AUBURN — Sparks flew early between Lewiston's mayoral candidates during a Twin Cities candidate forum Wednesday evening.
Mayor Robert Macdonald and challenger Larry Gilbert sparred over Macdonald's history as mayor in the event sponsored by the Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area.
Gilbert kicked it off, saying he would be inclusive, not divisive.
"Let's get the divisive part down right now," Macdonald said. "I am not divisive. If you want to solve problems, you have to bring them out. You have to look at the negatives and bring them out. You can't just pretend they don't exist."
Macdonald blamed controversy early in his term on the Maine People's Alliance, and said it was responsible for a Department of Justice investigation early in his term.
"We had federal people in Lewiston investigating me, talking to every Somali they could find," Macdonald said. "You know what happened? They came back after three days and said, 'You know, Mr. Mayor, we couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about you.'"
Gilbert corrected Macdonald, saying local Somali immigrants were very upset.
"They were upset about having a year's worth of articles written about them, which were very divisive," Gilbert said. "Just to clear that up."
It was the only tense moment in the two-hour debate that involved 39 candidates running for office in the Twin Cities. Every candidate for every open municipal seat — mayor, City Council and School Committee — in both Lewiston and Auburn were invited.
Moderator Heidi Sawyer worked hard to keep the forum moving. It was divided into three sessions; mayoral candidates, then City Council candidates and finally, School Committee candidates.
Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce herself or himself. Sawyer then posed a question to the candidates in contested races.
Questions centered on spending, budgets and taxes, services shared between the two cities, economic development and methods to bring young professionals to Maine.
"My daughter went to school out of state, and I thought that after she graduated she probably wouldn't want to come back — but I made her," Auburn Ward 4 City Council candidate Doris Russell said to laughter. "That's one of the things families can do. They can put some pressure on young people to come back and talk up the area."
Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, who is running unopposed, said he wanted to get both cities working together.
"We are competing against the Manchesters, the Lowells, the Holyokes, the Montpeliers, and we need to make sure we are attracting talent to this community," LaBonte said. "By attracting that talent, we will grow the businesses of the 21st century."
LaBonte later tweeted his desire to be more involved: "Makes me wish the questions were open to all mayoral candidates. The community needs shared direction."
Lewiston's mayoral candidates will be back before voters at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at a forum sponsored by the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council at Lewiston City Hall.