Every seat in Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall was filled and people were standing in the aisles and listening in the hallway during a 2017 mayoral debate. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

LEWISTON — With less than a month until the Nov. 5 municipal elections and no formal debates on the radar, candidates are pressing forward with last-minute plans to get their message out.

For Lewiston mayoral candidate Tim Lajoie, that means throwing his own election forum and inviting all 27 municipal candidates to attend, including his opponent Mark Cayer.

Lajoie said the event, planned for Wednesday, Oct. 23, at Geiger Elementary School, is his response to a lack of a formal debate or candidate night that have often taken place in Lewiston.

Lajoie nailed down the forum details Wednesday, telling the Sun Journal he planned to send formal invitations to all candidates later in the day.

“I am disappointed that no one wanted to host a candidate forum, including the local press. So, fine, I’ll hold one and invite them to have a voice at my forum,” Lajoie said in an email Wednesday. “These people … are putting themselves out there, spending their own money, taking time away from their families to campaign, because they want to help the community. Whether I agree with their platform or not, I respect what they’re doing, because I’ve done it.”

He said he has “never seen” a municipal election cycle not feature some kind of formal debate, which is often held by organizations such as the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Lewiston Public Library and/or the Sun Journal.

“These people deserve to be heard and press outlets should be helping the community make an informed decision, not brooding and offering lame excuses as to why there aren’t any,” Lajoie added.

Two years ago, the Lewiston Public Library and Sun Journal hosted a debate on the Twin Cities merger proposal, as well as two mayoral debates. In Auburn, the chamber hosted a merger debate and mayoral debate at Central Maine Community College.

Last year, according to Sun Journal Executive Editor Judith Meyer, the mayoral debates were held two weeks before the election and the newspaper received a number of complaints that it was too late because absentee voting had been underway for so long already.

The ideal time for a debate is mid-October, Meyer said, but one of the mayoral candidates was not available at that time, which would have pushed the debate back to the date that attendees found unacceptable in 2017.

In addition, the usual neutral space in the Lewiston Public Library was booked for the month, Meyer said, so the newspaper has sent questionnaires out to all mayoral candidates and will be sending very similar surveys to all candidates for the City Councils and School Committees on both sides of the river and run those responses in the paper and online.

In response to questions over whether opposing candidates could opt to sit out the event based on a lack of a neutral party, Lajoie said he expects some to decline his invitation.

However, he promised to find a “respected, neutral moderator,” and that he would not see the candidate questions in advance of the forum.

Lajoie’s opponent, Cayer, said Wednesday that he had not yet received the invitation to Lajoie’s forum. But, he said, his campaign would “seriously consider” any candidate forum event.

“Until I know what they’re proposing I don’t have an opinion one way or the other,” he said.

Regarding the lack of a formal debate, Cayer said his campaign will continue to work in other ways to get his campaign message out.

“Our campaign has been working hard since June to get our message out to folks, and we think that’s our road to success and we’re going to continue doing that every single day,” he said. “We’re going to stay focused on reaching out to individual voters like we have been.”

In Auburn, a City Council candidate night is planned for Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Auburn Public Library, which will feature introductions and a question-and-answer session with all 14 candidates for the seven council seats.

Mayor Jason Levesque, who is running for reelection against Stanwood “Joe” Gray, said Wednesday that he’s disappointed that there is no mayoral debate scheduled in either city.

“Public debate is critical, and this just shines a light on the fact that we need more civic organizations taking the lead on hosting these,” he said. “It can be inappropriate for candidates themselves to go and host, it’s always better for third parties to do so. We need other organizations to step up.”

Levesque added that with early voting already underway, it may be “too late” to organize and promote candidate events. In 2018, roughly 4,800 of 13,800 voters cast an absentee or early vote in Lewiston.

He said the lack of debates this year could also be mirroring a broader trend in the level of voter engagement in government and politics.

“Municipal elections really are the heartbeat of your community,” he said.

Lajoie said the schedule for his forum will feature a block of time for City Council and School Committee candidates from 6 to 6:45 p.m., followed by the mayoral portion from 7 to 8:30 p.m. He said there will be a meet-and-greet opportunity from 8:30 to 9 p.m.


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