On Tuesday night, in a packed room upstairs in Lewiston Public Library, the five candidates hoping to be chosen as Lewiston’s next mayor on November 3rd presented themselves to the public and shared their visions for Lewiston’s future. The forum was hosted by the Lewiston Sun Journal, Lewiston Public Library, and local law firm Norman, Hanson & DeTroy.
Ben Chin, a Bates College graduate of 2007 and the political director of the public interest group, Maine People’s Alliance, presented himself as an assertive negotiator with the skill necessary to wrangle funding from the State of Maine to pay for a progressive policy program. Chin promised to crack down on code violations by “corporate slumlords” in Lewiston’s downtown, encourage economic development on Lisbon Street, and create jobs by encouraging the solar industry. Citing a career of lobbying the state government, Chin was confident that he would be able to get funding from the state. “I’m going to be hustling to make sure that the millions of dollars our city is owed is given to us,” he promised.
Luke Jensen, a 24-year-old employee at TD Bank in Auburn and the Chair of the Lewiston Republican Committee, pointed to his youth as strength and positioned himself as a champion of the city’s outlying areas. He promised to reinstate positions in the Lewiston Fire Department, create a city advisory board staffed only by residents from suburban areas, and keep young people in the area. “Even though I’m young, with a baby face like this,” he said, alluding to his youthful appearance, “I have strong convictions.”
Robert Macdonald, Lewiston’s outspoken incumbent mayor pointed to his work bringing customer service center Argo Marketing to Lisbon Street, bringing 600 jobs, and the city’s creation of a new park under his watch. He also touted his record as an opponent of welfare spending and constantly reiterated that for Lewiston’s budgetary woes, “The only solution is welfare reform.” He also mentioned his close personal relationship with Republican Gov. Paul Lepage.
Steve Morgan, a middle-aged realtor and former City Councilor, stressed the need to attract businesses to Lewiston and promised to be a positive salesman as mayor. “Lewiston needs a mayor and ambassador to bring businesses to Lewiston and not watch them go over the river.” He promised to bring real-estate solutions like retail store development to city planning, and also promised to combat welfare fraud.
Charles Soule, a sometimes rambling 62 year-old veteran and downtown resident who has been running for mayor for the past fourteen years, asserted that “this election shouldn’t be about young versus old.” He argued that Lewiston should return to its Franco-American roots and create development by producing French automobiles and French wine.
The forum touched on topics ranging from welfare spending, downtown parking, school funding, city consolidation, and even bike lanes. Most of the candidates agreed on a number of the topics, such as increased publicity of downtown parking, bringing train service to Lewiston, and that Lewiston had an image problem that needed fixing. However, there was often a contrast between Chin, a progressive, and the other four more conservative candidates that spoke to some of the city’s societal divides.
The discussion over welfare—a hot button issue in Lewiston—seemed to speak to a divide between older and newer residents, and was further tinged by a subtext of immigration. Macdonald, Jensen, Morgan, and Soule all promised to continue welfare spending for Lewiston’s elderly. However, the four were critical of providing welfare to newcomers to Lewiston. “When you see people walking into Lewiston and asking for more money—it’s insane,” Jensen said. Macdonald expressed concern about people coming from out of state contributing to welfare costs. He also criticized Ben Chin for preventing attempts to cut welfare spending at the state level, a reference to Chin’s and Maine People’s Alliance’s campaigns to preserve welfare funding for asylum-seeking immigrants this summer. Chin for his part attempted to orient the discussion of welfare away from cuts and advocated for economic development to reduce welfare use. He also proposed creating a new office in City government to help New Mainers learn English and find jobs.
The candidates’ policies also spoke to a geographical divide in Lewiston. In attacking slumlords, championing businesses on Lisbon street, and aiming to reduce tenancy, Chin’s plans seemed predominantly oriented towards improving Lewiston’s more impoverished downtown neighborhoods. In contrast, Jensen and Morgan championed Lewiston’s suburban and rural neighborhoods, arguing that attracting middle-class families to the suburbs was the key to increasing the city’s tax base. Jensen in particular stressed his desire to “push the city’s peripheries,” describing the suburbs positively in contrast to “not as nice neighborhoods” elsewhere in the city.
The forum was formal and largely cordial, with few direct personal interactions between the candidates. However, Chin and Morgan, in evidence of their opposing policy positions, clashed over Chin’s use of the word “corporate slumlord” to describe three downtown landlords. “Mr. Chin, if I hear the word corporate slumlord one more time, I’m going to cringe,” Morgan interjected at one point.
The room was stuffed over capacity with over 200 spectators. Longtime residents indicated that this forum generated interest and attendance far above any previous mayoral race. “This is by far the biggest one I’ve ever seen,” said Mark Cayer, current City Council president and retired police officer. Members of the crowd were supporters of Ben Chin, identifiable by their blue-and-white Chin for Mayor buttons.
There were also nearly thirty Bates students in attendance and many seemed enthusiastic about Chin’s candidacy. Benjamin Palmer ’16 said he thought “Ben Chin spoke eloquently and brought confidence and specificity not seen elsewhere in the race.” Hannah Otten ’16 praised Chin, noting that “the rest of the candidates obviously perceived him as the biggest threat.”