LEWISTON – Mayor Robert Macdonald is a blunt man, a direct man.
More than two decades as a police officer in Lewiston and another decade working in the city’s middle school solidified his strong opinions about how the community could be improved, about how it could rebound from a long period of economic stagnancy.
When he ran for office last year, Macdonald had no political experience. He shot from the hip then and still does. From time to time, his words have gotten him into trouble, but he doesn’t back down.
Stavros Mendros, a former Auburn lawmaker and Macdonald supporter, said the mayor speaks the truth, without a filter. “That’s refreshing,” Mendros said.
Macdonald’s most recent comments, though, in which he encouraged immigrants who settle in Lewiston to “leave their culture at the door,” have stirred up more than the usual hornets’ nest.
Mahamud Muktar, who is in his 20s and works at one of the many African-themed general stores on Lisbon Street, said Macdonald’s comments suggest he has little understanding of what is going on in other parts of the world. Muktar said he has plenty of memories of his home country of Somalia that he would just as soon forget. The poverty. The lawlessness. Somalis fighting Somalis, often to the death.
“We moved here for freedom, because our country doesn’t have freedom,” he said. “But our culture is our culture. You can’t leave that behind.”
Macdonald made the “culture” comment during an interview for a BBC documentary that aired Sept. 11. In his two attempts so far to clarify those statements, the mayor has refused to apologize, and some people feel he has actually made things worse.
At a meeting Tuesday, the mayor said he meant that immigrants should “assimilate,” not abandon their culture. He said his comments about immigrants have been twisted by the media and blown out of proportion by his political opponents.
Still, in a city that has worked for a decade to build a bridge between community members and the steady influx of immigrants, most from Somalia and other East African countries, Macdonald’s defiance has threatened to reverse years of progress.
“There are still xenophobic, Islamophobic people in this community,” said Heather Lindkvist, an anthropology professor at Bates College who has studied immigrant migration to Lewiston over the past decade. “The mayor’s comments validate those people’s feelings.”
A similar incident took place exactly one decade ago. Then-Mayor Larry Raymond, concerned about the growing number of immigrants in his city, wrote an open letter encouraging them to tell their family and friends to stop coming to Lewiston.
Raymond never apologized for those comments, even as thousands rallied in the city in support of the Somali community. For weeks, the community made national headlines. None of it was good news.
Lindkvist said Macdonald’s words will be particularly harmful if they continue to generate national attention. Even if the city has made strides, which most Lewiston leaders said is the case, all that people will see are those comments.
On Thursday, two days after Macdonald hoped to finally put the matter to rest, dozens attended a rally in Lewiston calling on the mayor to apologize or step down.
Mark Cayer, City Council president, issued a statement after the rally saying that if it were him, he would have apologized already.
Macdonald declined to be interviewed for this story. At a meeting last week during which he tried to clarify his comments, he said he would not talk to the media anymore about this topic.
A MAYOR BY ACCIDENT?
But for a bit of morbid luck, Macdonald might not even be Lewiston’s mayor.
After placing second in a five-way mayoral election in November 2011, Macdonald, a Republican, narrowly won a runoff election the next month against the only person who got more votes in November, Democrat Mark Paradis.
Between the general election and the runoff, Paradis learned that he had cancer. He died less than a week before the final vote.
Macdonald’s margin of victory was 70 votes.
In the 10 months since that runoff election, Macdonald has become Lewiston’s de facto leader and its spokesman. And he hasn’t been shy about using that role, particularly to talk about welfare reform, which has become something of an obsession, according to those who know him.
Cayer said Macdonald is passionate about reversing Lewiston’s reputation as a welfare capital. His goal is to impose a 10-year moratorium on subsidized housing in Lewiston, something he feels will help restore economic vibrancy to a city decimated by mill closures. He also has lobbied for a public website that would list the names and addresses of all Maine welfare recipients.
Some of Macdonald’s supporters said they don’t understand why his most recent comments have generated so much controversy.
“He speaks from the heart,” Mendros said. “No one should be surprised.”
Many have compared Macdonald to another Maine politician, Gov. Paul LePage. Both are conservative Republicans. Both are passionate about ferreting out welfare cheats. Both often have to clarify remarks that some find offensive.
Plenty of people support Macdonald, even if they are reluctant to do so publicly. Some fear being labeled a racist or bigot.
City Councilor Nathan Libby, who is on the opposite side of Macdonald politically, said the mayor went too far with his comments about Somali culture. He wasn’t among those who called on the mayor to resign, but Libby did say that Macdonald should apologize.
Given that chance Tuesday, with several TV cameras facing him, Macdonald clarified his comments but refused to back off them.
A PATTERN OF RHETORIC
Gen Lysen, a community coordinator for the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal advocacy group, said Macdonald’s comments probably could have been overlooked if the mayor had not already established a pattern of making controversial remarks.
“If we don’t stand up, we’re saying it’s OK to be bigoted, to be racist, to say hateful things,” she said.
Macdonald’s eyebrow-raising comments date back to before he was elected.
In the Lewiston Sun Journal last Dec. 12, Macdonald said residents need to stop comparing recent immigrants to the immigrants of 100 years ago who came from Canada.
“It causes a lot of stress, and it causes Lewiston residents to hate these people,” he said.
In another Sun Journal story last year, Macdonald talked about his time as an educational technician in the middle school. He praised the Somali girls as hardworking and smart but criticized the boys. “They have to take all these standardized tests, filling in the bubbles with a pencil, and they’d just go down the line, filling in the same bubble,” he said. “They’d mark ‘A, A, A…’ and hand me the paper and say they’re done. ‘What do you mean you’re done?’ I’d say. But they just didn’t care.”
Macdonald also writes a regular column in the Twin City Times, a local weekly newspaper. In one published this year, he made comments about culture that were similar to what he told the BBC, essentially that Somalis and others need to conform to American culture and laws. “There can only be one dominant central culture: American,” he wrote.
In that same piece, he complained about how “Somali women turn into obnoxious customers at the grocery store.” On Tuesday, he said his point was that others were encouraging those women to behave that way.
Even when he first tried to clarify his “leave your culture at the door” comment to a local TV station, he appeared to double down.
“I don’t care if you’re white, you’re black, you’re yellow. I don’t care what color you are, when you come into the country, you have to accept our culture,” he told WGME. “Don’t try to insert your culture, which obviously isn’t working, into ours, which does.”
He also said that if the Somali culture is so great, “Why aren’t they back over in Somalia? Why are they here?”
In a newspaper column last month, Macdonald said “a small number of extremist white liberals and their African surrogates seeking to cast Lewiston in a bad light is unconscionable.” He added that many Somalis in Lewiston have found success in getting jobs, buying homes and starting businesses, and that complaints about Somali relations in Lewiston “are coming almost exclusively from boo-hoo white do-gooders and their carpetbagger friends.”
Peter Steele, who publishes the Twin City Times, said Macdonald’s columns do not reflect the editorial position of the paper.
“In the past, I have edited segments of his column that I thought truly crossed the line. But I give him a lot of latitude — just as I gave the previous mayor a lot of latitude in his columns,” Steele said in an email. “For over four years, we published former Mayor Larry Gilbert’s columns, which were so leftist that they verged on communism.”
From 2000 to 2010, Lewiston’s African-American population grew from 383 to 3,174, an increase of 828 percent. City officials say the number is even higher than that today, perhaps as high as 6,000.
The demographic shift is easy to see. There are a dozen African-American shops and restaurants on
Lisbon Street downtown just in the short block between Chestnut and Pine streets. In Kennedy Park on Tuesday afternoon, nearly all of the young faces playing basketball or soccer were dark-skinned.
Mohamed Abdillahi, a Somali immigrant and community organizer, told Macdonald on Tuesday: “We’re not going anywhere, Mr. Mayor.”
Abdillahi also challenged Macdonald’s clarification about “assimilating.” The people Abdillahi knows have assimilated. They have learned English. They have gotten jobs and bought houses. It takes time, he said.
“We need a leader who has vision,” Abdillahi said.
Hussein Ahmed, 39, a Somali refugee who has been in Lewiston for 10 years and owns a shop downtown, also said Macdonald was not being a good leader. Still, Ahmed encouraged the mayor to come out of this situation stronger.
After he read his prepared remarks Tuesday, Macdonald let others speak. A handful did. In each case, Macdonald responded. He made sure he got the last word.
Toward the end of the public comment period, though, Macdonald encouraged immigrants to schedule a meeting with him to sort things out.
City Council President Cayer said he was encouraged by that gesture. “I want to see how it plays out,” he said.
Lysen, of the Maine People’s Alliance, said community members she heard from were pleased that Macdonald made an attempt to clarify his words, but “everything he said was qualified.”
“It didn’t seem genuine,” she said. “And when he engaged with the people who spoke, he was defensive and sometimes rude. He hasn’t taken responsibility.”
At Thursday’s rally, Louis Morin, director of the Franco-American Heritage Center, said Macdonald’s remarks were ironic because he’s mayor of a city that literally was built by immigrants, mostly French Canadian.
Whether Macdonald’s words will have lasting effects is unclear.
Said Abdillahi, who came to Lewiston from Ethiopia eight years ago and described himself as self-employed, said he thinks Macdonald’s comments might actually be good in the long run.
“There are not a lot of us who are involved politically, but this might be changing our mind,” he said. “This might bring us closer to having a voice.”
Asked whether Macdonald has done enough to mend things, Abdillahi said, “I think he realized later that it wasn’t good for him.
“Only God knows what he really feels.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: