October 2, 2012

Under pressure, Lewiston mayor clarifies Somali comments

LEWISTON - With critics calling for his resignation, Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald spoke Tuesday to clarify comments that some felt disparaged immigrants, but he stopped short of apologizing.

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Should Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald have apologized for the comments he made about Somali immigrants?

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Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald speaks at a City Council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 in an attempt to clarify comments he made about the city's Somali immigrants.

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Speaking in a packed City Council chamber before Tuesday night's council meeting, MacDonald said his comments to a BBC reporter that went public last week were taken out of context.

In an interview with the reporter, MacDonald said: "You (immigrants) come here, you come and you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door."

On Tuesday night, MacDonald said, "What I meant by that comment is that I believe that when people come to the city of Lewiston from other countries, they need to assimilate into the American culture. ... I did not mean that they have to abandon their religion, their tradition, their language, nor their style of dress.

"The many Somalis and other immigrants who have relocated here have enriched the diversity that Lewiston offers, and that's a good thing," he said. "As mayor, I value every person in the city of Lewiston."

Last week, in his first attempt at clarification, MacDonald made things worse.

"If you believe in (Somali culture) so much, why aren't you over there fighting for it," he said on WGME-TV. "If you believe in it so much, why aren't you over there shedding blood to get it? Why are you here shirking your duties?"

MacDonald said Tuesday night that that statement was directed at one person, not the entire immigrant population, and he did apologize if those words offended some.

"I'm not going to apologize for 'leave your culture behind,'" he said.

After MacDonald spoke, several immigrants got up to speak. Most said they were saddened by the mayor's divisive remarks and his unwillingness to take them back.

Mohamed Abdillahi said the mayor has had chances to apologize but hasn't done so. He scolded the mayor for generalizing that immigrants aren't doing enough to assimilate.

"It takes years and years, Mr. Mayor," he said.

Garaad Dees agreed.

"You are the mayor of everybody. Antagonizing the community is not going to help," he said.

MacDonald fought back against some of the criticism and blamed the media and his opponents for stoking the controversy.

"I can't control what people say I said," he said, adding later that he wouldn't talk to the media anymore about the issue.

On Monday, the Maine People's Alliance and the African Diaspora of Portland called on MacDonald to resign for what he said.

The Maine People's Alliance gathered more than 1,000 signatures for a petition calling for his resignation. But Lewiston's city charter doesn't have a process for recalling an elected official, said City Administrator Ed Barrett.

No city councilors called on MacDonald to resign. None of them said anything while he and others spoke Tuesday night.

This is not the first time that MacDonald has made headlines for speaking bluntly.

Even before he was elected in December in a runoff election, he made comments about welfare recipients being Lewiston's biggest problem. Many of those comments were in a column that MacDonald writes regularly for the Twin City Times, a weekly newspaper in Lewiston-Auburn.

Before moving on to Tuesday's council agenda, MacDonald said he wanted to move forward. He invited any immigrant to contact his office and set up a time to meet.

He said, "If it takes one hour, two hours, eight hours, I don't care."

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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Today's poll: Lewiston mayor

Should Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald have apologized for the comments he made about Somali immigrants?

Yes

No

View Results