LEWISTON, Maine — Despite a rival campaign that outraised him by 15 times, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, a pugnacious conservative, won a third term in Tuesday’s runoff election.
There was no election night party for Macdonald, who was at home when results were announced. Earlier in the day, he gave a reporter a phone number to call, but he didn’t answer it.
But his wife, Virginia, reluctantly let a reporter and photographer into their home for an interview with the mayor, who was in his pajamas.
“At least I know that people appreciated what I went through the last four years,” he said.
With just over 53 percent of votes, Macdonald, 68, a Vietnam War veteran and retired police detective who barely campaigned, beat Ben Chin, a 30-year-old progressive activist with the Maine People’s Alliance, which ran his aggressive campaign.
Macdonald flipped the result from the November election, when Chin outpolled the mayor, but not by enough to avoid the runoff, which added suspense to the most politically charged mayoral race in Maine’s recent history — for a part-time office that pays $4,500 per year.
Preliminary results listed Macdonald with 4,398 votes to 3,826 for Chin. Voter turnout — approximately 32 percent — was unusually high for a runoff election that was the only item on the ballot.
It’s no surprise that such a race arose in Lewiston.
It became a Franco-American city after Canadians began moving here in the 1860s for jobs in shoe and fabric mills on the Androscoggin River. Their descendants made Lewiston a Democratic stronghold where John F. Kennedy made the final stop of his 1960 presidential campaign.
But the mills closed, and since 2000, immigration has changed Lewiston like no other place in Maine, with 7,000 Somalis living in the region.
At the same time, however, the city has become more conservative, backing Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2010 and 2014, and twice electing Macdonald, who made headlines for saying in 2012 that Somali immigrants should “leave your culture at the door” and this year for calling for an online registry of welfare recipients.
Race loomed over this campaign. Local landlord Joe Dunne hung signs in the city saying “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin” in October after the Chinese-American candidate dubbed him a “slumlord.” Dunne said the signs simply referenced Chin’s ideas, but many condemned them as racist.
Many thought it’d be difficult for Chin to unseat Macdonald when he announced his run in February, but his campaign had the trappings of a state or federal race and he raised $88,000 through Nov. 24 on a progressive plan for the city that includes building 100 units of resident-owned housing.
The result is a devastating blow for the Maine Democratic Party, proving that even a rich and organized campaign can’t always beat a well-heeled candidate.
At a Friday party event, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell made a fundraising pitch for Chin, who put Maine People’s Alliance activists to work knocking on doors and making phone calls.
After results were announced, Chin said he always knew that beating a two-term incumbent would be hard.
“I truly think the world is actually a better place, for not just the campaign that we ran, but the way we ran it,” Chin told supporters during a campaign gathering at She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s on Middle Street.
Macdonald bought radio and newspaper ads, but he mostly ran a front porch campaign, and it could be argued that he won in spite of that.
Some prominent Republicans — including U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District — donated to him in November, but he later told the Sun Journal that he wasn’t taking more money. He ended up raising just $5,800 through Nov. 24.
He’ll now have to deal with a new, divided City Council, the majority of which endorsed Chin. But Macdonald said the politicking “stops now,” because he’s limited to this third term and he’s “not going to go out embarrassed because they want to fight like little kids.”
“We’re going to work together and we’re going to get some stuff done,” he said.
In November, Chin drew his support from the city’s downtown and the area around Bates College, while Macdonald won in more suburban areas with older voters. Votes weren’t separated by ward on Tuesday, but the divide between those voters was stark at the polls.
Somali immigrant Jama Mohamed arrived in Lewiston seven years ago and serves on the school board. He voted for Chin, saying immigrants are “in our home” now and that the city needs a leader who can “represent us, all of us.”
“We are one community and we want to come together,” Mohamed said.
But that argument didn’t find an audience with people including Don Hebert, a lifelong Lewiston resident whose grandparents came to the city from Canada.
He said that he finds it to be “an insult” that recent immigrants have been compared to his Franco-American ancestors because “there was no welfare” then. He voted for Macdonald.
“The people that work, you know, we work hard, we pay taxes,” Hebert said. “We’re tired of the freeloaders.”