January 26, 2020
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Lewiston wasn’t ready for change, but is Maine?

LEWISTON, Maine — Plenty have weighed in on why Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald won re-election in a runoff on Tuesday and what it means.

— In Ben Chin’s concession speech, the challenger described his long odds based on the mayor’s two-term incumbency.

— Republicans said it was a victory for the party’s tough tack on welfarethe top issue for the conservative mayor — and a repudiation of the Maine People’s Alliance, the progressive group that employs Chin and ran his campaign, which outraised Macdonald by 15 times.

The New York Times said the race came as Lewiston sought to “define its future against a backdrop of roiling demographic change” that has brought 7,000 Somalis to the region since 2000.

— A liberal Salon writer gave Lewiston a new name: “Trumpland,” saying the racially tinged politics of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump won. Macdonald supports Trump, a connection trumpeted by conservative radio host Howie Carr in celebrating the mayor’s win.

— And Sun Journal reporter Scott Taylor wrung his hands at outside takes, saying people voted “for very personal reasons in this election” and that Chin’s big, professional campaign turned many off.

— Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist, said “a little bit of everything” made for the result.

This includes incumbency, the campaign, Lewiston’s divides and national factors. But it may not have taught us anything new about politics in Maine’s second-largest city or anywhere else.

“The simplest way to break it down is, ‘Was Lewiston ready for change?’” said Lizzy Reinholt, a Democratic strategist from Stratton. “No.”

Macdonald is known in Lewiston. Chin was seen as an outsider, and his campaign highlighted that for many.

The 68-year-old mayor is well-known in Lewiston, not only for his time at City Hall but his 23 years of service on the city police force and with other community groups. Chin, 30, moved to Lewiston to attend Bates College and hadn’t held public office.

He also brought a heavily political touch to his campaign, raising $88,000 through Nov. 24 and putting the Maine People’s Alliance to work on an aggressive campaign that rallied a base of college students, immigrants and other activists.

Chin outpolled Macdonald in November, but not by enough to avoid a runoff. It could be argued that he couldn’t have done that without the monied effort.

But the Bates connection and the size of the campaign hurt Chin among many.

At the polls on Tuesday, Glorianne Travaglini, a city native who voted for Macdonald, said Bates students “know nothing about Lewiston, and they’re taking over,” echoing criticism from other older voters.

In September, Macdonald supporter Nelson Peters Jr. wondered why Chin’s out-of-state funders cared about Lewiston politics.

State Rep. Michel Lajoie, a Democrat and a former city fire chief who supported Chin, said the challenger gave voters “something that they’ve never experienced before.”

“He ran too good a campaign, so to speak,” said Stephen Morgan, a Republican and former city councilor who finished third in the November election and supported Macdonald in the runoff.

Let’s face it: Race played a factor in the election — and the national political climate edged it along.

Lewiston’s influx of African immigrants makes it different than any other place in Maine, the nation’s oldest and whitest state. Portland also has a large immigrant population, but it’s bigger, more prosperous and more liberal.

Macdonald is probably best known for telling Somalis to “leave your culture at the door” in 2012, highlighting an inevitable tension between the city’s established and new residents.

On Tuesday, Jama Mohamed, a Somali immigrant and school board member, said that immigrants are “in our home” now and supported Chin because he wanted a leader to “represent us, all of us.”

But Don Hebert, a lifelong Lewiston resident who voted for Macdonald, said it’s “an insult” that immigrants are being compared to his Franco-American ancestors who came to the city about 1900.

Hebert’s statement that “there was no welfare” when his ancestors arrived illustrates how closely the immigration and welfare narratives played out in runoff.

Race also came into play when local landlord Joe Dunne — whom Chin had dubbed a “slumlord” — put up signs in the city that called the Chinese-American candidate “Ho Chi Chin.” Dunne said it was a reference to his progressive policies, but many saw them as racist.

Also, the campaign happened during the rise of Trump, the New York magnate who has called for banning all Muslim travel to the U.S. after the Paris terror attacks in November.

“I thought about Trump a lot,” Macdonald told Carr. “He’d say something, and he’d go up in the polls, and I’d figure, every time his numbers improve, mine probably do, too.”

But this was a local contest, not a referendum on Trump.

“Put Donald Trump back on ‘The Celebrity Apprentice,’” Brewer said, “and the outcome would still be the same in this race.”

But it probably doesn’t tell us anything new about Democrats’ problems in Lewiston or anywhere else.

Chin’s defeat was a major disappointment for Maine Democrats, who sought a show of strength in a traditional stronghold for their party.

They still hold a 6,000-voter edge on Republicans in the city. Democrats control all five legislative seats in Lewiston, and a majority of the next City Council endorsed Chin.

The city, however, was won by Gov. Paul LePage in 2010 and 2014, and Macdonald’s win has Republicans bullish on their future. Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett said in a statement that the result showed the party is “prepared to keep gaining ground.”

Anti-welfare rhetoric has been a winning message for Maine Republicans. Morgan called welfare “the hottest issue” in Lewiston. He said when he knocked on doors for his campaign, seven out of 10 voters talked about it.

But we already knew welfare posed a political problem for Democrats. LePage won last year with welfare reform at the core of his platform. Dennis Bailey, a Democratic strategist who once was a reporter in Lewiston, said Republicans are “tapping into people’s unease about it.”

“They strike a chord, and Democrats don’t have a good comeback,” he said.

Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Chin’s campaign was altogether positive for the party, saying it showed there’s “a real hunger for bold leadership.”

“I hope the candidates of all political stripes will take that to heart and build their campaigns around issues that they care about,” he said, “other than all the sorts of junk that gets tossed around in political campaigns.”

But after Chin’s defeat and two November losses in special elections for House seats formerly held by Democrats, the question remains whether Bartlett’s approach can succeed in Maine’s current political landscape.


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