Maine GOP launches multicultural center

Party leaders say it’s a resource for immigrants, but state Democrats say Maine Republicans aren’t welcoming to immigrants.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Republican Party has a new office.

While field offices are a common sight in an election year like 2022, the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center will be used for work beyond flyer printing and voter registration.

During Tuesday’s grand opening, party members, including its face, former Gov. Paul LePage, filled the small office on Portland’s Munjoy Hill and spoke at length about the American dream and helping others achieve it.

“There’s a lot of people like me, who don’t have their voices heard at all,” Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas said. “And what the Democrats are doing is they’re just handing out money, putting people in hotel rooms, telling them they can’t have jobs, when I know people like me don’t want that.”

Kouzounas and the new chair of the center, Suheir Alaskari, made clear they desire to attract immigrants who are eager to find work and network.

“Immigrants share a lot of values ​​with the Republican Party,” Alaskari said. “They believe they could. They left everything they know – their families, their system, their education, everything they know – behind and believed that they could succeed alone. So, the goal of this center is to help minorities.”

How far do the “multicultural” aims of the center reach? Its Munjoy Hill neighborhood, as with much of Portland, is dotted with LGBTQ+ pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs. Republican-led state legislatures in multiple states have introduced or passed anti-trans legislation this year. Prominent party members at the federal level have pushed policies that exclude or do not recognize the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

LePage, a guest of honor at the grand opening, made repeated disparaging claims toward Black and Hispanic people while in office, inaccurately accusing them of committing most drug crimes in Maine.

“Do you see me? I’m the face of this center,” Alaskari, an immigrant from Iraq, said. “If I’m not welcomed, I would never run such a center. If I felt not confident or pushed away, I would not be the leader for this center.”

“We have a multicultural center here for diverse ethnicities and new people coming to our country,” Kouzounas said when asked the same question. “Let’s talk about these people here, that are here, that live amongst us, that want to be part of a group, that want to feel welcomed.”

A news release sent out ahead of the event said the center’s purpose was to be a resource for Portland residents, provide educational opportunities, and engage Mainers in “get-out-the-vote” efforts during the year.

According to the Portland’s City Clerk’s office, as of Tuesday, there were 36,451 registered Democrats in the city and 6,844 registered Republicans.

“For me, we’ve always wanted to come to Portland,” LePage said to reporters after the event. “Unfortunately, many times between 2010 and 2019, there were occasions when we would come to Portland and be shouted down, and we weren’t allowed to speak.”

During his time in office, LePage was regularly at odds with the City of Portland because it assisted immigrants seeking asylum in Maine. This federal process can take 18 months for some immigrants to complete.

On Tuesday, he said he loved immigrants and that former President Donald Trump had been “too harsh” on immigrants. He also voiced further concerns about potential lawbreaking.

“I have a problem with the fentanyl that’s coming in, the human trafficking that’s coming in, and that part of our southern border,” he said. “But, the people coming in, I endorse them; I love them.”

Drew Gattine, chair of the Maine Democratic Party, released a statement following the center’s grand opening, writing that Maine has become a welcoming state since LePage left the Blaine House.

“For eight years prior, the Maine GOP — led by Paul LePage — insulted new Mainers, sowed deep division among them, and left them feeling not only unwelcome but genuinely scared for themselves and their future,” Gattine wrote. “Opening a campaign office during an election year isn’t going to erase the harm that Paul LePage has done to new Mainers or make them forget who he really is, what he stands for, and what he thinks of them.”

As of Tuesday, no hours had yet been listed for the multicultural center.

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