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BELFAST, Maine — After Mayor Samantha Paradis decided not to seek re-election, she did something that other mayors in the past have done: She signed the mayoral desk in the council chambers at Belfast City Hall.
But unlike other mayors, Paradis also inscribed a message on the inside of the desk drawer:
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
The jury is still out on what kind of legacy Belfast’s controversial outgoing mayor will leave, but her words may be a clue indicating what she would like it to be. They mark the end of two tumultuous years in office for Paradis, who won a surprise victory against longtime incumbent Walter Ash in 2017.
To her many supporters, the election of the 26-year-old nurse from Aroostook County as the city’s youngest, second female and first queer mayor, felt like a positive harbinger of change. They viewed her as a symbol of youth and energy who could provide a voice that was absent from local government, where the next youngest city councilor was pushing 60.
Councilor Neal Harkness, who championed her run but sparred with Paradis while in office, said the simple fact of her election is a pivotal part of how she will be remembered.
“I think the fact that someone like her, with her age and her identity, could be elected — I think that speaks well of the voters of the city,” he said. “I think her legacy is that she got there.”
But it’s not always easy at the top.
After the election, Paradis had said she wanted to foster a welcoming culture at City Hall and took a leadership role on the Belfast Climate Change (now Climate Crisis) Committee. Still, it was not long before cracks in the council culture began to form.
Tensions between Paradis and the council led to dramatic moments and news headlines around the state and sometimes beyond. Highlights included a civility workshop in August 2018 that ended with Paradis telling councilors their meetings had been a hostile environment for her in which she felt unsafe. She also wrote a provocative op-ed in the Republican Journal last November in which she said she had encountered ageism, sexism and bigotry while on the job. In response, councilors voted to stop her from speaking on the city’s behalf.
A polarizing force
Councilors and the mayor made efforts to reach common ground, but drama continued over communication styles and power struggles. Residents who followed the municipal shenanigans often used social media to hash over what had happened, taking sides according to how they interpreted the drama. Over the past couple of years, the city was experiencing escalating discord because of Nordic Aquafarms’ controversial plan to build a large, land-based salmon farm in the city.
But Paradis seemed just as polarizing, inspiring strong feelings both for and against her. One Belfast man wrote a play inspired by the situation, which featured as its hero a young, queer mayor of a small coastal city who pushed back against greedy councilors and developers.
But another local who fell at the other end of the Paradis spectrum burst into a spontaneous dance on the sidewalk near Belfast City Hall the morning after the election, simply because Paradis’ term was over.
Eric Sanders, a longtime councilor, ran unopposed for mayor and was elected Tuesday to succeed her.
Paradis did not respond to a message sent to her this week seeking comment, but she did open up about her experiences last month as she presided over her final council meeting as mayor.
“I looked in the mirror before the meeting, and I thought, did I look the same two years ago? Because I feel a lot different,” Paradis said. “I’ve certainly learned a lot in the last two years and have a lot of gratitude for having had this opportunity to serve the city of Belfast.”
Paradis told the city she appreciates the education she received while serving as mayor.
“Better education than I’ve probably gotten in all the universities I’ve attended in the state of Maine,” she said.
The mayor’s legacy
Belfast resident Anne-Marie Nolin, who voted for Paradis in 2017, said she also had an education thanks to the mayor. She learned that “fresh new ideas” are no guarantee of effective governance.
“Despite the former mayor’s apparent progressive bona fides (not all of them expressed during the election), the endorsement of council members who had presumably met and vetted her, and a general sense that it might be time for a change, I quickly felt voter’s remorse,” Nolin wrote to the Bangor Daily News.
That’s why this year, Nolin approached local elections differently.
“I want to see a thoughtful council that gets things done,” she said. “This time around, I made an effort to learn more about the candidates … I think the voters did their homework.”
At Paradis’ final council meeting, Councilor Harkness acknowledged some of the problems but spoke positively of her nonetheless.
“I think your election was a tremendous step for the city of Belfast,” he said. “I recognize that your tenure has not always gone smoothly with the members of council. And there’s no point of even discussing who might have said or done what … but I believe you served admirably, respectfully and honestly for the city of Belfast.”
This week, the councilor said that in the long run, people will remember that Paradis was elected and forget the problems that followed. He acknowledged her leadership on climate change issues and appreciated the way she helped illustrate something that may not have previously been apparent in the city of Belfast.
“It really isn’t clear how the mayor fits into the ‘weak mayor – city manager system’ because I think that the mayor really is more than just a figurehead,” he said. “I think that before we had a problem, we should have had a set of protocols of how the mayor runs the meetings.”
Longtime Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley, who also supported Paradis’ election, believes it will be harder now for an “unknown person” to be elected to local office. He also thinks that her tenure will be remembered for its lost opportunities.
“It could have gone so well,” he said.
David August, a Belfast property manager, said the generational gap between the former mayor and the council showed.
“I thought she was nice. I think people that are in government need thicker skin. Did she get offended too easily? I’m not going to pass judgement,” he said. “But the last City Council does not give the appearance of being easy to work with.”
Caitlin Hills, the chairperson of RSU 71, said the past two years have been marked by hostility, both locally and nationally.
“I think it’s a nationwide anger toward politicians, toward government, toward everybody who is not exactly like you,” she said. “I don’t think that Samantha angered people because of her sexual preference or anything. I think it was her style. She wasn’t reading the room. It’s an important thing to do, even when you want to be a radical changemaker.”