The Newport City Council declared June to be LGBTQ+ Pride Month in the city on June 5. After city councilor CM Hall read the declaration, Mayor Dean Sawyer thanked her for taking the lead on the declaration. He also thanked the members of the public who sent emails appreciating the council for supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
Six days later, Sawyer posted a meme mocking a trans dancer in a private Facebook group exclusively for current and retired law enforcement officers. That post followed several others he made in April and May. The anti-trans posts are among at least seven anti-LGBTQ, misogynist, vulgar and violent memes he posted to the group in June.
The group, called “LEO Only,” has 39,180 members. To join, a person must send moderators a photograph of their law enforcement identification next to an item showing that day’s date, such as a newspaper.
OPB was able to independently review posts inside the group, including those made by Sawyer’s account.
Since 2016, Sawyer has posted racist memes mocking Mexicans and endorsing former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies on immigration. One post in April made fun of trans swimmer Lia Thomas. Several mocked Bud Light, which has drawn the ire of Republicans for the company’s business relationship with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Both Thomas and Mulvaney have been targets of right wing smear campaigns and online harassment.
Sawyer was first elected mayor in 2018 after serving 30 years as a Newport police officer. He was reelected to a third term in 2022. Reached by phone for comment, he said LEO Only is a private group and posts are not meant for the public.
Sawyer told OPB one of the reasons he loves Newport is the community’s diversity and that his public actions and comments represent his true values, not what he says in private.
“These comments were totally separate,” Sawyer said. “They don’t reflect who I am and what I do on a daily basis. They were stupid. They were juvenile.”
Sawyer said he has developed a sense of humor “that some cops have” and that he got caught up in a website where crass comments are common.
“I apologize to the public for this,” he said.
He’s not the only Oregon mayor who has drawn scrutiny in recent weeks for hateful online posts. Last month, community members demanded Baker City Mayor Matt Diaz resign after he posted a meme on Facebook comparing LGBTQ rights activists to Nazis.
In addition to making fun of trans athletes, Sawyer has targeted trans sex workers, Spanish speakers and victims of sexual assault. He’s also joked about committing violence against women.
Several posts in the law enforcement group encourage people to take the law into their own hands and not call the police. Two photos shared by Sawyer appear to endorse extra-judicial murder. One reads, “If you have a clear shot and a good shovel, ain’t no need to call the police.” Another says, “It’s a proven fact that criminals commit less crime after they’ve been shot.”
Hall, the city councilor and LGBTQ+ activist, said the mayor’s posts are cruel and offensive.
“This is punching down and further marginalizing the marginalized. It’s contributing to harm and division,” she said, adding that it runs counter to the welcoming message the city wants to portray. “I’m grateful that our Council is otherwise composed of strong allies. I’m embarrassed by the Mayor’s hurtful online comments and mockery.”
Since the City Council’s first Pride month declaration in 2019, Hall said Sawyer’s support has been tepid.
Speaking at the Nov. 21 City Council meeting the day after 5 people were killed and 25 injured in a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub, Hall said it was particularly important in their small community to speak out against homophobia.
“What homophobia does is it pushes people back into the closet. Particularly in coastal communities where the allyship doesn’t yet feel vocal,” Hall said.
In response, Sawyer said “we abhor violence at any level against any person” and that he hoped “this scourge will stop in our country.”
Two months later, he posted a meme making light of sexual assault and another mocking Mexicans.
In a statement posted on Facebook Friday morning after this story first published, Newport Oregon Pride said it is “appalled and disgusted by the hateful words and actions of our mayor.”
“This disturbing behavior normalizes hatred and incites violence against the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society and should not be tolerated,” the group wrote.
Sawyer has had a tumultuous tenure as mayor. He dodged a recall campaign in 2021 which claimed he “lacked the moral compass” to continue leading the city. The effort was launched after the Federal Aviation Administration found Sawyer had violated seven federal regulations after he crash landed a plane on a beach in 2019. The investigation found Sawyer’s plane had not had an annual inspection in four years and that Sawyer’s medical certificate had expired. It said Sawyer operated his aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
Soon after speaking to OPB, Sawyer left the LEO Only Facebook group. On Friday afternoon, Newport announced a special city council meeting will be held Monday afternoon to discuss Sawyer’s posts.
Correction: This story previously incorrectly stated the number of people who died in the Colorado Springs nightclub shooting. OPB regrets the error.