Lewiston and Auburn voters rejected a merger of the two cities by a wide margin Tuesday night, capping an emotional campaign that divided residents in both communities and showed clear rifts among officials.
Merger opponents who gathered in Auburn cheered and yelled, “We’re two proud cities,” after results streamed in, showing the consolidation effort losing handily in both cities.
The unofficial results showed it lost 6,540 to 3,315 in Lewiston and by 6,330 to 1,202 in Auburn.
Jim Howaniec, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation, first congratulated One LA for a “hard-fought, spirited campaign.” But he quickly pivoted to a common concern that was repeated Tuesday.
“It is my hope that this vote will put an end to the idea of merger for at least another 100 years,” he said.
Merger opponents never wavered from the stance that there wasn’t a grass-roots effort for the consolidation. Instead, the campaign argued, the grass-roots effort was on their side. The atmosphere was loud and celebratory at Gipper’s Sports Grill in Auburn.
Following the speech, anti-merger campaign member Matt Leonard said it was “never about people who wanted a merger; it was about a small group.”
“There was never a groundswell of support,” added Bob Stone.
He and fellow campaign member Robert Reed had similar comments: Tomorrow is when the real work begins to heal the cities.
The One LA campaign, gathered at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston, remained somewhat hopeful as supporters awaited results after polls closed at 8 p.m. When results came in, campaign co-chairs Carl Sheline and Gabrielle Russell made a quick speech as a duo.
“Lewiston-Auburn voters weren’t ready for one city government,” Sheline said. “We’re disappointed with tonight’s result, but we’ll continue to look for ways that both cities can collaborate for the benefit for all our residents.”
People had already begun to file out of DaVinci’s, shaking hands on the way out.
The merger question has been fiercely debated since early 2017, as the Lewiston-Auburn Joint Charter Commission worked through the rarely used consolidation process stipulated by state law.
As the commission moved forward with plans to hold a referendum, the two opposing campaigns emerged. The race became emotional and divisive, and brought up lingering resentments over the cities’ relationship.
One LA, supporting the consolidation effort, has said a merger would allow the two cities to develop a single economic strategy, eliminating competition while boosting economic development. The campaign also pushed the contents of a consultant’s study that said cutting various municipal staff positions would lead to savings of between $2.3 and $4.2 million annually, and would be an attraction to new families and professionals.
It would’ve also created the largest school district in Maine.
However, the anti-merger campaign the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation disputed nearly every facet of One LA’s campaign, stating that the merger would end up costing taxpayers while erasing hundreds of years of history and identity.
Earlier on Election Day, Gene Geiger, chairman of the Joint Charter Commission, said he was proud of the work the group had done over the past three years. In order to form the commission, a petition was circulated and the members were elected.
“I think we were extremely thorough and transparent,” he said. “No matter what happens. I feel we’ve done the very best job we could.”
If the merger effort fails, he said, he hopes the commission’s years of work will have some value.
“I hope that somehow, on one or both sides of the river, the ideas we surfaced will have life and legs and have some impact on thinking and on decisions,” he said.
When election tallies began to arrive, Geiger said he was struck by how much emotion had entered the race.
“Emotion plays a huge role in how people decide things,” he said.
The issue also influenced the races for local municipal seats including for mayor and City Council. Anti-merger candidates went on the offensive against candidates who either supported or opted to not take a stance on the issue.
As the campaigns moved forward, the rift between them deepened, especially as well-known residents, business leaders, and former and current elected officials began taking public stances.
Howaniec’s sharpest comments during his speech Tuesday were directed at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the merger in September.
Howaniec called on the leadership of the chamber to “re-examine its priorities.”
“This was not the chamber’s finest hour,” he said during his speech. “There is clearly a major disconnect between the chamber’s apparent mission and the goals and aspirations of the taxpayers living in the neighborhoods of these two cities.”
Chip Morrison, a charter commission member, is also a former chamber president.
He said despite the results Tuesday, the two cities need elected officials who will work together. Part of his campaign’s argument has been that the relationship between the cities has broken down over the past five years.
As the anti-merger crowd continued its celebration, posing for photos and news coverage with hands full of campaign signs, someone yelled out: “Remember, we’re two proud cities. Two proud cities.”
Robert Reed, left, Ron Potvin and Jim Howaniec relax at Gippers Sports Grill in Auburn while waiting for campaign results Tuesday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Francis Gagnon, center, of Lewiston, talks with Eugene Geiger, left, as the One LA supporters wait for returns to start coming in at their headquarters on election night at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
Stella Hunter of Auburn quietly sits on the lap of her father, William, as they wait for results to come into the One LA headquarters at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston on Tuesday night. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
Shane Bouchard receives ward-by-ward results on the phone at Gippers on Tuesday night. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
One LA supporters Eugene Geiger, left, and Francis Gagnon talk at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston as they wait for results Tuesday evening. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
Lewiston mayoral candidate Ron Potvin chats with a supporter at Gippers Sports Grill in Auburn while waiting for campaign results on Tuesday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Jason Levesque talks with supporters at the No Merger election party at Gippers on Tuesday evening. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
“No Merger” signs line the wall inside Gippers on Tuesday evening in Auburn. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)