LEWISTON, Maine — For the first time in three campaigns, the mayoral race in Lewiston is a quiet one.
Candidates Mark Cayer, Tim Lajoie and Charles Soule are all familiar faces in Maine’s second-largest city — Lajoie and Cayer have served on the city council, and Soule has run eight times as a longshot candidate. But there seems to be little energy in the city’s mayoral race.
“With everything else going on, I don’t think people are that focused on it,” said Jimmy Simones, owner of Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in the downtown. “They’re looking at the presidential elections, even though those are far away.”
This is new for the traditional Democratic stronghold that tracked right in the era of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Mayoral races in 2015 and 2017 featured high-dollar, losing campaigns between progressive activist Ben Chin and conservatives and became messy proxy wars between state parties.
Cayer nabbed an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who lives in Lewiston and represents the 2nd District, this week. Lajoie got donations from Bruce Poliquin, the Republican incumbent defeated by Golden in 2018, and Maine Republican Party Chairman Demi Kouzounas, but party politics hasn’t been a factor this time.
Both Cayer and Lajoie are Lewiston natives with law enforcement backgrounds. Cayer, a private investigator, is a former Rumford police lieutenants and Lajoie is a longtime sergeant in Androscoggin County Sheriff’s office. They’re running on improving the city’s reputation, encouraging economic development and public safety. But they go at it in different ways.
Cayer, who was eliminated ahead of a 2017 mayoral runoff election, said there are some “concerning trends in crime” happening in the city related to drug-trafficking and weapons violations, but stresses those problems are no different than what other communities in Maine are facing. He would like to bring back targeted enforcement to the city’s “hot spots.”
Lajoie wants to put more pressure on the local District Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office to be tough on drug-related crimes and crimes of violence. He wants to renovate the Androscoggin County Jail to create more space for rehabilitative programs.
“Restoring the safety and security of the city is paramount before we can get investments,” he said.
The candidates split on Lewiston’s recently adopted plan to transform downtown housing, possibly with a $30 million federal grant. Cayer supports it, while Lajoie said “adding more housing doesn’t address the core issues that hold back the city.”
Lajoie said he opposes efforts like safe injection and needle exchange programs because they “foster an environment of sanctuary for drug use or possession.” Cayer advocated a collaborative approach with the city’s nonprofit and community partners, specifically around the areas of substance abuse, housing and poverty.
Soule said he is running on education. He was concerned by the school committee’s decision this year to temporarily absolve its new grading criteria, which had parents, teachers, students and other concerned by the number of students who would have failed at least one class during the first semester under the new system.
Chin spent more than $100,000 combined in the 2015 and 2017 elections against candidates who ran lower-key campaigns. This year, Cayer raised just $5,300 through June 30 to Lajoie’s $1,200. Soule hasn’t been raising money. Their campaigns may mark a period of normalcy after an eventful four years in city politics.
The 2015 race was won by Mayor Robert Macdonald, a controversial figure for past comments about welfare recipients and immigrants. Toward the end of the campaign, a local landlord erected signs comparing Chin to former Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, which was denounced by both Democrats and Republicans.
In 2017, Chin lost to then-City Councilor Shane Bouchard after emails from his campaign were leaked to a website run by a top Maine Republican Party official. One described a day of canvassing when Chin had positive interactions but also ran into “a bunch of racists” just before a runoff election.
Bouchard resigned earlier this year after a woman publicized racist text messages that he sent to her and made other allegations that he denied. Kristen Cloutier, a Democratic state representative, assumed the seat as city council president and declined to run in her own right.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins, the chairman of the Lewiston Democrats, said Chin was “really progressive” and his views “inherently attracted argument.”
He said Cayer is running a more low-key and moderate campaign that will generate more support. But Lewiston has shown a conservative streak in past elections and the factions on Election Day could resemble past races even if the candidates don’t.