The triumph of Justin Trudeau in the Canadian prime minister election on Sunday over the incumbent conservative government prompted one prominent New York Times columnist on Thursday to suggest that the Republican Party political template of demonizing immigrants and low-income people who use public assistance is likely to similarly backfire in next year’s presidential election.
Could a mayoral election in the 36,000-population town of Lewiston, Maine send the same national message? It just might.
The town is already getting national attention because of the re-election campaign of its bombastic conservative mayor, Robert E. Macdonald. He got national attention, including a favorable interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, for a column in the local Lewiston weekly in which he proposed publishing a list of town residents receiving welfare benefits, including how much they receive and how long they have been receiving it. “The public has a right to know how its money is being spent,” he wrote while lambasting “our liberal, progressive legislators and their social-service allies” who he said have made low-income people “a victimized, protected class.”
In August Macdonald wrote a column lamenting the “God knows how many thousands of dollars” the town would have to pay because of the nation’s failure to “remove our uninvited guests (which he later refers to as “unwanted guests”), known as asylum seekers, from our city, from our state and from our country.”
Running against Macdonald is Ben Chin, the youthful grandson of a Chinese immigrant and an unabashed progressive who has worked as a community organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, an affiliate of National People’s Action. Chin has also gotten national attention, less because of what he’s said but because of signs posted around Lewiston by a supporter of Macdonald widely denounced as racist for their caricature of an Asian and the exhortation, “Don’t Vote For Ho Chi Chin.”
— Sun Journal (@sunjournal) October 19, 2015
Chin sees this as evidence that his campaign is having one of his desired effects: getting under the skin of a faction in the city that has been exploiting the plight of immigrants and other struggling working-class people for personal gain. The person who had the “Ho Chi Chin” signs printed, for example, is Joe Dunne, one of several “slumlords” that Chin says “are making life a living hell for the people who live here.”
Chin is fighting to force those landlords to play by the rules, as one part of a broader progressive populist agenda.
“What we are working on doing is to figure out how we can build a multiracial coalition of immigrants, young people and working class people,” he said.
That coalition would be built on “A Plan to Renew Lewiston” that includes “moving from a housing market dominated by corporate slumlords,” creating an Office of New Americans to help immigrants learn English and enter the workforce, and investing in such areas as solar energy, which Chin sees as a promising source of blue-collar employment. To pay for new programs, Chin says “the state must begin to claw back the tax breaks” approved by the state’s right-wing governor, Paul LePage (who happens to be a native of Lewiston).
Chin hopes that he can turn Lewiston into something of an incubator for ideas to improve the lives and opportunities of working people that can then spread nationally. “If you are able to do something in small places,” he said, “we can expand the possible a little bit” on a broader scale.
Chin says that his run for mayor is also “a little bit of a test case” to see if unabashed progressive populism can win against a candidate who is doing his best to channel the anger and brashness of Donald Trump, in a city that is 85 percent white and more than 20 percent below the poverty line.
“What my hope is if we succeed, it will show that the smartest, most strategic thing to do is the right thing to do,” which is “to lead with our values, not be ashamed of our friends,” and “not be afraid to take on the top 1 percent.”
Chin admits that it was an emotional punch in the gut to see those billboards from apartment owner Dunne. “We’re expecting a first child in 10 days, and that child is going to have the same last name as what was on that billboard,” he said.
But, he added, “what’s harder is living in the buildings where those guys operate. … It just makes me more determined to win.”