Patriots. Lockman grimaced at the mention of Heath. “What an idiot!” he said. The two dogmatists had a falling out during the debate over gay marriage. “He destroyed the Christian Civic League,” Lockman said.)
Lockman has also been a passionate opponent of women’s reproductive rights. “If a woman has [the right to an abortion], why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman?” he wrote in a 1990 column for the Lincoln News, a weekly paper in Penobscot County. “At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom didn’t result in anyone’s death.”
Lockman publicly apologized for those statements when the quotes were unearthed four years ago by BDN columnist and Maine People’s Alliance leader Mike Tipping, but still maintains that the latter statement is an “inflammatory misquote” taken “out of context,” despite the fact it was lifted verbatim from his Lincoln News column, North Woods Viewpoint.
Looking back at his record of political activism, a clear pattern emerges. Whether it’s gay people stigmatized by discrimination, women struggling with unwanted pregnancies, or refugees fleeing war and famine, Lockman rallies on behalf of the dominant and most intolerant forces in society to shame and crush the least powerful among us.
Given that history, and his ongoing support of anti-labor legislation, it may surprise you to learn that Lockman got his start as an activist in the 1970s during his days as a union organizer and shop steward at a lumber mill, the Passadumkeag Stud Mill in Penobscot County, which has since closed.
The trouble began, he said, when the mill workers became affiliated with the United Paperworkers International Union. “After we got the union in, I started having doubts and second thoughts,” he said. Lockman didn’t like the idea that his union dues could be used to promote liberal political candidates and causes, so he secretly started a petition drive to decertify the union at the mill. When higher-ups at UPI got wind of Lockman’s scheme, they suspended him from his position as steward and charged him with “disloyalty, for violating the union constitution, and for threatening the life of an International police officer,” Lockman recalled with a laugh during our interview. “I turned it into a real shit show.”
This is also when Lockman adopted a strategy he still uses today: antagonizing adversaries with a barrage of words — the more outrageous and inane, the better. Lockman became a thorn in the side of union leadership, peppering them with unnecessary correspondence and challenging them on procedural matters. The vice president of the union “made the mistake” of admitting that seeing an envelope with Lockman’s return address on it gave him a stomachache.
“Boom!” Lockman exclaimed gleefully, rubbing his hands together in delight. From that point onward, the VP received mail from Lockman almost every day. Lockman was eventually expelled from the union, but he continued to labor as a studman at the mill for another 18 years, until 1992. (Lockman went on to work for the National Federation of Independent Business for 15 years, and for the past decade he’s been employed on a part-time basis by an outfit called National Write Your Congressman. Both groups are “lobbying and membership organizations for small business,” Lockman said, “and really good preparation for [serving in] the Legislature.”)
That former union official at the mill is still a bitter enemy. “He’s now a constituent of mine in Bradley,” Lockman said with a cackle. In 2016, according to Lockman, the dude recruited Lockman’s re-election opponent. This year, his old foe supposedly took out nomination papers to challenge Lockman himself, but quit when Democrat Doug Bunker — who, like Lockman, is 68 and a former mill worker — entered the race.
Lockman told me he never dreamed of running for office until 2011, when he was inspired by LePage. But even that seemingly innocuous statement is a lie, unless Lockman actually forgot his 1986 and 1988 campaigns for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives against Democrat Mike Michaud. Back then, Lockman’s signature issues were halting the “influence of militant politically-organized homosexuals” and the elimination of Maine’s income tax. Michaud trounced Lockman in both elections and went on to serve in Congress for a dozen years, then lost a gubernatorial bid to LePage in 2014. (Michaud publicly revealed that he is gay about a year before that election.)
Lockman said that back when he was a studman sweating shoulder-to-shoulder with his union brothers, he would’ve scoffed at the idea of being a politician. In those days, he belonged to a far-right group known as the Maine Patriots, and was so opposed to the government that he refused to pay taxes. When the IRS took action, Lockman took his case to court, claiming his wages were neither profit nor gain, so the tax code didn’t apply. In 1983, the U.S. Tax Court in Boston dismissed his argument as frivolous.
On a snowy night in November of 2011, Lockman drove to Ellsworth to attend one of LePage’s town hall–style events. He was greeted at the door by Jason Savage, a former Marden’s Surplus & Salvage employee who helped steer LePage to victory in 2010. His current position is executive director of the Maine Republican Party.
“Jason recognized me and said, ‘Larry, you know that House district you live in? The incumbent Republican has termed out. That’s an open seat. You ought to think about running.’ And I say, ‘No way. I’m too busy. I’ve got other stuff to do. I’ve got a job. Family. Thanks for thinking of me, though.’”
LePage’s performance that evening, especially his tough talk about drug testing and welfare reform, inspired Lockman. On the 25-mile drive back to Amherst, the wheels in his shiny head started turning, contemplating a job in Augusta. “Maybe I could go down there,” Lockman remembers thinking. “I’d like to have [LePage’s] back because he’s getting stabbed all the time.”
In 2012, Lockman won the House District 137 race by 2.4 percent. In 2014, he won by 15 percent, and two years ago his margin of victory was 23 percent. After decades of anti-government activism, Lockman is now fully part of the machine he once claimed to despise.
Actually, he still claims to despise Augusta. Unlike most state lawmakers, he doesn’t use the special blue legislative license plates that unofficially allow solons to speed on Maine’s highways and byways. Instead, Lockman’s late-model Volvo sedan has vanity plates that read “DRN SWP,” and a window sticker spelling that out: “Drain the Swamp.”
“I didn’t come down here to make friends,” Lockman told me, referring to the state capital. “I’m polite. I’m a gentleman. I say, ‘Good morning.’ I’m not nasty.” But, he added, in reference to his legislative colleagues, “I don’t have lunch with them. Half of them, I wouldn’t know them if I met them on the street. That’s how little contact I have with [the Democrats]. This isn’t personal. This is politics. I just want you to go back to doing whatever you were doing before the voters sent you here.”
As is the case with so much that slithers out of Lockman’s mouth, all this “swamp” talk is just hot air. To the degree that “swamp” refers to politicians engaged in back-room deals that benefit themselves and their cronies, Lockman is as swampy as the rest of the Augusta politburo. When he isn’t trolling in the Legislature or on social media, Lockman’s dialing for dollars. This election cycle, he was hoping to raise at least $85,000 for the Maine First Project and his new political action committee, Maine First PAC. “We’re not going to get there,” he conceded, “but we’ll just do as much as we can.”
When we met in late September, Lockman said MFP had about $14,000 in the bank and the MFPAC had about $11,000. He’s hoping the governor will help him reach his fundraising goal during LePage’s final months in office. Lockman said he gave LePage a list with six names on it in early September. All were major contributors to LePage’s PAC, “people who put in fifteen or twenty grand,” Lockman said, “and the governor is calling them to encourage them to take a meeting with me.”
If prospective donors wish to avoid the stigma of being associated with Lockman, the Amherst lawmaker encourages them to contribute to MFP, because the non-profit’s funders are not disclosed. Then Lockman, using MFP, can exploit a loophole in campaign-finance law. “We can take a certain amount of the money, like 40 percent of MFP’s money, and move it into the PAC without disclosing who the donors were,” he explained.
The rest of MFP’s money is presumably dedicated to direct political spending and paying LaFave and Gelpey for their labor and travel costs. MFP apparently hasn’t yet crossed the $50,000 threshold in annual revenue that would require the organization to file an IRS 990 form listing its expenditures. Instead, the non-profit files a 990-N, which is basically an e-postcard with zero financial information.
All of this above-board, totally non-swampy political activity can get complicated, so Lockman pays for professional help. “We spend about two or three grand a year on an attorney who is an expert on [campaign-finance law],” Lockman said. “A very conservative guy.” If it weren’t for this Virginia lawyer, Lockman joked, he and the rest of the Maine Firsters would be behind bars for campaign-finance violations.
Even with expert legal advice, MFP still gets in trouble. In 2016, the Maine Ethics Commission fined Lockman’s group $672 for failing to disclose spending on a flyer that accused Lockman foe Jeff McCabe, then the House Majority Leader, of being soft on illegal immigration and terrorism. McCabe, who was in a close race for a state Senate seat, lost the election, and Democrats blamed the loss on the MFP’s smear campaign.
Lockman pulled a similar trick this year, a ploy the Maine Firsters call “turning a loss into victory.” Here’s how it works. Lockman introduces legislation with anti-refugee provisions that he knows won’t pass. Sure enough, Democrats and RINOs vote against his proposal. Then, come election season, MFP goes after Lockman’s enemies by attacking them for being soft on illegal immigration.
Among the targets this time was Democratic state Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, who was accused on MFP flyers, mailed to his constituents in late summer, of voting to “allow the killings to continue in Portland” because he voted against Lockman’s bill to fine so-called “sanctuary cities” (or “harboring havens,” in MFP-speak) $500 each for not requiring cops to share the immigration status of criminal suspects with the feds. Lockman said MFP spent $3,400 on the inflammatory mailer, which also accused Portland officials of making the city “a magnet for violent illegals who have robbed, raped and murdered Maine people.”
We’ll know after Election Day if this smear turns into a victory for MFP by costing Berry the election. But if stoking more fear of immigrants is the goal, Lockman’s group can already chalk up another win.
There’s another tactic Lockman uses against his foes that’s even cheaper, in every sense of the word. “Three years ago, I called Ben Chin an anti-Christian bigot on Facebook,” Lockman said proudly, “and caused an explosion.”
The 2015 Lewiston mayoral race was the MFP’s first concerted effort to influence an election, Lockman said. Chin, a lay Episcopal minister who works for Lockman’s arch-nemesis, the Maine People’s Alliance, had won the November ballot, 44 percent to 37 percent, which triggered a runoff election against incumbent Republican Bob MacDonald. Lockman dreaded the idea of the MPA having a “trophy mayor to trot around the state,” so he took action. After the first Facebook slur against Chin, whose grandparents emigrated here from China, Lockman followed up with a post that claimed “Chin hates America, hates Americans and hates Christians.” Soon after that, then-Speaker of the House Mark Eves, a Democrat, called on Lockman to resign, characterizing his attacks on Chin as “hate speech.”
“[Eves] should have just ignored it,” Lockman said with a chuckle. “I got on talk radio. I got to write op-eds. There was a big buzz about it.”
In December of that year, Chin lost the runoff election by 572 votes, and Lockman claims credit for that. “We took out Ben Chin on a very low budget,” he said, “using aggressive tactics against him.”
Last year, in another close race for Lewiston mayor, Chin was smeared by the Maine Examiner, a precursor to MFM that also publishes anonymous, far-right “news” stories. The Examiner falsely claimed that Chin had referred to voters in the city as, collectively, a “bunch of racists.” The Maine Republican Party widely shared the lie online. In fact, Chin had noted in an e-mail to campaign staff that he’d encountered some racists among the many voters he interacted with on the campaign trail. Both Chin and his opponent, Republican Shane Bouchard, cited the Examiner posts as a major factor in the race, which Bouchard won by 145 votes. It was later revealed that LePage lackey and Maine GOP director Savage was the man behind the Maine Examiner curtain.
War on whites
You’d think that all of Lockman’s work on immigration issues has made him an armchair expert on the topic, with stats and facts to back up his claims. But as I asked him questions for the “documentary” part of our interview, it became apparent that beyond anti-Muslim slurs and America First rhetoric, he’s got nothing. He rails against the “refugee resettlement racket,” but seems to know very little about the actual resettlement process or related subjects like ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. He kept referring to notes LaFave had e-mailed him about the topic.
“Are we going to put Maine people first, or do Maine people constantly get shoved to the back of the line for new Mainers who have no loyalty to this country?” Lockman said, shaking his head. “No loyalty to the Constitution. [People who] aren’t interested in assimilating. I mean, how crazy is that?”
Lockman’s reliance on LaFave’s talking points got him in some hot water earlier this year, when he used the phrase “war on whites” during an anti-diversity diatribe. The racist phrase, one of LaFave’s personal favorites, began showing up in MFM “news” stories and MFP’s fundraising e-mails after LaFave joined the team. “War on whites” is also a popular slogan and hashtag among American white supremacists.
A couple weeks after Lockman made the comment, Sen. Susan Collins visited the Somerset County town of Jackman to congratulate residents for firing their town manager, neo-Nazi Tom Kawczynski [see “Crashing the Nazi’s Dinner Party,” March 2018]. While Collins was surrounded by a gaggle of local media, a reporter for the Maine Beacon (the website run by the Maine People’s Alliance) asked the senator if she knew Lockman had been accused of using the phrase. “And she says, ‘Yeah, I saw that and I won’t be endorsing him for re-election,’” Lockman recounted with a derisive snort. “I don’t think an endorsement from her is worth very much in the Second [Congressional] District anyway. What’s she gonna do, endorse Doug Bunker? Go ahead.”
Lockman has a point. Collins has not endorsed his Democratic opponent, or taken her criticism of Lockman, whom she’s endorsed in past elections, a step further by, say, calling on him to resign from the Legislature. Voters in the 2nd District have elected far-right Republican Bruce Poliquin to be their representative in Congress twice in a row, in 2014 and 2016, and polls indicate they may do so again this year. There’s no political capital to be gained by calling out Lockman’s violent and racist rhetoric, so Maine’s senior senator mostly keeps her mouth shut as the men in her party (from Lockman to LePage to Trump) bash Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, refugees, transgender people and members of other marginalized groups.
Lockman is confident he’ll win a fourth term this November. “If signs could vote, I’d win by 90 percent,” he boasted. “In [Bunker’s] hometown of Franklin, I have three times as many [signs] as he does.”
Lockman said he’s already drafted his next anti-refugee bill in anticipation of the upcoming legislative session. It would require municipalities to vote to approve, by a two-thirds super-majority, the resettlement of refugees in their community. All refugees would be required to have a U.S. citizen as a sponsor and no government dollars could be spent to help them. The most important part, he said, is the provision in the bill that blocks refugees or asylum seekers from pursuing a path to citizenship. “There would be a date certain for your refugee status to be reviewed,” he told me. “If you’re a refugee, you’re taking ‘refuge’ here with the intention to return, when the violence and persecution subsides, to wherever you came from.”
I asked Lockman how his constituents are responding to this idea. “‘Put a sign up,’ they say,” Lockman answered with a grin. “Meanwhile, my opponent’s pitch is that he believes in civility and we need our voices heard on climate change.” He shook his head and laughed. “Donald Trump carried [the district] by over a thousand votes. You think ‘climate change’ is gonna resonate with voters?”
If re-elected to what would be his fourth and final term as a state rep (due to term limits), Lockman said he’ll consider moving 15 miles north, to the town of Bradley, which is part of Senate District 8, currently represented by Republican Kim Rosen. “She’s one of the worst RINOs in the Senate,” he said. “If she runs again, I will primary her. I may not win, but it will be ugly. These RINOs need to be called out. You just get more of them if you give ’em a pass.”
Other than his own race, Lockman doesn’t seem too excited by this year’s election. He’s unimpressed with GOP gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody and isn’t confident the businessman can win. “He’s not a fighter,” said Lockman, “he doesn’t inspire.” And if Moody does pull off a victory, Lockman thinks Moody’s plan to be an “outsider bringing the sides together” is naïve. “That’s not the way it works at the State House,” he said. “It’s a shark tank.”
Lockman also realizes the next session in Augusta will be a tough one for his ultra-conservative wing, since LePage and three of Lockman’s biggest legislative allies (Deb Sanderson, Heather Sirocki and Beth Turner) have been term-limited out. That’s why Lockman is eager to expand MFP’s activist training.
In early September, the Maine First team made the drive to Presque Isle to conduct an Activist Training Course for a dozen people, including four legislative candidates. Lockman gave an inspirational speech. LaFave lectured on branding, and Gelpey provided advice on running a campaign. After lunch, they left the County and drove back south so LaFave could catch a flight back to Nebraska.
“The challenge is finding qualified candidates for the Legislature,” Lockman said. “Maine First Project is going to get more into this for the next election cycle. We didn’t have the time or the resources … and you gotta start in January of next year and start recruiting and vetting people.”
Looking back at his career, Lockman is painfully aware of his team’s losses in the culture wars. “I’m stunned by how fast it happened,” he said. “We’ve lost the public-opinion debate on many of these issues. Like gay rights, for instance. You’re not gonna roll that back.”
Who does he blame? “The public schools and the fake news media, who bullied and browbeat people into going along with this stuff,” Lockman replied. Nowadays, he’s a big proponent of homeschooling. “I don’t care which public school it is, it’s a brainwashing center.”
Three of Lockman’s four kids went through public schools. “After the first three came out of high school, we said, ‘Wow, what’s wrong with this picture?’” So Lockman and his wife homeschooled their youngest son and Lockman is pleased with the result. This son volunteered to drive Lockman around his legislative district every Tuesday until the election — Tuesday is his son’s day off from selling cars. In terms of radical political views, Lockman said this son is “worse than I am.”
As for the other kids, two vote conservative but aren’t politically active. His youngest daughter, though, is an Obama-loving liberal. “She’s appalled by the election of Trump,” said Lockman, frowning. “Just appalled.” As for talking politics, “we just don’t go there,” he said.
Maine First Media’s role in the current culture war is a small one. The site is unlikely to attract many more visitors. Its “news” stories are not just racist, but also poorly written and edited. LaFave’s strident sentences are unwieldy and his arguments are poorly constructed. His ragtag crew of contributors are even less compelling, like the babbling videos by the MAGA Lobsterman that MFM posts, and those by the tweaker from Waterville whose shtick is to rant for the length of time it takes him to smoke a cigarette.
Online metrics back up my assessment. Most of the MFM content posted on social media fails to elicit a sniffle, nevermind going viral. Though over 25,000 people (or, at least, profiles) follow MFM on Facebook, its posts typically garner fewer than a dozen “likes” or shares, and many have only one “like,” by a user named Michael Anthony, who is actually LaFave. Maine First’s YouTube channel videos get three or four hundred views before they’re bumped into the abyss of Internet oblivion; dozens of MFM videos fail to break the 100-view mark.
But like Gary Johnson says, “even a blind hog sometimes finds an acorn.” Occasionally an MFM post will attract thousands of eyeballs. More often than not, those posts have Somali or Muslim meta-tags that draw racist traffic.
By mid-October, tiring of the charade and in desperate need of a haircut, I started to plot a way to ghost LaFave and sever Gary’s relationship with MFM. So I sent him an e-mail sharing my analysis of the “Attack” video. “If we try to say that the footage is of a gang of kids attacking park goers,” I wrote, “our movie will look lame and we’ll look like idiots.” I also explained that after multiple visits to Kennedy Park and the surrounding neighborhoods, I still wasn’t seeing any mobs or signs of Sharia takeover.
“Couldn’t disagree more about the gang fight video,” he wrote back. “There are a dozen kids hitting two guys with sticks.”
As for the Sharia documentary, “It’s not going to be easy,” LaFave admitted. “They’re not going to break out into a fight when a camera is rolling on them. And residents don’t want to talk about it due to the fear of retribution.”
He prattled on about several signs of the pending apocalypse, like outbreaks of strange diseases that local hospitals aren’t prepared to treat, garbage-strewn neighborhoods, slum housing and excessive ESL funding. “We can see it with the Halal and the move to get more of them in government,” wrote the Nebraskan troll. “The Sharia takeover is underway. I believe it’s probably the most important story to tell in Maine.”