LEWISTON — The ink on the post-Election Day newspapers was barely dry and the ecstatic news releases declaring victory for Maine Republicans for the second year in a row were already streaming in.

Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett declared the night’s events “historic.”

It’s true, Republicans appeared to capture two seats in the Maine House of Representatives in special elections in Sanford and Standish — one by 14 votes.

But in the great scheme of things at the statewide level, there was little change in the political arena and the chessboard looked much the way it did at the end of the lawmaking session in July, with Democrats holding a slight majority and control of the House.

There was, however, something new happening on a local level — especially in Lewiston-Auburn — something that would be unlikely to appear in the Republicans’ beaming analysis of the Election Day results.

A slate of liberal-minded candidates backed by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive nonprofit advocacy group, appeared to be surging.

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Under federal tax codes, the MPA is a 501(c)(4). Its tax status allows it to be involved in limited political activities, and it has taken advantage of that ability.

Its most high-profile candidate is Ben Chin, running for mayor of Lewiston. He is an employee of the alliance and hired the organization as a vendor in his campaign.

The bane of the state’s most conservative organizations and politicians, the MPA has been referred to by some conservatives as the “Marxist People’s Alliance.” The organization has been repeatedly attacked by Lewiston’s incumbent conservative mayor, Robert Macdonald, and by firebrand Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Chin, who faces Macdonald in a runoff election Dec. 8, captured more votes than any of the other candidates in the five-way race for mayor.

With 3,673 votes, Chin bested Macdonald, the second-place vote-getter, by 566 votes. But with only 44 percent of the total vote, Chin fell short of the 51 percent he needed for an outright victory.

With the help of MPA’s hired staff, Chin was sitting on what may turn out to be a historic amount of campaign cash in a Lewiston mayoral race — a war chest meant to help push his team through the ongoing runoff campaign.

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But Chin is not the only political candidate being supported locally by the MPA, which started in Lewiston in 1982, but now has offices statewide.

At the City Council level, MPA-backed Jim Lysen, a longtime volunteer for the organization and progressive activist, took a council seat from incumbent Leslie Dubois, a conservative who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 2014 as a Republican.

Three other alliance candidates won seats on the Lewiston Council, giving them the majority on the seven-member panel. Across the river in Auburn, MPA-backed Grady Burns was elected to an at-large City Council seat, capturing more votes than any other candidate on the City Council ballot. Burns is the president of the Maine Young Democrats.

When the Maine People’s Alliance first formed in Lewiston, its focus was on supporting residents of the city’s low-income housing and, later, helping protect a swath of the city’s downtown neighborhood that had been slated for demolition to create a boulevard.

The organization steadily morphed and expanded and has been involved in a range of issues as diverse as working to increase the state’s minimum wage and forcing legal action in a chemical spill that polluted the Penobscot River with mercury.

With offices in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, its 14-member, full-time staff coordinates thousands of volunteer members, who participate in hundreds of events and help with campaigns statewide.

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In 2014, more than 9,000 individuals took part in MPA actions or activities, according to Mike Tipping, the organization’s communications director, who is also a well-known Bangor-based blogger and columnist.

Tipping said the MPA’s four statewide chapters (including one representing the midcoast) make decisions locally about which candidates or campaigns they are going to become involved with. He said candidates gain endorsements via an interview and questionnaire process.

Officially “nonpartisan,” the MPA often backs liberal Democrats, and in some cases, Green Party candidates.

“We lean toward progressive candidates,” Tipping said. “But really, we support a set of values and we support candidates who support those values as well.”

No GOP counterweight

The MPA’s role in issues and campaigns has grown so steadily that conservative Republicans are scrambling for ways to counter its ground game.

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The ongoing Lewiston mayoral race is a case in point.

In response to the MPA’s efforts, the Maine GOP stepped in to help Macdonald counter an army of MPA Chin-backing canvassers, telephone operators and financial supporters.

Doug Hodgkin, a local author and longtime Bates College political science professor, said the MPA’s involvement in local politics this year is unlike any he’s witnessed to date. Hodgkin, himself a Republican, said that so far, conservatives have been unable to produce a counterpart to rival the MPA’s role in augmenting a liberal agenda.

Hodgkin said he doesn’t believe the alliance has necessarily shifted political views among voters so much as it has gotten good at making sure voters who agree with a more liberal point of view are engaged and active.

Hodgkin believes involvement by the state’s political parties at the local level is likely to increase in the future. He said in some ways it may be useful, allowing voters to sort candidates based on the principles of a party, even if they are unfamiliar with the candidates in a municipal race.

Hodgkin and others pointed out that Lewiston, long dominated by the Democratic Party, with registered voters outnumbering Republicans nearly 3-1, was fertile ground for such an organization as the MPA to grow.

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“Lewiston is a special place for the MPA because we were founded there,” Tipping said. “So for the past 30 years, we’ve been involved there.”

Bennett, the Maine GOP chairman, said he believes the Republican Party now has the local network it needs in municipal and county committees to counter the MPA when it needs to.

But he acknowledged the Maine GOP has no outside arm to augment its activities the way the MPA often does for Democratic causes and candidates.

MPA volunteer Kevin Simpson of Auburn voiced a belief common among volunteers that conservatives already have the upper hand in the communications war, and said he’s involved in keeping balance.

“If nothing local is happening to give people a counter-narrative, you would get a result toward the conservative set,” Simpson said. “That doesn’t really jibe with the interests of the people, but it does jibe with what they’ve been hearing. The (conservatives’) smoke and mirrors work to a certain extent.”

At 79, Simpson has been involved with MPA since its earliest days and said he’s proud of the work the organization has done.

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The MPA’s focus on adequate housing for the poor, Simpson said, has always remained one of its top priorities.

“The focus has always been on the needs of people who are being underserved by the system,” Simpson said. He said the alliance is sometimes misunderstood to be anti-business or to be constantly on the lookout for something to protest.

“Our focus is on including everyone,” Simpson said. “We aren’t out to change everything and we are not anti-business. It’s not that we are some kind of group that has our own little creed in mind. We understand that for society to work, we have to all work together and we just want to make sure that it’s fair.”

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“We lean toward progressive candidates,” Tipping said. “But really, we support a set of values and we support candidates who support those values as well.”

Doug Hodgkin, a local author and long-time Bates College political science professor, said the MPA’s involvement in local politics this year is unlike any he’s witnessed to date.  Hodgkin, himself a Republican, said that so far, conservatives have been unable to produce a counterpart to rival the MPA’s role in augmenting a liberal agenda.

“Our focus is on including everyone. We aren’t out to change everything and we are not anti-business. It’s not that we are some kind of group that has our own little creed in mind. We understand that for society to work, we have to all work together and we just want to make sure that it’s fair.”

— MPA volunteer Kevin Simpson, 79, of Auburn


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