The position of Lewiston mayor is a part-time, mostly ceremonial job that pays an annual stipend of $4,200.

And yet this year’s race, which culminates in a special runoff election on Tuesday, has become the most intriguing election in all of Maine, one that has generated statewide and even national interest.

“I think the Lewiston mayor’s race is a microcosm of American politics as a whole right now,” said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. “You’ve got this young, progressive forward-looking candidate who sort of represents something other than the old white male.

“And on the other hand, you have an older, very conservative Republican, who is upfront, especially about things like welfare and making government smaller.”

Ben Chin, a 30-year-old Bates College alumnus originally from New York who decided to stay in Lewiston and raise a family there, is challenging incumbent Robert Macdonald, 68, a retired police officer and educator who came to Lewiston from Massachusetts more than three decades ago and never left.

Ben Chin

Ben Chin

Chin and Macdonald emerged as the top two vote-getters among five candidates on Nov. 3. But because neither received 50 percent of votes, they now square off head to head.

Chin led the way with 44 percent of votes last month, followed by Macdonald at 37 percent. The margin was 566 votes, but nearly one in five Lewiston voters chose someone else. The next closest candidate was Steve Morgan, a moderate Republican who received 1,276 votes, and conventional wisdom suggests many of Morgan’s supporters may go to Macdonald.

Robert Macdonald

Robert Macdonald Press Herald file photos by Joel Page and Whitney Hayward

But Chin’s campaign has been aggressive in courting voters, especially Bates students, and has tried to lock them up early.

As of late last week, the number of Lewiston voters who requested absentee ballots for Tuesday’s special runoff mayoral election exceeded the number of absentee votes cast in last month’s regular election by 36 percent.

John Baughman, associate professor of politics at Bates, said both candidates have strengths: Macdonald’s supporters are older and more reliable voters; Chin, meanwhile, has relied on sizable organizational resources.

HIGH STAKES

The level of interest in the race has escalated since the field narrowed, and both sides seem to agree that the stakes are high.

Chin has been buoyed by support from the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive advocacy group where he has worked for several years, and the Maine Democratic Party, as well as a slew of endorsements ranging from local union groups to the national progressive group Democracy for America to former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

“On education, housing, jobs, and improving the city’s reputation, Ben is a mayor who will fight for the people of Lewiston,” Mitchell said in a statement last week.

Macdonald, who has been running a much less aggressive campaign, has gotten a boost from the Maine Republican Party and Republican surrogates who despise the Maine People’s Alliance, which they see as an extension of the Democratic Party.

In an op-ed column last week in the Bangor Daily News, Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst – one of the most conservative and outspoken members of the Legislature and a Macdonald supporter – wrote that the race’s importance cannot be overstated.

“Make no mistake, the outcome … has huge implications for all Mainers in the run-up to next year’s statewide election, when all 186 seats in the Maine Legislature are up for grabs,” Lockman wrote.

The polarizing nature of both candidates, and their supporters, doesn’t seem to match the makeup of Lewiston’s electorate.

Of the 24,931 registered voters, 41 percent are Democrats, compared to just 17 percent Republicans. Despite its Democratic leaning, the city has shown a conservative streak. Gov. Paul LePage got more than 50 percent of the votes in November 2014 in a three-way race.

Brewer, the UMaine political scientist, said the absence of a moderate in the race might lead some voters to stay home.

“But I think even moderate voters lean one way or the other,” he said. “True moderates are so rare in American politics.”

Baughman, the Bates professor, said Morgan’s pledged support of Macdonald after the general election could help the incumbent.

“(Morgan) said he would pledge his support for Macdonald, and although that is far from a guarantee that all his voters will follow, it does send a powerful cue to them,” Baughman said.

COURTING STUDENTS, IMMIGRANTS

Chin, who declared his candidacy way back in February, has run an all-in campaign. He had raised $87,778 as of Nov. 30, an outsized sum for a Lewiston municipal campaign that dwarfs Macdonald’s total of $5,807.

Chin has spent much of that money on get-out-the-vote efforts. He has targeted Bates College students, a bloc that is reliably progressive.

Some have complained that college students shouldn’t be voting in local elections because they are not vested in the community. At polling places on Nov. 3, students said they were interrogated by other voters and at least one council candidate.

Brewer said the argument that college students have no right to vote in local elections is absurd.

“I would say that a lot of these students, not all, are very much in tune with what’s going on,” he said. “But if you want to make an argument that uninformed voters shouldn’t vote, you should ban a lot more than just college students.”

Chin also has courted immigrants, a growing bloc that has not exactly gotten a warm welcome from Macdonald.

From 2000 to 2010, Lewiston’s African-American population grew from 383 to 3,174, an increase of 828 percent. Most were immigrants from Somalia and other unstable African countries. City officials say the number is even higher today, perhaps as high as 6,000. That is one in six residents.

TOUGH-ON-WELFARE STANCE

Macdonald may not be as aggressive in seeking support, but his tough-on-welfare message resonates with working-class voters.

Whoever wins likely will be the candidate who did more to convince supporters to go vote.

Last month, only one in three registered voters turned out. Judging by the number of absentee requests requested as of late last week, that number could be higher on Tuesday, but not necessarily.

Whoever wins will face a divided City Council.

Last month, shortly after the general election, four councilors banded together and announced their support for Chin. Last Friday, the remaining three councilors held a press conference in response – not to back Macdonald but to criticize the other four for making an endorsement at all.

“Over the last six months I’ve seen nonpartisan campaigns become vehicles for political parties, and extremist political organizations,” Councilor Michael Lachance said. “While that may be something we can’t avoid, what we choose to do as elected officials is critical to keeping the public’s confidence. For those who are now using their influence as city councilors to swing an election – they have chosen to live in the lowlands of political expediency. We will not be a part of that, nor will we let it pass without mention.”

The hotly contested race is unusual considering that Lewiston’s mayor only casts votes when there is a tie, which occurs when one of the seven councilors is absent or asks to be recused.

But more than a deciding vote, the mayor historically has been the city’s de facto spokesman, the one responsible for setting the tone.

On Tuesday, Lewiston will either get two more years of Macdonald’s tone or something entirely different with Chin.