BELFAST, Maine — The next mayor of Belfast is expected to be a longtime city councilor and local stage performer who hopes to avoid the limelight and drama while in office.
Eric Sanders, who’s running unopposed for mayor in the Nov. 5 city elections, knows this will mark a change in a community that’s getting ready to say goodbye to Mayor Samantha Paradis, whose two years in office were often colored by controversy.
Paradis, who has described herself as the city’s youngest, second female and first queer mayor, often made headlines for her words and actions — sometimes even when she didn’t want to. She’s expected to cede her gavel after Election Day to the 59-year-old city councilor, who said he will take a different approach to local government.
“I don’t want to be in the papers,” Sanders, who works at Bank of America, told the BDN last week. “The last couple of years have been turbulent … my goal is to deflate tensions, and not let people down.”
Paradis, an Aroostook County native, made a splash in 2017 when the 26-year-old political newcomer defeated longtime mayoral incumbent Walter Ash. Since then, her tenure has been marked by frequent clashes with city councilors. Council meetings, which are live-streamed and televised on the local-access channel, became “must-see TV” for many in the community who want to keep up with the action.
“Nothing like a little drama at council to make your viewership go up,” Ned Lightner, the channel’s station manager, said this week. “People were saying it’s the best reality show in the area.”
And while Sanders is a stalwart presence in the city’s bustling community theater scene, he emphasized that he would rather keep the drama on the stage and out of council chambers.
“I am a team player,” Sanders said. “Every chance I get as mayor to give full credit to city staff, the city manager and the council, I will.”
He and his wife, Courtney Miller Sanders, along with their three children, moved to Belfast 15 years ago. Almost immediately, the Missouri native jumped into public service, with a five-year stint on the school board followed by 10 years on City Council. He said this experience should serve him well as mayor, which is considered to be a largely ceremonial position in Belfast.
“People have expectations of mayor that they don’t have of council, which is weird, because the mayor doesn’t have a vote,” he said. “They like to know who their mayor is. They like to know they can trust them.”
And with watchwords such as “civility,” “humor” and “low-key,” Sanders hopes he will fit the bill and be able to assist in steering city government to less-fraught ground.
“I’m not going to change. I’m just going to be professional and mind my Ps and Qs,” he said. “I have a degree in communications, and I know how to use it.”
The councilor also expects his theater experience will serve him well as mayor. He studied drama in New York City and acted in various theaters there before moving to Maine, but didn’t get his start in Belfast community theater until three years ago. Since then, he’s been in a dozen shows and will portray publishing tycoon Joseph Pulitzer in Belfast Area High School’s upcoming production of “Newsies — The Musical.”
“Everything is a role,” he said. “Being mayor is a role, but it’s all sincere, too.”
Part of that sincerity is the love and appreciation he has for Belfast, which he described as the kind of community where residents argue with each other passionately but nonetheless reach out to make sure their enemies would not spend Thanksgiving alone.
“Everyone in this town has a fervent opinion,” Sanders said. “Belfast’s council is loaded with characters, including me. That’s a good thing. ‘Keep Belfast Weird’ is not going to go away … we live in a hell of a town. Let’s celebrate it.”
Belfast residents will vote from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 5, for the state and municipal election. Those who live in Wards 1-4 will vote at the Crosby Center at 96 Church St., and those who live in Ward 5 will cast their ballots at the Belfast United Methodist Church at 23 Mill Lane. In addition to voting for mayor, residents will vote for two City Council seats.