ELLSWORTH — The first time — and nearly every time thereafter — that Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap mentioned Kris Kobach’s name during his address to the Hancock County Democratic Committee last Thursday, audience members hissed.
Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, who is unsympathetic to immigration, has become a leading voice calling for election reforms to address alleged voter fraud, despite a lack of evidence supporting his claims.
Dunlap was at the event to recount his role dealing with Kobach in a nationally unfolding drama. Last year, he was invited by Kobach and the White House to participate in a committee investigating the possibility of voter fraud. President Donald Trump had set up the commission following his claims that fake votes had accounted for his popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton.
The commission met from May 2017 until Jan. 3 of this year, and was disbanded before any findings could be reported. In November, Dunlap filed a lawsuit in federal court against the commission — of which he was a member — alleging that he was deliberately excluded from talks.
On Thursday, speaking to an audience at Ellsworth’s Moore Community Center, Dunlap offered a candid, firsthand account of his experience with Trump’s project.
He got up to speak following short speeches from local and statewide Democratic candidates.
“I’d like to thank all the candidates for tiring everybody out before I got up here,” Dunlap said to laughs as he began his story.
The joke set the tone early. Throughout, the crowd laughed easily.
The whole affair began when he received a call from Kobach asking if he’d join the commission. At first, he said, he had no intention to help. But friends and colleagues advised him that he could play a regulating role within the commission, helping to ensure it relied on sound research.
He eventually agreed. Early on, he ran into trouble. He’d promised a CNN reporter that he’d let her know if there were any developments with the commission. When he fulfilled that promise, calling to tell the reporter that an initial meeting date had been set, he then got a call from Vice President Mike Pence’s counsel.
“If I’m going to give you information and you’re going to call CNN, we’re going to have a problem,” the lawyer told him.
Later, when it was reported that Kobach was seeking information from states about voter rolls being studied, Dunlap received frantic calls from Mainers imploring him not to hand over any data to the commission.
“It wasn’t about their information,” Dunlap told the Democrats on Thursday. “I know that instinctively. It was about their right to vote unfettered.”
Only a few months later, multiple issues began to boil over. In October, a researcher working for the commission was arrested on a child pornography charge. Dunlap didn’t even know who he was and couldn’t get anyone on the commission to answer questions about what had happened.
Then, Dunlap began to feel he was being deliberately left out of discussions for future commission meetings. He got a Facebook message from a congressional staffer, who asked Dunlap to call a cell phone number. The staff member told him he should retain outside lawyers, assuring him that Washington, D.C., was “rooting for” him, but the White House was going to go after him.
The staff member put him in touch with a former Obama Department of Justice lawyer.
“That was the only time in this process where I got a little bit scared and thought, ‘What have I stepped into?’” Dunlap said.
He ultimately sued.
“What I got was, ‘I’ll see you in court,’” he said of the reply from the White House. “I’m like, ‘I’m asking for the schedule, man.’”
By December, a federal judge ruled in Dunlap’s favor. Kobach announced that there would be a January meeting, but Trump signed an executive order days later dissolving the commission. Around this time, Dunlap said he saw Kobach at an event and told him, “You look like you could use a hug.”
The audience erupted in laughter at this end to the story, and gave Dunlap a standing ovation.
“First of all, thank you,” one audience member told Dunlap during a question-and-answer session. “Thank you for standing up. Not only for Mainers, but it turns out, for the entire country.”
“I’m not Rosa Parks, let’s be clear about that,” Dunlap replied to the woman. He said it was strange to him that strangers outside of Maine would approach him and thank him.
Another woman said she’d met him in Augusta and they’d eaten chocolate chip cookies under the rotunda together.
“You have to be one of the most dignified men in Augusta,” she told him.
“You all should listen to this wise woman,” Dunlap said to laughs.