LEWISTON, Maine — The polarizing race between Mayor Robert Macdonald and progressive activist Ben Chin will drag into a runoff, likely in December.
A runoff will ensue because neither candidate earned 50 percent of the total vote. Chin told supporters afterward that he was looking forward to the runoff, saying the race has become about “fighting for the soul of our city and maybe even our state.”
“We’ve got another fight ahead of us and I am thrilled to be in that with all of you,” he said.
Outside his office after he learned the results, Macdonald, the conservative, two-term mayor, said he was confident he could win a runoff, but he also said that he only hoped to serve two terms when he took office.
“If I win, I win,” he said. “If I lose, I lose.”
The race has divided Lewiston. Historically, it has been a Democratic stronghold, but the city’s voters have taken a conservative turn in recent years, with Macdonald serving as mayor and Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a Lewiston native, winning a majority of votes in 2014.
It has also whipped strong voter turnout in the city: Unofficial results indicated that more than 8,300 voters — more than a third of those registered — voted in an election that was expected to draw less than 20 percent statewide.
The race has been dominated by two incidents that have made national headlines. In September, Macdonald, a retired police detective, called for an online registry of people getting government assistance, which Chin criticized.
And in October, local landlord Joe Dunne put up signs that read “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin.” Dunne said the signs were aimed at Chin’s “socialist” policies, but the candidate is Chinese-American and many — Republicans and Democrats alike — condemned them as racist.
Chin has criticized certain Lewiston landlords as “slumlords” who are stifling economic development in the city, and his employer, the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive group that’s largely running his campaign, released a report on concerns at 71 properties owned by corporations linked to three landlords, including Dunne.
Chin has also run a vigorous campaign, raising $63,000 through Oct. 20. Macdonald only raised $1,600 to that point, and he’s running the same low-key campaign that won him his first race, which ended with what some may call a fluke.
The retired police detective first ran for mayor as an outsider in 2011 and won by just 70 votes over an opponent who died days before the election. But in his next election in 2013, he beat former Mayor Larry Gilbert, a well-known Democrat, by a wide margin.
Macdonald’s main cause as mayor has been cracking down on welfare fraud. He has been best-known outside Lewiston for comments on immigration and welfare. In 2012, he said in a BBC documentary that Somali immigrants should “leave your culture at the door,” a comment that made national headlines.
Since he announced for the race in February, Chin has run on a progressive plan for the city, saying he wants to build 100 units of resident-owned housing, establish an Office of New Americans to help immigrants learn English, become American citizens and get jobs, put up solar panels and create a special development zone to support small business on and around Lisbon Street.
The race may be defined by the city’s urban and suburban divide. When Chin announced his run, Macdonald told the Sun Journal that voters “will have the choice of whether they want to take care of the whole city or whether they just want to take care of the downtown part of the city.”
A battle between the old and new Lewiston was evident at the city’s armory, one of four polling places in Lewiston. It’s on Central Avenue, near the outskirts of Bates College’s campus.
In the morning, some older voters emerged from the polling place complaining about a high volume of students there to support Chin, who came to the city to attend Bates and graduated in 2007.
Lewiston native Gerard Berube said, “They should be voting, but where they belong.”
He said he’s supporting Macdonald so the mayor can “finish what he started,” including reforming welfare to “help the ones who need the help, not the ones who come here just to get the help.”
“Our faith teaches that, but there’s a limit to how far you can go,” Berube said. “Don’t come to a place where that’s all you’re going to get and that’s all you’re looking for.”
Bridget Ruff, a Bates sophomore, said that as she waited to turn in her ballot, a woman turned to her and told the student that she shouldn’t be voting in Lewiston’s election because she’s from out of state.
Her response was that she lived in the city nine months of the year. Then, she filed her ballot for Chin.
“His policies align with mine a lot,” Ruff said. “I think he has a lot of great ideas for moving Lewiston forward.”
And, hastily, she added, “And he’s also not racist.”