The heat of the 2012 Presidential election is well in the dust by now, but this year in Lewiston Election Day is no doubt providing big opportunities for the city as a whole and for the Bates Democrats.
On Tuesday, November 5, residents of Lewiston and those registered to vote in Maine will elect their new city officials. Zam Zam Mohamed, the incumbent candidate, is running for reelection for the School Committee at-large. This is a highly influential position for the city, and when she was first elected, Mohamed was the first Somali woman to hold a political position in Lewiston.
Over the past few months, the Bates Democrats have been heavily involved in supporting Mohamed’s campaign, and Mohamed spoke in front of the club about a month ago.
“She shared her life story and really inspired a lot of us to get involved,” said Emily Roseman, President of the Bates Dems and someone who has spent time working on the campaign. “We have met with her to help distribute fliers and have canvassed for her three times,” said Roseman. The most recent canvassing effort was this past Saturday.
It is no secret that relations between Lewiston natives and the growing Somali community have been strained in the past. In a 2012 BBC documentary about Lewiston, Mayor Robert Macdonald asked immigrants to “leave your culture at the door,” and former Mayor Laurier Raymond in a 2002 letter wrote about the “negative results” of continued Somali immigration. This is to say nothing of the tensions that occur at an every-day level.
Teddy Rube, a sophomore and Bates Democrats Vice-President, sees a fortunate shift on the horizon, however.
“At this point, the Somali community has been in Lewiston for over a decade, and I think that even some of the members of the population that were resistant to cultural and political change in earlier years are coming around,” said Rube.
Through canvassing for Mohamed’s campaign, Rube has “encountered very positive reactions from almost everybody” and that he has never experienced “any outright resistance or push-back from residents that I’ve met.” Rube also noted that none of his fellow canvassers reported negative experiences either.
As Mohamed is currently an elected official, Rube explains that she has already established a presence in the city.
“A large amount people have either heard of Zam Zam or know her personally, and are very supportive of her candidacy.”
The Bates Democrats officially endorse Mohamed for the Lewiston School Committee at-large as well as politician Larry Gilbert, who is running for Mayor, a position he held in the past.
Roseman explains that while the Bates Democrats usually support candidates who identify with the Democratic Party, Mohamed and Gilbert are not running on a party ticket.
“This isn’t too much of a partisan issue,” she said, citing the candidates’ interest in education and a “collaborative power dynamic” as the reason behind the club’s support.
A common question on campus is whether, as Bates students, we should be involved in local elections, and Roseman recognizes that this question has been problematic in the past. For the most part, Bates students hail from different backgrounds than the majority of the Lewiston population, and our supporting candidates, campaigning, and even simply voting could potentially be seen as naive. Some question whether it is possible that Bates students understand the needs of a city that has been home to most of us for only a short while.
Furthermore, does our inherent status as “outsiders” create a dangerous relationship in which we, playing the role of privileged, elite members of the intelligentsia with a liberal bias, try to “fix” the problems of a city we view as economically depressed and in need of social reforms?
Teddy Rube says no. He and Roseman both admitted to thinking about this power dynamic outside of Dems meetings, and both suspect that other club members had similar internal conversations.
“By committing to attend Bates for four years, we’re also committing to live as residents of Lewiston for those four years. Bates and Lewiston are not separate–what happens in Lewiston affects us, as long-term community residents,” said Rube.
He emphasizes that the idea of “Bates students getting involved in local elections is not a matter of the privileged descending from the ivory tower to ‘help’ Lewiston,” rather, it involves “students as concerned, involved, and equal members of the community attempting to help make changes.”
He went on to explain that, when canvassing, students are always clear about their affiliation with the College, but they also emphasize their connection to the city as a place of residence, leisure, and employment, or at least volunteerism for students.
“We advocate for a candidate not because he or she will be good for Bates College, or will support what Bates students want, but because he or she will be an asset to Lewiston as a whole,” he says.
Rube also mentions that, for the sake of respectfulness, Batesies always try to team up with community volunteers when campaigning in order to make it more of a shared experience. “Campaigning with fellow Lewiston residents also helps us form good personal relationship with people outside of Bates, something which I think most Batesies don’t get to do nearly as much as they could or should.”
If you are registered to vote in Maine, consider voting in this upcoming election. As students and voters, and in the interest of becoming authentic members of the community, it is important to treat local elections with as much respect as one would a state or federal election, and recognize it as a chance to understand more about the place where we have landed. If it is possible for the native and Somali populations to begin to reach an understanding, then perhaps it is not out of the question for Bates students and Lewiston residents to also correct misconceptions stemming from both parties. It’s not an obligation; it’s a privilege.