Moderator Dawn Hartil, center, listens to Mark Cayer answer a question during Monday night’s debate at the Lewiston Public LIbrary. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — With five candidates fighting for position, there was no time during Monday’s mayoral debate for rebuttals.
Candidates didn’t have time to fully pitch their ideas for addressing the city’s many challenges, which they said include poverty, the opioid crisis and retaining young people.
But with the time they did have, each candidate did what they could to differentiate themselves, grab momentum and ultimately gain more supporters heading into the Nov. 7 election.
More than 200 people filled Callahan Hall at the Lewiston Public Library for the debate, taking every available seat and spilling into the aisles.
The five candidates — Shane Bouchard, Mark Cayer, Ben Chin, Ron Potvin and Charles Soule — sat side-by-side and answered a variety of questions submitted by the Sun Journal and the live and online audiences.
The candidates clashed on how to boost economic development, decrease poverty rates, improve schools, and were even asked for their stance on pay-per-throw trash bags.
With limited time, the candidates quickly recapped campaign initiatives. Chin’s focus is on what he called “life or death” issues like the opioid epidemic and safe, affordable housing. He said he can provide “real solutions that everyone of goodwill can get behind.”
Throughout the debate, Cayer repeated his four campaign principles that are focused on economic development and maintaining a professional workforce through education, among others.
Bouchard told the audience that as a councilor he’s taken clear positions on issues and that Lewiston needs a mayor who won’t create divisiveness through policy.
It was one of a few comments made hinting to the political ideologies of the candidates onstage. At one point, Potvin, who is relatively new to Lewiston but touted his political experience elsewhere, tried to clearly define Chin as a “socialist” with “extreme ideas” and Bouchard as a Trump-esque conservative Republican.
Both later took issue with the labels.
“You can label the (ideas) anything you want, but I’d like to debate the issues, not the labels,” Chin said.
Soule, who is running for mayor for the eighth time, said he will not run again if he doesn’t win this year.
Voters will choose a mayor Nov. 7, but if a single candidate is unable to get 50 percent of the vote, it will trigger a runoff election between the two who received the most votes.
The winner, and the winners in Lewiston’s City Council and School Committee races, will be sworn into office in January.
Economic development and image
Asked what they’d prioritize if elected, Cayer returned to economic development. He called it a critical time for Lewiston, and said the city needs to address the “root cause” of poverty. He said outside investors won’t choose Lewiston based on its negative demographics.
“Image is the first thing to tackle,” said Bouchard, repeating a sentiment he’s often said during City Council meetings. “What we’ve been doing isn’t working.”
Potvin agreed. He said he’d address Lewiston’s image problem, and economic development, with his $60 million downtown redevelopment plan, which he described as a mixture of downtown urban renewal and a new take on the Bates Mill redevelopment.
Chin said his first focus would be addressing the opioid crisis from a public health perspective, but said a small business loan program for the downtown would help create and bolster local businesses.
Soule said Lewiston needs to first address its high taxes. At multiple points he repeated the phrase “fiscally responsible.”
In response to a question about attracting more millennial-friendly chains like Starbucks, Chipotle and Target, Chin and Bouchard both said they believe Lewiston is already heading in the right direction with independent restaurants like Forage Market, Guthries and Fuel.
Chin said cities with the most young people have “unique things going on” other than chain restaurants.
“I think we have the talent here, and should focus on that,” he said.
All agreed that retaining young people is important.
At different points, Potvin and Chin said Lewiston could benefit from increased transportation opportunities. Potvin’s economic development strategy is to connect with the greater Portland area as an outlying suburb. As people are priced out of Portland, he said, they need to be looking at Lewiston.
Cayer said Lewiston needs to build on its downtown momentum. He shared visions for a “vibrant downtown” with more retail, restaurants and nightlife, with more pedestrian-friendly amenities.
As expected, the discussion fell to the proposed merger of Lewiston-Auburn, where only one candidate, Mark Cayer, expressed support.
“I do see value in a merged city,” Cayer said, repeating a statement that was posted earlier on his campaign Facebook page.
He said, “We do not work well with Auburn,” in response to Bouchard.
“Lewiston can do it on their own,” Bouchard had said. “We need to do a better job of being Lewiston.”
Chin, who recently said he’d vote against the merger, said, “I see plenty of good arguments on both sides,” but added, “several of the proposed (staff) cuts were concerns for me.”
Potvin is co-chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation. He said the two cities should instead look at a “bigger regional effort” for finding efficiencies.
Soule called three of the candidates “windblowers” based on their opinions of the merger.
When asked how the two cities could work better together, Cayer said the cities need leaders who will work together to benefit taxpayers.
Chin said transportation – “big ticket” items like more bus and rail services – can connect the two cities’ economies.
“When this fails, there is still going to be a sentiment to do more to work with Auburn,” Bouchard said, adding that the cities need to re-look at their joint agencies.
Bates Mill No. 5
More than one audience question centered on the Bates Mill complex, and the future for the redevelopment of Bates Mill No. 5.
Potvin said the appearance of the mill is a big piece of what “drags down” Lewiston. Part of Potvin’s downtown redevelopment plan, which he calls “Project Phoenix,” would tear the mill building down and create an entertainment venue in its place.
Bouchard agreed that the time has come to tear it down.
“Unfortunately, it’s abandoned,” he said. “Kicking it down the road in perpetuity is not economic development.”
Cayer and Chin both agreed with the city’s recent decision to extend the option on the building to architectural firm Platz Associates, which has been working with the city to redevelop it.
“It’s the closest we’ve ever been in 20 to 30 years,” Cayer said. “It would be against taxpayers to pull the rug out from under them.”
The debaters also answered questions on education, collaboration, the recent strained relationship between the city and Bates College, and whether Lewiston should deem itself a “sanctuary city,” which limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation.
During the final question, about pay-per-throw trash bags, Soule provided a few laughs when he told the audience that he’d do what his ancestors would have done: not pay for trash bags and throw his trash in a nearby dumpster.
During his closing, Soule said it’s the “last time you’ll see me onstage.”
“If you want to fix your city I’ll bring the ideas to do it,” Potvin said, touting his experience.
Chin told the audience that he’d bring new energy to City Hall, while also telling the crowd that the slate of candidates doesn’t represent the makeup of the community.
Cayer said he’d serve with honesty, integrity, and be “a champion for the city around the state.”
“We need a leader,” Bouchard said, one that would “engage the community.”
Throughout the hour-and-a-half whirlwind, the debate kept coming around to Lewiston’s image.
“Nothing feels better than a comeback,” Chin said.
Every seat in Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall was filled and people were standing in the aisles and listening in the hallway at Monday night’s mayoral debate. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
Lewiston mayoral candidates react to Charles Soule’s opening statement, right, during Monday’s debate at the Lewiston Public Library. From left are Shane Bouchard, Mark Cayer, Ben Chin, Ron Potvin and Soule. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
Will we see another runoff election in Lewiston?
In 2015, there were five candidates for mayor, and there was no clear winner after Election Day.
Instead, candidates Ben Chin, with 44 percent of the vote, and Mayor Bob Macdonald, 37 percent, headed to a runoff vote a month later. Macdonald took the win, 4,398 to 3,826.
The city charter spells out the rules for electing mayors in Lewiston. To win, one of the five candidates must get a bona fide majority — 50 percent, plus one vote. City councilors and School Committee members need only get the most votes to win.
If no mayoral candidate wins a majority of votes, the two with the highest numbers advance to a runoff election.