Mayoral Race in Maine Could Help Define City’s Future Amid Demographic Shift

Katharine Q. Seelye, New York Times, December 6, 2015

This city’s high school teams have won state championships in football, hockey and basketball, but never for soccer.

Then last month, the undefeated Blue Devils, made up largely of refugees from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and elsewhere, eked out a 1-0 win to claim the state crown. Just as remarkable as that story was the prequel: eight of the players grew up together in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the United States.

Their triumph gave this hardscrabble town something to cheer about, especially in the midst of a vituperative political season in which anti-immigrant fervor has flared both on the national stage and here in Maine, the whitest state in the country, where Lewiston is preparing to vote on Tuesday in a runoff election for mayor.

The election comes as Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city, seeks to define its future against a backdrop of roiling demographic change.

Because of an influx of Somali refugees starting 15 years ago–drawn here by abundant affordable housing, after unhappy relocations to other American cities–Lewiston is on the leading edge of otherwise glacial shifts in Maine’s demographics.

{snip} The city is 86 percent white, while Maine as a whole is 93.8 percent white; the national average is 62 percent.

“We’ve been through this transformation now for 15-plus years, but things continue to change,” said Phil Nadeau, the deputy city administrator in Lewiston. “More new asylum seekers are coming in than new refugees. And most asylum seekers are college-educated and have working skills. The question over time will be whether they stay. Will we lose the talent?”

The nonpartisan mayoral election, which offers a sharp generational and ideological contrast, could help answer that question. It pits a two-term incumbent, Robert E. Macdonald, 68, a former Marine, Vietnam veteran, retired police detective and virulent opponent of welfare, against Ben Chin, 30, a political activist with the liberal Maine People’s Alliance and an Episcopalian lay minister; in the past he has advocated for allowing noncitizens to vote.

Mayor Macdonald has cast the race as a referendum on his tenure. “People know what I’ve done,” he said in his closing remarks at a recent debate, during which he referred to his attempts to limit welfare, rehabilitate downtown Lewiston and bring in new jobs. “I can look in the mirror,” he said.

Mr. Chin, a third-generation American who has been subject to some race-baiting, framed the election as a choice between uniting and dividing. “We have two roads we can go down,” he told reporters here. “Pull together, do big things, or just stay stuck and fight with each other, immigrant pitted against native-born, seniors against children, working class against the poor.”

{snip}

Today, 5,000 or 6,000 call Lewiston home. They have been joined by hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa.

It was not an easy adjustment. In 2002, Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. wrote an open letter to Somalis urging them to keep out. “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” he wrote. This prompted out-of-state white supremacists to rally here against what they called the Somali invasion.

Such overt hostility is long gone.

{snip}

Somali businesses have helped revitalize Lisbon Street, the main commercial thoroughfare. Tucked between the street’s historic brick and granite buildings are so many Somali shops that part of downtown is now called Little Mogadishu. Somalis have even been elected to the school board.

{snip}

{snip} But his [Mayor Macdonald’s] strict attitude toward those on welfare is sometimes perceived as anti-immigrant, especially because of initial fears that refugees would overwhelm the welfare system. The mayor declined to be interviewed for this article.

In 2009, refugees accounted for 16 percent of Lewiston’s welfare costs, according to the Lewiston Social Services Department. But in 2010, the city began seeing a steady increase in asylum seekers, and welfare costs started climbing. This year, asylum seekers accounted for 37 percent of the city’s welfare costs, while other refugees accounted for 11 percent.

Mayor Macdonald, who in 2012 told the BBC that immigrants should “leave your culture at the door,” has sought to ban welfare payments to asylum seekers, saying they unfairly burden Lewiston. He has also called for the public disclosure of the names of “every individual on the dole.”

{snip}

While Mr. Macdonald is not running a traditional campaign, his supporters do not count him out. “He’s an incumbent, he has a longtime following, and a lot of longtime citizens like him,” said Steve Morgan, a prominent real estate broker and losing candidate in the Nov. 3 mayoral election that led to Tuesday’s runoff. “And they like that he screams about welfare.”

But Mr. Chin’s supporters are just as determined. Inside the Mogadishu Store, where the aroma of warm sambusa wafts across the entryway and freezers are packed with camel meat, Said Mohamud, 56, the proprietor, who had been a chemical engineer in Somalia and even ran for president of that country, said he supported the new generation.

“Macdonald is the past,” he said. “Chin is the future.”

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