Controversial Comments About ‘Rehab Boot Camp’ Bring State Senate Race In Swing District Into Focus
A Republican candidate for the Maine Senate is attempting to clarify comments about supporting the idea of special detention facilities for people with opioid dependency.
Matt Stone, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Shenna Bellows, says that he is still interested in his "rehab boot camp" idea, but his comments on that topic — and others — could shake up a swing district race that has attracted significant spending by outside interest groups.
Stone floated the idea for special detention facilities as a possible solution to the opioid crisis during a wide-ranging interview with an online host from the New Right Network, a group that bills itself as unabashedly pro-Donald Trump and a counter to the left.
The organization has posted interviews with alt-right activist and conspiracy theorist, Laura Loomer, and with Andrew Torba, founder of the social media platform Gab, which has become a refuge for far right activists and some white nationalists who have been banned from mainstream outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
About 10 minutes into the hour-long interview, Stone is asked about the opioid crisis. Initially, he says he supports treatment, prevention and law enforcement to tackle the issue. But, he says, he also favors a "tough love" approach.
"One of the ideas I really like is for able-bodied young people in particular, I think rehab boot camps, or special detention facilities, would not be too far in the wrong direction,” Stone said to the host. “In fact, a lot of east Asian companies have had a lot of success with this method where you really dry someone out, you force them to learn a skill or a trade, you educate them, but you also put them through a physical, you know regimented program where they're exercising and becoming healthy again.”
The east Asian detention facilities that Stone is talking about are highly controversial.
In Vietnam, where the detention centers were part of the re-education system created by the communist regime after its war with the United States, human rights groups have reported that detainees are paid little or nothing for work. A 2011 report by the Human Rights Watch found that detainees were beaten, thrown into solitary confinement and subject to electric shock.
Stone's comments, unearthed by former Democratic lawmaker and current managing editor of The Free Press, Andy O'Brien, sparked outcry on social media.
Stone would not agree to an interview on tape, but directed Maine Public Radio to a lengthy written statement on his Facebook page. He says he's still interested in the recovery boot camp idea, but he'll only support legislation that is fully vetted by healthcare experts, law enforcement and Maine families.
"I think the idea of forced labor camps is absurd," said state Sen. Shenna Bellows, the candidate Stone is attempting to unseat in November.
Bellows says voters in her district have told her about their struggles of getting loved ones into treatment and also of the predatory practices of drug traffickers.
"I think we need to go after drug traffickers, and we need to provide supports for families who are trying to help their loved ones get clean," she said.
The contrast between Stone and Bellows is stark, yet they're running in a swing district just outside of Augusta that's a mix of state employees who traditionally vote Democrat and rural voters who lean Republican.
Bellows is the former director of the ACLU of Maine, a civil liberties organization that has sometimes been the target of conservative scorn.
Stone says Bellows is “too liberal” for the district and in public campaign appearances and candidate questionnaires, he's often presented himself as something of a moderate Republican. But that portrayal is belied by his comments to far right groups like the New Right Network.
"I have no tolerance for cucks. We need to purge all of the cucks from the Republican Party once and for call," he told the New Right Network.
“Cuck,” in this context, is a derogatory term popularized in online forums such as 4Chan and that has been co-opted by far right activists including Steve Bannon, Trump's former political strategist. It's used to describe Republicans who are too mainstream, or the “globalists,” another pejorative assigned to conservatives by the far right.
Stone used other far right references during his interview with the New Right Network. The self-described nationalist said his ancestors “colonized and conquered” America.
"I'm very proud of that legacy. And the reason I'm running for state senate is I want to defend that heritage and make sure we keep New England for New Englanders and America for Americans," he said.
In a separate interview with a website that says it’s Maine-based but actually isn’t, Stone said he was in awe of Hungary and Prime Minister Victor Orban, the conservative firebrand who has led a populist movement to stem immigration, put the press under government control and punish enemies of what he calls a “Christian democracy.” Those enemies include Hungarian-American financier George Soros.
"Now Soros is giving up. Soros is leaving this state of Hungary...I think we could get that here in Maine. That will be a glorious day in the history of our state and I'm going to work tooth and nail to get that done for you," he said.
Soros, it turns out, has donated to one of several political groups that are spending money to help reelect Bellows.
So far groups have spent nearly $200,000 to influence the Bellows-Stone race. While the political advertising has largely featured positive messaging, Stone's comments on forced detention and other controversial topics could change that and become a factor in a race that could affect the balance of power in the Maine Senate.
* This post has been updated to clarify the identity of a website.
Originally published Oct. 26, 2018 at 4:16 p.m. ET.