A farcical incident that allegedly took place in late August at a politician’s home in Lewiston has sparked another spate of racist hatemongering in this old Maine mill town, where thousands of former refugees from war-torn African countries have settled over the past two decades and endured demonization and harassment.
The latest fracas, which erupted just days before a potentially historic city council election, shows how political grifters leverage social media and doctored video to gin-up outrage among the far-right. But it also reveals that the commitment to diversity among some Democrats (particularly the white-male-establishment variety) is superficial and transactional, more about intra-party politics than a genuine effort to empower underrepresented members of the community.
The main character in this horror-comedy is a white guy in his early 50s named Walter Hill, who also goes by the nickname “Ed.” Hill has been active in Democratic politics and city government for many years, including a stint as chairman of the Lewiston Democratic Party and terms on the school and planning boards.
For the past few months, according to Hill, he’s been recovering from hip and back surgeries, as well as complications from those operations, and self-medicating with the powerful opioid painkiller Oxycontin — the prescription drug, widely abused in this state, that’s ravaged communities like Lewiston in recent years.
While drifting in and out of a narcotic daze, Hill has also been drifting from one political campaign to another. According to a Democratic Party official in Lewiston, Hill began the current election cycle as a candidate for the school board, then tried to run for a seat on the Androscoggin County Commission after one of its members died this summer. Failing in that effort, Hill took out nomination papers to run for the seat on the Lewiston City Council representing Ward 1, which covers the downtown area along the Androscoggin River, while still technically a candidate for the school board.
Trouble is, as Hill was well aware, the Dems already had a candidate for that council seat: 23-year-old Safiya Khalid, current vice chairwoman of the Lewiston Democratic Party. If elected this Tuesday, Khalid will be the first Somali-American to serve on the Lewiston City Council. Her first and, at the time, only opponent in this race had dropped out on Aug. 20, right before Hill jumped in.
Hill’s decision to challenge Khalid infuriated local party officials, including current chairman Kiernan Majerus-Collins, who said he tried in vain to reach Hill for an explanation in the week following the news of his council candidacy.
According to Hill and Maura Murphy, a self-described Democratic political activist who published an account of the controversial incident on Medium in late October, Hill was returning home from hip surgery on Aug. 28 when he saw Majerus-Collins and Khalid canvassing in his neighborhood. Once safely inside his house, Hill popped an Oxy and promptly konked out on his couch.
About 20 minutes later, Hill was “jolted out of a deep sleep by the sound of pounding at his door,” according to Murphy’s story. “There was more than one person; the banging and kicking got louder, and was coming from multiple directions,” she wrote. “Both doorbells were ringing. Under cover of darkness, his house was being circled and attacked.”
Hill said he recognized the voices of his “attackers” as those of Majerus-Collins and Owen Cardwell-Copenhefer, treasurer of the Lewiston Democratic Party and of Khalid’s campaign. Allegedly immobilized by the opioid painkiller, Hill claims he couldn’t rise from his couch and feared the two baby-faced, hyphenated hooligans would break into his home and murder him. (Hill didn’t notify police about the incident at the time or during the weeks that followed, but recently asked the cops to launch a criminal investigation into the matter.)
Unable to reach his primary cell phone to call for help, Hill claims he grabbed another phone — one without cellular service that the 51-year-old uses to “play games” — and recorded the “siege” in progress on that device. Those recordings (or versions thereof) were posted on YouTube last week, as a three-part series, by an anonymous entity that calls itself Lewiston First Media, a name that echoes Maine First Media, the racist propaganda operation infiltrated, exposed, and subsequently brought down by Mainer editor-at-large Crash Barry [see “Maine First Mania,” Nov. 2018.]
In Part 1, which is over three minutes long, the audio track has no words, just the sound of knocking and the sing-song, eight-note melody of a doorbell, both possibly looped, that grows repetitious, and ominous, over time. You can also hear light snoring, as if Hill fell back asleep soon after the murderous “siege” commenced. (Hill later said he pretended to be asleep during the “attack” in the hope the assassins would notice that and decide to leave.)
The video in Part 1, which was posted on Halloween, is a montage of photos of Hill, Khalid, Majerus-Collins and other local pols, interspersed with text describing behind-the-scenes machinations of the Lewiston Democratic Party. The text claims that Majerus-Collins told Hill he should stay out of the school board and council races to make way for “a slate of new Mainers [that] would ensure out-of-state donations” to the party.
Part 2, which is even creepier, begins with this text: “Ed Hill laid there unable to move. More vulnerable than he ever felt before. … He had no idea who laid siege to his home.” This is followed by nearly 15 minutes of near-continuous banging and doorbell chimes, accompanied by more snoring and the sound of raindrops pelting a metal air-conditioner. It ends with a chilling whimper of pain, presumably from Hill, and a teaser for Part 3: “Kiernan was lurking in the window. As [Hill] moved to pick up his [recording] device, the real terrorizing was about to begin…”
The “terrorizing” revealed in Part 3 is the voice of Majerus-Collins — with occasional (and mostly inaudible) comments by Cardwell-Copenhefer — grousing about Hill’s decision to challenge Khalid and his apparent refusal to talk to Majerus-Collins, the 24-year-old party chairman, about that decision. “If you’re gonna hide, if you’re gonna duck my calls. … What kind of behavior is that?” Majerus-Collins whines.
“I know you can hear me right now,” the young party chairman continues in a measured, albeit perturbed, tone of voice, as the raindrops and snoring continue in the background. “This is one of the most cowardly and pathetic things I’ve ever seen,” he adds. “You got a right to run for any office you want to, but if you think it’s gonna help you to hide, if you think it’s gonna be helpful to not talk to me, you have no idea what’s coming.”
Majerus-Collins drops a few f-bombs during the six-minute clip, and uses the word “chickenshit” in reference to Hill, but as an adjective, rather than a pejorative noun, referring to Hill’s “chickenshit coward behavior.” Neither he nor Cardwell-Copenhefer makes any threat of violence during the recording, and the volume of their voices never rises to the level of a shout.
Murphy’s story on Medium and the videos that followed were widely shared across a network of local right-wing Facebook groups, kicking up a shitstorm of vile racist and Islamophobic comments and threats directed at Khalid, despite the fact there’s no evidence she was at Hill’s house that day or directed the pair to harass her opponent.
Members of the private Facebook group LA’s Journal, where Murphy initially promoted the story, called Khalid a “shitbag” who “wears a head diaper” and should “show us her birth certificate” to prove she’s a citizen. Other LA’s Journal commenters said they “hate muslims” and know people who “join the military to kill as many muslims as they can.” The people of Lewiston should be “shipping her back” because “we are slowly losing our city.” One woman on a thread even claims she threatened Khalid via text message that she would go “go to her house.” Pearl Benner, an administrator of LA’s Journal, posted a photo of Khalid with the words: “This is the girl Calling out old white man She sounds A little racist to me Vote Hill.”
“I think this is a pathetic, right-wing smear campaign against the first Somali woman to run for city council,” said Majerus-Collins. “I hope the voters of Lewiston will recognize a Republican dirty trick when they see one and soundly reject their desperate efforts on Election Day.”
Lewiston voters certainly have seen this trick before, and a slim majority of them voted against the victim of the racist smears anyway — twice.
In 2015, Democratic mayoral candidate Ben Chin, whose father is of Chinese descent, was the target of a racist social-media attack by Republican state lawmaker Larry Lockman, who posted on Facebook that Chin “hates America, hates Americans and hates Christians.” That post and similar lies “caused an explosion,” Lockman proudly told Crash Barry last year. Chin, an Episcopal minister who workers for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, lost the runoff election in late 2015 by 572 votes.
In 2017, Chin ran for mayor again, and it was déjà vu. An anonymous blog called the Maine Examiner pulled a quote from an e-mail leaked from Chin’s campaign and twisted it to make it sound as though the Democrat characterized Lewiston’s entire electorate as “a bunch of racists.” (Chin had actually noted that he’d encountered a few racists during a long day of campaigning door-to-door in the city.) The Maine Republican Party spread the lie online, as did essentially the same social-media network now amplifying the harassment of Khalid. Chin lost that race, to Republican Shane Bouchard, by 145 ballots.
Bouchard abruptly resigned last March after his private texts revealed he’d covertly received Chin’s campaign e-mails and had shared racist and sexist jokes. Last year, it was revealed that the man behind the Maine Examiner site was Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party.
So while it’s not news that Maine Republicans try to inflame racist hatred for political gain, similar behavior by a Democrat like Hill is rare, if not unprecedented, in this state. There appear to be two reasons why Hill is promoting this ridiculous “siege” story: he thinks he’s gonna die soon, and he holds racist views himself.
According to Majerus-Collins, Hill finally called him on Sept. 3 to explain his decision to challenge Khalid, and “what he said was outrageous.
“He asked me to persuade Safiya to drop out of the city council race she had been running in for months, so that he could win the office unopposed,” Majerus-Collins wrote in a statement provided to Mainer. “He told me that at age 51, he didn’t have much time left to live and he wanted to serve on the city council before he died. And he told me as a young Somali woman, Safiya would have a hard time winning, despite the fact that Walter was, and remains, her only opposition.”
According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, Hill was laid up in a room in a Lewiston “rehabilitation hospital” when reporter Andrew Rice called him for comment on Nov. 1. “I’m fighting for my life up here,” Hill told Rice. It’s not clear whether Hill was referring to his health problems or threats of violence he claims have been made against him by people who don’t believe the August incident took place and do believe Hill is a racist. Possibly both. Hill also told Rice, “I see people threatening my daughter.”
In an interview with Mainer, Hill made it clear that his campaign against Khalid is racially motivated. He said that before he met Murphy and agreed to let her publish her account of the August incident online, his city council campaign had not been getting the respect he felt it deserved — because he’s white.
“White guys, we really are treated like we’re invisible,” Hill said. “All people see now is you’re not a special protected class.” He added that local Democrats “want to prove how enlightened they are” by supporting candidates of color. “My daughter couldn’t walk in and get a position” in city government, Hill said. Khalid is “getting given this position to show we’re enlightened.”
Whether there’s a kernel of truth to that or not, this scandal has drawn back the curtain on the inner workings of the Lewiston Democratic Party, and the scene behind the scenes isn’t exactly an ennobling example of democracy in action.
It’s clear that local party bosses, most of whom are only a year or so removed from being college kids, are handpicking candidates for city and county office, and do discourage competition between party members for those elected positions. (Majerus-Collins and Cardwell-Copenhefer, both recent Bates College grads, are running for seats on the Lewiston School Committee this fall; Majerus-Collins is running unopposed for a district seat, while Cardwell-Copenhefer is challenging at-large incumbent Megan Parks, who soundly defeated Khalid when she made her first run for office in 2017.)
Majerus-Collins said that during his Sept. 3 phone call with Hill, “I told Walter I would not participate in his scheme to bully Safiya out of the city council race. I pleaded with him to stick with the original plan and promised that the party would continue to support his candidacy for school committee. I told him [that] as a school committee candidate myself, I look forward to serving with him. And that I didn’t understand why he decided to betray Safiya.”
“Now, with just days to go before the election, Walter has allied himself with the most disreputable and disgusting people in Lewiston politics,” Majerus-Collins added. “His supporters have sent Safiya death threats, questioned her citizenship and spread other vicious lies about her.”
If Hill’s dopey assertions are to be believed, he’s objected in the past to what he feels is the local party’s unfair promotion of “new Mainers” to public office. An objective observer might deem Hill — who thinks whites are “invisible” in Lewiston and African-Americans are “a special protected class” — a poor choice to help oversee Lewiston’s public schools.
And then there’s the fact Hill didn’t want to serve on the school board again anyway. “He said he had already served on the school committee and that the position wasn’t important enough for him to bother with,” Majerus-Collins claims.
Yet as late as this weekend, the party chairman was still willing to make excuses for Hill. He told the Sun Journal that the anonymous person or persons behind Lewiston First Media may be “taking advantage of Hill in a weakened state in order to peddle their smear,” despite the fact Hill has been aggressively promoting the videos and defending their authenticity.
Cardwell-Copenhefer has declined to comment on the August incident and the ugliness that’s followed. Majerus-Collins claims he hasn’t listened to the clips of his voice posted by Lewiston First Media, though he doesn’t deny being at Hill’s home that day. Murphy, the supposed Democratic activist who started this shitstorm, has refused to say who posted those videos and claims the original, time-stamped recordings were accidentally destroyed in the process of copying them.
The only one who’s emerged from this scandal with their integrity intact is Khalid, who promptly condemned the alleged incident. “I do not condone such action toward my opponent or anyone brave enough to put themselves out there to run for office,” she said in a statement. “Anybody involved in negative campaigning or negative interactions will not be involved in my campaign,” she added. (It’s not clear whether she’s since fired her treasurer, Cardwell-Copenhefer, who appears to have participated in the doorbell “terror” attack against Hill.)
Whether Khalid, unlike Chin, can weather these racist smears and win her election won’t be known until this Tuesday, Nov. 5.