The council chamber in Gorham, where town Councilor Benjamin Hartwell serves. Hartwell was recently named as a former member of the Oath Keepers, a violent, antigovernment group. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Gorham Town Councilor Janet Kuech said she rarely gets many emails or comments from residents on local issues – even multimillion-dollar school projects.

So it was unusual to see so many emails coming into the council’s inbox Wednesday night.

Ben Hartwell

News had broken that Benjamin Hartwell, a fellow councilor, was once a member of the Oath Keepers, a violent anti-government group.

The Anti-Defamation League, a national organization tracking hate groups, had identified Hartwell and one other Maine public official among 215 people in the state who have been on the Oath Keepers’ membership rolls. In addition to Hartwell, the ADL also identified Piscataquis County Commissioner Wayne Erkkinen.

In an email on Thursday, Hartwell said he joined the Oath Keepers as a dues-paying member in 2015 under the impression that it was geared toward veterans like himself, and members of law enforcement, who swore oaths to defend the Constitution. He said that he particularly wanted to uphold the right to bear arms.

“Nothing happened, I never met with anyone, I never attended anything, and I never renewed my membership after it expired in 2016,” Hartwell wrote Thursday. “I didn’t continue to follow what they were doing and had no idea what has happened along the way.”


He called the ADL’s efforts to identify public officials connected to the Oath Keepers a “witch hunt stemming from the January 6 riots.”


“I did nothing wrong, and thanks to the articles in the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News, and the fact that people don’t read beyond the headlines, I have a small amount of hate mail and a few people calling for my resignation over a silly membership of nearly eight years ago,” Hartwell wrote. “I was re-elected three years ago by a landslide because the people of Gorham know who I really am.”

Of the six council members other than Hartwell, only Kuech responded to a call seeking an interview about his former Oath Keepers membership. Councilor Virginia Wilder Cross answered the phone but declined to comment.

Kuech, who has been on the Town Council since 2020, said she was disappointed by the public “condemnation” of Hartwell.

“I think we’re seven people with seven different viewpoints from all over town,” said Kuech, who also serves as treasurer for the local Democratic party. “We’ve worked really hard in Gorham to not have political division or factionalism.”


But now, there are concerns things will become more divisive. Mainers in and outside Gorham, a town of 18,000 on the outskirts of Portland, have emailed the Town Council and posted on social media, calling for Hartwell’s resignation.

Others say they don’t plan to re-elect Hartwell at the polls this November. That includes Bob Mulkern, who’s lived in Gorham for 25 years and learned of Hartwell’s former membership in the Oath Keepers through Facebook on Wednesday.

“If your name is in there, your name is involved,” Mulkern said.

Carole Messenger-Rioux, of Gorham, doesn’t advocate for any “knee-jerk reactions” on the issue. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He said he voted for Hartwell in 2019 “because there wasn’t anything better to vote for.”

Carole Messenger-Rioux, who didn’t vote for Hartwell in 2019, said she wouldn’t advocate for any “knee-jerk reactions” like calling for Hartwell’s resignation, even if the news makes her uneasy.

“Being on the council, you’re representing your constituents, who all live here,” she said. “People want to be elected to the Town Council because they want to be good to the community.”


Reggie Beaton, of Gorham, isn’t concerned with Benjamin Hartwell’s past. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In Gorham, residents vote for individuals they know and who are endorsed by their friends, Messenger-Rioux said. Parties don’t endorse candidates and there are no R’s or D’s listed next to candidates for Town Council.

Reggie Beaton, who moved to Gorham in 1997, said he’s more concerned with a debate over rezoning the Narragansett Game Sanctuary than with Hartwell’s past.

“I don’t think that has any bearing,” Beaton said Thursday.


State Representative Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, said Thursday that she tries not to get involved with town politics, except to advocate for the community in Augusta.

She said she could appreciate Hartwell’s explanation that he cut ties with the group years ago.


Terry stressed the council’s community focus.

“The stuff they deal with is super local, and super specific,” she said. “I just don’t see these politics as being a part of our particular government.”

The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism studied more than 38,000 names from leaked Oath Keepers’ membership lists. Across the United States, the ADL has identified more than 370 members who work in law enforcement agencies, more than 100 who are active members of the military, and more than 80 who are either running for or serving in public office.

Oath Keepers’ founder, Stewart Rhodes, was indicted in January for seditious conspiracy against the United States for his alleged role in organizing and planning the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. A total of 17 members of the Oath Keepers face federal charges for their alleged roles in the insurrection. Rhodes’ trial is scheduled to begin in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27.

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