Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, a longtime critic of public assistance programs, wants to publicize the names and addresses of Mainers on welfare by creating an online registry of recipients.
Writing in his regular column in the Twin City Times, a Lewiston-Auburn weekly newspaper, Macdonald said if the public can get information about people who receive public pensions, they should be able to do the same for welfare recipients.
“We will be submitting a bill to the next legislative session asking that a website be created containing the names, addresses, length of time on assistance and the benefits being collected by every individual on the dole,” he wrote. “After all, the public has a right to know how its money is being spent.”
Macdonald, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, also wrote that he plans to resubmit a bill that would limit General Assistance, an emergency benefit program administered by cities and towns, to 60 months over a person’s lifetime, and another bill that would prohibit the state from paying benefits for any child born after the recipient has been accepted into General Assistance.
Macdonald is not a lawmaker and would have to find a member of the Legislature to sponsor his proposals. He said he already has appealed to two lawmakers.
Macdonald said in an interview Wednesday that he has no concerns about how the column might be perceived.
“Go into a grocery store. They flaunt it,” he said, referring to people who receive welfare benefits. “I’m not sorry. I hope this makes people think twice about applying for welfare.”
BLAMES ‘LIBERAL LEGISLATORS’
Macdonald also said that putting names and addresses out there might encourage neighbors to “make a call.”
“Then we can go after all these people who are gaming the system,” he said.
Asked if that might hurt other people receiving benefits, Macdonald said, “I don’t care. Some people are going to get harmed, but if it’s for the good of everybody, that’s the way it is.”
The mayor, whose blunt talk has raised eyebrows before, appeared to put blame on Democrats for coddling welfare recipients.
“Our liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies have made them a victimized, protected class,” he wrote. “It’s none of your business how much of your money they get and spend. Who are you to question it? Just shut up and pay!”
He wrote that he would still keep medical records, financial statements and other personal information blocked from “busybodies who seek it out of curiosity.”
A former police officer, Macdonald had no political experience when he won the mayor’s seat in 2011. He was re-elected two years later and is now seeking a third term. His challenger is Democrat Ben Chin, a former Maine People’s Alliance organizer.
Chin called Macdonald’s plan a “completely political stunt.”
“Mayor Macdonald has been in office for four years and he’s done nothing to lower our poverty rate and make our city better,” Chin said. “Instead, he likes to scapegoat and publicly embarrass people.”
‘GOOD AT GRABBING HEADLINES’
Chin said he wants to talk about ways to improve Lewiston – creating more affordable housing and an office of immigrant integration.
“He’s good at grabbing headlines, but not at delivering and I think his supporters should look closely at that,” he said.
Macdonald came under fire in 2012 when he made a comment to a documentary filmmaker that immigrants should “leave their culture at the door” when they arrive in this country. Lewiston at the time was experiencing an influx of immigrants from Somalia who were resettling in the city from Portland and other locations.
Macdonald has made similar provocative comments in his weekly column in the Twin City Times. The newspaper is published by Laurie Steele, the wife of Peter Steele, Gov. Paul LePage’s communications director. The couple founded the paper in 1999. Macdonald has been a longtime ally of the governor, especially on welfare issues.
Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said she’s never heard of a proposal like Macdonald’s online welfare registry before, but said it raises constitutional concerns.
“It’s not clear to me what purpose this would serve other than to shame people,” she said.