October 7, 2012

Is Lewiston mayor thwarting progress?

Some welcome his frankness about the city’s immigrants, while others fear he’ll reverse years of community outreach.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON - Mayor Robert Macdonald is a blunt man, a direct man.

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Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald

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Protesters march in Lewiston on Thursday after delivering petitions to City Hall calling for the mayor to resign following comments he made about immigrants.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

Additional Photos Below

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.


But for a bit of morbid luck, Macdonald might not even be Lewiston's mayor.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Mohamed Abdillahi, Somali immigrant and community organizer

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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A man who joined Thursday’s rally holds a sign aimed at Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who answered his critics at a City Council meeting earlier in the week but refused to apologize. Those offended by his remarks about immigrant culture want him to apologize or step down.


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Somali men talk in Lewiston on Thursday. From 2000 to 2010, the city’s African-American population grew from 383 to 3,174, an increase of 828 percent. City officials say the number is perhaps as high as 6,000 today.

Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

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