SOUTH PORTLAND — On Tuesday afternoon, patrons of the South Portland Public Library passed it by without paying too much attention.
Children ignored it, playing only yards away on the Frank I. Brown Elementary School playground.
And the city manager hadn’t even heard if it before Tuesday morning.
But South Portland’s little-known Freedom Tree is now at the unlikely center of a controversy in the special election to fill the District 7 seat in the state Senate on May 10.
A 58-second campaign video filmed at the memorial by the Democratic candidate, Rep. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, has riled some Republicans and military veterans. And it’s not her comments about the “radical” agenda she says is being pushed by Republicans that are drawing heat.
It’s a two-second segment in which Dill playfully hops on the 1973 marker dedicating the small tree to prisoners of war, those missing in action and Portland native Capt. John E. Duffy, whose plane was shot down in Vietnam.
On Monday, the state GOP distributed a statement with a still-frame photo of Dill standing on the marker, which the Republicans incorrectly described as a “headstone.”
State GOP Chairman Charles Webster in a press release criticized the candidate, saying her “off-the-wall antics may entertain her extremist friends, but the people of Maine expect more from their elected officials.”
“Dill should be ashamed of herself,” Webster said. “I’m appalled that an elected official would treat a solemn memorial as a jungle gym. Dill has a history of extreme and erratic behavior, but this is just plain wrong.”
Dill shot back, saying she was falsely accused by Republicans for stepping on a headstone, when it was actually a plaque dedicating the tree as a monument to veterans.
“I feel the Republicans have exploited veterans and the Freedom Tree for political gain,” Dill said. “I think it’s unfortunate.”
Dill said she respects and honors all veterans. She noted how as a civil rights lawyer in 1992, she represented a veteran with mental health issues who believed he was being harassed by police in Old Orchard Beach.
Assistant Democratic Leader Sen. Justin Alfrond, of Portland, accused Republians of creating a controversy to distract voters from the real issues.
“Rather than talking about the economy, or getting people back to work, they’re playing political theater,” he said.
Although Dill draws a distinction between the plaque and momumental tree, Cape Elizabeth resident Lee Humiston said that distinction doesn’t matter to him or veterans.
Humiston, who has established the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center to honor POWs in South Portland, said Dill’s actions were in bad form.
“I am over-the-top incensed about it,” Humiston said, claiming dozens of veterans have contacted him about the ad. “There’s nothing that woman could have done to bring more dishonor to this state.”
But Dud Hendrick, president of Maine Veterans for Peace, characterized the issue as a “tempest in a teapot,” saying “(I) do not believe that Ms. Dill intended any disrespect whatsoever.”
Dill said she has talked with veterans who are upset about the clip. She claims they are not nearly as upset when they are told that it was not a headstone. Her campaign manager provided as evidence two email exchanges with people claiming to be veterans.
Dill’s opponent, South Portland Republican Louis Maietta Jr., said the GOP didn’t discuss the issue with him before making an issue of the video. He said he didn’t know about it until receiving the same GOP email that was distributed statewide on Monday.
Maietta said he understands why veterans are upset and Dill should apologize, rather than being “defensive.” Other than that, Maietta said he isn’t going to make it a campaign issue.
“In this case, I think she needs to respect the veterans as much as anybody respects her for her job in public service,” he said.
Dill, meanwhile, said she is confident that voters in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough will ignore this episode when they vote on May 10.
“I believe the voters in District 7 will look at my record and where I stand on the issues and vote because I reflect their values,” she said, “one of those values being respect and honor for veterans and democracy and all of the freedoms that the veterans fight for.”
Whether the issue will have an impact on voters on May 10 is unknown, but the controversy will almost certainly raise awareness about the little-known memorial.
“I learn something everyday,” City Manager Jim Gailey said.
A granite marker and plaque at the Freedom Tree, next to the South Portland Public Library, has become the center of a political firestorm in the Maine Senate District 7 race.