WATERVILLE — Sitting in Castonguay Square eating an ice cream and wrapped in a cardigan, the roughly 90-pound Lauren Lessing is hard to picture as causing a stir in city politics.

Yet the former Ward 3 city councilor, who resigned this month to move to Iowa, has been at the forefront of some of Waterville’s most intense political debates in recent months.

Lessing, the former director of academic and public programming at the Colby College Museum of Art and a councilor since 2017, supported a recall of Mayor Nick Isgro and often clashed with his supporters.

The mayor recently called her a “consistent advocate of shutting down residents who question her ideological agenda and attacking those citizens who dare to speak out.”

She criticized his statements against immigrants and led an effort against his suggestion to cut funds from the municipal pool.

It’s been stressful, but also rewarding for Lessing, who said she stands by her politics, including her support for the recent city budget with an 8 percent tax increase.

“I always felt like I was doing what most people in my ward wanted me to do,” said Lessing, 49. “That was pretty much borne out in the phone calls and the feedback I received. Even when there was a vocal minority that would show up to City Council meetings and voice their opinions, they might have strong opinions, but those were by and large not the opinions of people in my ward.

“I could hear them and listen to them as a city councilor, but also knew the things I was supporting were the things my constituents elected me to support.”

COOPERATION AT THE BEGINNING

Lessing, who is originally from Indiana, was elected in 2016 to replace longtime councilor Rosemary Winslow after she chose not to run for re-election.

She and her husband, Uri Lessing, a former fifth-grade teacher at the Albert S. Hall School, said the recently contentious atmosphere around city politics did not play into their decision to move.

Instead, they said her new job as director of the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa and their son going to college in Indiana were the main factors in the decision.

“I enjoyed my time working with Lauren on City Council,” Council Chair Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said in an email. “As many people may or may not know, Lauren won her ward by a wider margin than the rest of us on the present council. In this extremely trying time in politics, whether it be national, state or local, it takes a very thick skin. Lauren was tough. Each decision comes with support and dissent.”

From the beginning, Lessing, a Democrat, said she knew there were a lot of issues that she and Isgro, a Republican, didn’t agree on, although in 2017 – her first year on the council – they were able to work together.

She also said she made a decision when she was elected to not be on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. So she largely wasn’t aware of things Isgro was saying on social media until it was reported in the news media in April.

“It was the one tweet, but it was also the string of other tweets that had happened in the past,” Lessing said. “That in my opinion was even more disturbing, particularly comments about immigrants, which I feel like, in a town like this, where everyone is either the child or grandchild of immigrants, that was particularly beyond pale.”

MAYOR CRITICAL OF COUNCILOR

Lessing was one of four councilors who signed a petition seeking to remove the mayor after his tweet telling Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg to “Eat it, Hogg.”

In a prepared statement, Isgro did not mention Lessing, but addressed a number of upcoming vacancies on the council, saying, “I am looking forward to working with new city councilors who will work to unite – not divide – the community, whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Independents or folks not affiliated with a party.

“Residents expect their councilors to be respectful, to listen and address their concerns, to encourage input, and to serve our city, rather than belittle, draw mocking cartoons of residents who are speaking, seek to limit First Amendment rights, and serve outside special interests. I share these expectations.”

Isgro also said residents and the media should be looking more closely into whether “it was moral or ethical to vote on tax increases while bags were packed to skip town immediately after.”

School Board member Julian Payne, whom Lessing has clashed with in the past, has criticized her for distributing fliers at the pool and including his personal email on them, and for a policy she proposed in 2017 to ensure civility at council meetings that Payne believes was an attempt to limit free speech.

“I believe our community will soon revert to being more civil, tolerant, open and respectful,” Payne said to Lessing at a recent council meeting. “You are moving soon and Iowa has a lot to look forward to, and I am sure they will be quite surprised. In the meantime, I ask you to try and stop ripping whatever is left of our community apart.”

TURNED OFF BY POLITICAL TURMOIL

Others, however, said Lessing’s departure will be a loss for the city.

Rosemary Winslow, a Democrat and Lessing’s predecessor as Ward 3 councilor, said despite an unusual atmosphere in city politics, Lessing did a good job of communicating with residents and city officials and learning the budget process as a new councilor.

“One of the things she was very good at was listening and then taking the time and the next steps with our city manager or other individuals working for the city or other members of the council,” Winslow said. “Many of us in this neighborhood feel the same way.”

Lessing, whose seat is one of four up for election this fall, said she fears people may be deterred from running because of the recent atmosphere at council meetings, but she hopes they also recognize that the majority of Waterville residents know serving on the council is a public service.

“It has to be the right person, but for people who enjoy helping their neighbors and having thoughtful conversations about the public good, it’s just incredibly rewarding work,” Lessing said. “So I’m hopeful people will step up for those seats.”

 

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: rachel_ohm


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: