I usually grant poetic license to the exaggerations, distortions and unjustified accusations of political candidates, but a recent local campaign ad was so outrageous it triggered my gag reflex.
“Enough is Enough,” screamed a paid ad in the Sun Journal touting Robert Macdonald’s Lewiston mayoral candidacy.
Enough of what?
Enough of “refugees and lay-abouts from other states” who are “streaming into Lewiston,” most of them “unemployable, unskilled, and language deficient.” Enough of “crime, drugs, gangs, blight and drive by shootings in our downtown area.” Enough of “flunking schools.” (Macdonald’s other public statements had already made it clear he thought the latter problems were the handiwork of the aforementioned undesirables).
Who are these hordes of non-English-speaking invaders that are laying waste to the community’s economy, treasury, buildings and security?
The ad didn’t provide explicit answers, but little imagination was needed to read between the lines. Since Lewiston hasn’t had a major influx of non-English-speaking immigrants for more than a century -- when French-Canadians, Italians, Greeks, Lithuanians and Eastern European Jews “streamed into” the city -- Macdonald was almost certainly referring to Somali/Bantu refugees from the Horn of Africa and Hispanic transplants from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
Macdonald’s ad trumpets him as “the only mayoral candidate with the courage to publicly talk about our welfare issue.”
“Courage” isn’t exactly the word I’d use. “Demagoguery” is the one that comes to mind. It’s the oldest political trick in the book, and it works particularly well during economic crises, when demagogues can sing their siren song to those fearful of becoming jobless, broke and homeless by blaming underlying structural problems on a scapegoat.
If that scapegoat happens to have a different complexion, practice a different religion or speak a different language than most everyone else around, so much the better. The fancy word for it is “xenophobia,” which, according to one dictionary definition, is “an unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”
It certainly appears to have turned the trick for Macdonald, who, on November 8, ran a close second in the five-way mayoral race, garnering 2,852 votes, which qualifies him to participate in a run-off against top vote getter Mark W. Paradis.
Since no municipal official has the either the legal power to bar immigrants from entering the U.S or settling in Lewiston, or the right to deny them welfare benefits or education based on race or national origin should they choose to reside here, Macdonald can’t really do a thing about their presence even if he does get elected. Still, appealing to voter fear is the whole point of this kind of exercise.
But don’t accuse Macdonald of playing the hate card against Somalis and Hispanics. He’d be mightily offended. Indeed, he was asked in the League of Young Voters 2011 Candidate Survey, “What groups make L/A a diverse place and how would you integrate them more into the fabric of the city?”
Macdonald responded by labeling the survey question as racist, although ironically he crafted his answer in a back-handedly racist way: “I find this question has overtones of racism. I do not believe in diversity or quotas and find this question very offensive. Lewiston should be looking to attract people who are going to strengthen our community and establish businesses here – not trying to create a rainbow.” (The cue is “rainbow”).
I’m not acquainted with Macdonald and have nothing against him personally. If he doesn’t want to join hands in a circle and sing “Kumbaya” that’s fine with me. But, when he exploits irrational fear in the name of public good by exaggerating Lewiston’s current difficulties and blaming them on immigrants, I feel obligated to call “foul.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the proud son of an immigrant father, who got off the boat at Ellis Island in 1923 with no knowledge of English and little more than an elementary school education).
When I settled in Lewiston as a young lawyer in 1978, there were plenty of local violent criminals, burglars and drug dealers being indicted and tried every month in Androscoggin Superior Court. On Monday mornings, the Lewiston District Court bulged with the drunks, brawlers and prostitutes arrested the previous Saturday night on Lower Lisbon Street and Kennedy Park. There was no shortage of multi-generational welfare recipients, juvenile delinquents, school drop-outs and assorted miscreants, many of them living in the blighted inner-city tenements Macdonald now wants to eliminate.
All this was decades before the first Somalis arrived, when almost all of the above players were as white as freshly fallen snow. Many still are. As a retired Lewiston police detective, Macdonald should certainly be aware of this.
Nor could all our present economic and municipal budget woes possibly be caused by a few thousand Somalis moving to Lewiston. Yes, the city is suffering, but it is part and parcel of the whole country’s malaise. Nationally unemployment is stuck at 9 percent, foreclosure rates are at the highest level since the Great Depression, and state and local government budgets are being squeezed as never before.
As the authors of the bestselling book “Aftershock” have pointed out, the current recession has resulted from the simultaneous collapse of a number of unsustainable economic bubbles – the housing, private credit, consumer spending and stock market bubbles. And the final bubble – federal deficit spending -- is about to get deflated, potentially making things even worse before they get better.
Lewiston has worked long and hard to improve its image and shed the “Dirty Lew” moniker. Its hard work was rewarded in 2007, when it earned the distinction of being named an “All-America City.”
Lewiston’s mayor is a largely ceremonial figure, a kind of ambassador of good will. But if Macdonald is elected mayor, forget the ambassador-of-good-will role or continuing to improve the city’s image.
Lewiston is more likely to become known as the “Redneck Capital of New England” than the “All-America City.”