Since his entry into politics in 2011, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald has built a reputation around the city and state as an anti-welfare and anti-tax conservative with a penchant for unrestrained bluntness. He’s gained admiration and infamy for controversial comments about immigrants and welfare recipients. Despite—or, as a result of—his pugnacious image, Macdonald has been elected Mayor three times, most recently in a contentious runoff election in December. In the wake of the election, I sat down with Mayor Macdonald to ask him about his goals, the city’s political climate, and Lewiston’s relationship with Bates.
Despite his prickly reputation, the man who once told immigrants to “leave your culture at the door” is very genial in person. He greeted me at his office door with a toothy smile. He seemed dressed more for recreation than politics, clad in a blue-and-white checkered flannel, a black vest, and sunglasses propped on top of his large forehead. Despite his sporty appearance, he walked slowly with a long silver cane, which often jabbed the air when he got agitated. Macdonald speaks with a heavy New England accent, which is at its most prominent when he says the words parking (“Paahhking”), yahoos, (“yaaahoos”), and his personal favorite, welfare (“welfaaahre”). Instead of sitting in the plush leather chair behind his desk, he beckoned me to two smaller chairs and squeezed his frame into one. “I don’t like to sit in that chair for interviews,” he stated. “It makes me feel too regal, king-like.”
When I asked Macdonald about his goals for this term as mayor, he answered quickly. “Look,” he said, putting up a gnarled pointer finger, “my primary goal is housing, for the working poor.” He lingered emphatically on the word working. “I don’t forget where I come from. So many of these people live in housing that is…I wouldn’t call it substandard, but it could be better. We’ve been talking with developers, a mix of private and public. When I leave here in 22 months, I want to get these people some housing.”
Macdonald also stressed the need to build housing not only for Lewiston’s working class, but for younger professionals who he hopes to lure to Lewiston by offering housing, close-knit community, and access to the outdoors. “We have these bike trails along the river, we’re making new parks, we’re really trying to make [Lewiston] marketable to the 20-30 crowd.” He pointed his thumb at me. “We’re going to make primo housing, for your college and the hospitals. They want to hire people, but folks don’t want to live here.” But, he cautioned, “The working poor are still my top priority.”
A working class background and career informs Macdonald’s man-of-the-people attitude. Born in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Boston, Macdonald served in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He moved to Lewiston in 1977 and spent twenty-three years with the Lewiston Police Department, investigating murders and arson. (“I saw things that were a little nasty.”) He spent the next decade in Lewiston’s schools, working as the self-described “sheriff” of Lewiston Middle School. He first ran for mayor in 2011, winning election by only 70 votes over an opponent who had died a week before election day. “I beat a dead guy,” he admitted, with a sheepish shrug. Since then, he’s gone on to win two consecutive terms. He soundly routed former Mayor Larry Gilbert in 2013 (“I crushed him!”) and defeated Ben Chin, a Bates College graduate and political director for the progressive lobbying organization, Maine People’s Alliance, in the runoff election in December.
The race drew national attention, funding from out-of-state donors, and saw many longtime residents of Lewiston openly criticizing Bates’ students’ right to vote in local elections. Four of the seven incoming city councilors had publicly endorsed Macdonald’s opponent in the month before the runoff election. I asked Macdonald whether he felt that the election’s polarization spilled over into current city work.
“I think…” he paused, biting his large lower lip slightly. “We started with, ‘we’re going to be neutral.’ Leave your politics at the door.” Waving a big hand, as if brushing off an expected criticism, he said, “What I write in that newspaper, that’s politics. But when I’m in here”—he pointed behind himself, towards the City Council chamber—“there’s no politics, just what’s good for the citizens of Lewiston.”
However, it seems that of the city’s elected officials, Macdonald has much politics to leave behind. “The newspaper” he refers to is the weekly free paper, the Twin City Times. In it, Macdonald writes a column titled “Enough is Enough.” Every week, he draws on a mix of biting sarcasm and populist rhetoric to pillory his sworn opponents: “rich Democratic progressives,” “people with degrees in social science, academic theory, and the arts,” and “welfare bums.” His attacks are often personal. He’s called the former mayor of Lewiston “delusional,” offered “a crying towel” to Ben Chin and the Maine People’s Alliance, insulted Democratic state legislators, and proposed creating a public list of all welfare recipients so they can be “named and shamed.” On the other hand, he fiercely defends the “working poor,” “hard-working property taxpayers,” veterans, and Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, another blunt populist.
When I asked Macdonald if his column in the paper complicated his work as Mayor, he dismissed it. “Politics is politics. Too many people take it personally. People can criticize me all they want, I’m not going to be offended.” He threw up his hands, as if in exasperation at those he offends. “It’s not personal!”
Inside City Hall though, it seems that Macdonald does live up to his own standards to a certain extent. “You may call me a conservative, but liberals got some good ideas too,” he said. He praised the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, a co-op project run by Craig Saddlemire, a former city councilor and Bates grad from 2007, as a strong model for developing the downtown’s decrepit housing stock. “If everybody has a share of the building, let me tell you, it keeps the neighborhood going. I think it keeps the neighborhood up if if they’re actually stakeholders and not renters.” Ironically, Saddlemire’s co-op model was one of the cornerstones of the campaign of his progressive opponent, Ben Chin.
He also expressed ideological flexibility on some of his conservative viewpoints, like taxes. During our discussion of housing, Macdonald said, “One of the the things we are going to do, and I will be very vocal about this, we’re going to hire a couple more fire inspectors, to go and inspect the houses.” Macdonald recalled an interaction he had as an arson detective years ago. “One woman told me, ‘my grandson sleeps in the kitchen now because, he’s afraid our building’s going to burn and he wants to be right next to the door.’” Macdonald’s face flushed red with indignation. “We don’t need this crap!” His cane bobbed up and down wildly. “If you gotta raise the taxes on them, well that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t care if you’re a libertarian or whatever the hell you are!”
Like other politicians currently in the national spotlight, Macdonald seems to relish a role as a political outsider who is willing to tussle with anyone to achieve his goals. He described himself as only “loosely affiliated” with the Lewiston Republican Committee. Over this past summer, when I interviewed him for a research project, he recalled with glee how he antagonized the local Republicans for lagging on the fight against welfare spending. “I sent them a real nasty email,” he recalled, chuckling. “They didn’t like that one bit. Caused a bit of an issue.”
Clashing with many of Lewiston’s conservatives, Macdonald also defended Bates students’ right to vote in Lewiston, which became a political issue as a result of large student turnout in support of the Chin campaign. After the election, the Lewiston Republican Committee’s chairman Luke Jensen went as far as to introduce a petition to move the municipal elections to June in order to prevent Bates students from voting.
When I asked him about Jensen’s petition, Macdonald’s face twisted as if he’d taken a bite of something sour. “Eh,” he said, an exasperated sigh issuing from deep in his large chest. “You know, it’s gonna die. And you know what, I don’t really want to even get into foolishness like that.” He said further of Bates students, “They have a right to vote in Lewiston, okay. I don’t have any problem with them voting. But you know what, if you want to vote here, okay, come down to City Hall, you register your car. If you’ve registered as a Maine motorist, and pay some stuff, you’re fine, who cares? You vote, you vote,” he said, shrugging. “For me, it’s a non-issue.”
Macdonald stressed that he feels Bates College and its students are an integral part of the city. “I like Bates College. Every year I send a letter welcoming [new students], asking them if they want to stay. Bates Students do a lot of stuff for this community, and I have always said that.” He was particularly effusive in his praise for the service that Bates students do for Lewiston’s school system. He cited Julia Sleeper ‘08 (founder of community organization Tree Street Youth), Nate Libby ’07 (State Senator for Lewiston) and Jared Golden ’11 (State Representative for Lewiston) as ideal examples of Bates graduates that stayed in Lewiston and contributed.
Macdonald’s conception of himself as an outsider seems to extend to his identity as a Lewiston resident. Even though he’s lived in Lewiston for nearly forty years, he still refers to other Lewistonians as separate from himself. “These people took me in, and they have been good to me.” In his final term, he said that he wants to make sure he treats Lewiston the same way. “I just want to see this place progressing. I ran only to contribute to something, okay? I don’t want any streets named after me or any of that crap! I’d like to see maybe five to ten years from now, we look like Portland, or actually I’d like to see us outdo Portland, which we could do.”
As we concluded the interview, Macdonald showed me to City Hall’s front door. As we walked—slowly, as a result of his need for the cane—I asked Macdonald again about his column and his self-appointed title, “Mayor Curmudgeon.” He laughed. “I only wrote that because one of my opponents called me that first.” He leaned close to my face and grinned, his heavy eyelids blinking slowly. “I did it to give him a little”—he violently jabbed two fingers in the air, into the invisible ribs of his foe. “Just to get back at him. But it’s not personal, really.”
That constant jabbing of his opponents, with his blunt language and his weekly column, may seem at odds with Macdonald’s belief that “it’s not personal.” To his critics, Macdonald’s “politics is politics” mantra might seem like a blank-check justification for divisive rhetoric and personal attacks. For Macdonald though, there’s no contradiction. For him, it’s a stance that allows him to fight to unapologetically frame the public debate outside of his role as mayor, but allows him the ideological flexibility to bend in his official capacity as a decision-maker.
As I ascended the tiled stairs that lead towards the door, the mayor stopped by an elevator off to the side and pressed. He was headed upstairs to “bother the staff.” As I turned behind me to bid the mayor goodbye, I saw him chuckling to himself. As he stepped in the elevator, he turned to me. “Mayor Curmudgeon,” he mused. After a momentary pause, his face broke out into a devious grin. “I like that.”