LEWISTON — Heading into the 2019 municipal election, there was already some guaranteed turnover.

Lewiston would have a new mayor, two councilors were stepping down, and the Ward 5 council seat made vacant when Kristen Cloutier stepped into the mayor’s role would finally be filled.

But after the last ballots were counted — and recounted in the case of Lewiston’s Ward 7 — the political landscape changed even more. Not only will Lewiston see turnover in four of seven seats, but there’s an influx of youth joining the council.

Three of seven councilors will be millennials in their 20s. One of them, Safiya Khalid, will be Lewiston’s first Somali-American to serve on the council.

As Lewiston rolled out plans for swearing in the newly elected officials, the Sun Journal looked at the makeup of city government in 2020 and how it could shape the next two years.

Mark Cayer, right, greets a voter at Longley Elementary School in Lewiston on Election Day morning. Cayer won the election for Lewiston mayor and will be one of the city’s new leaders. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

YOUTH MOVEMENT

For Lewiston, the 2019 local election will perhaps be most remembered for Khalid’s historic victory.

But Khalid, at 23, adds to the list of firsts by also being the youngest to ever serve on the council, and she highlights an influx of youth along with fellow newcomer Luke Jensen, 28, as well as Alicia Rea, 29, and Zack Pettengill, 35, who will begin second terms.

Mayor Kristen Cloutier, who did not seek reelection, said she’s pleased with the changes in store for the City Council.

“I’m excited to have diversity on the council through Safiya but also through the younger councilors,” she said. “It speaks a lot to where we are as a community.”

Cloutier said there’s always a debate among voters over whether to elect older, experienced people to local seats, or to bring in youth with new ideas.

“It’s important to remember that everyone was elected by their constituencies, and so if their constituents are asking for young people to serve in these positions then we should respect that,” she said.

While the new crop of councilors is younger, she said, they are not inexperienced. Jensen is coming from the School Committee. Khalid has served on the Lewiston Public Library Board of Trustees, and has been vice chairwoman of the Lewiston Democratic Party. Pettengill and Rea are entering their second terms.

“We talk a lot in Lewiston and Auburn about attracting young people and young families, and I think seeing themselves represented in local government is important to doing those things,” she said.

Plus, she said, young people can’t become experienced in government until “they are given the opportunity to get experience. If we went by that rule we’d never have young people representing us in politics.”

Jensen, who took the vacant Ward 5 seat running unopposed, said he and other young incoming councilors like Khalid will bring new perspectives to the council not present in the past.

“I know Safiya and I, having grown up in town, I think we just have a different outlook than older generations, (an outlook) that a lot of Lewiston people do have, but it just hasn’t been represented yet on the council,” he said.

He said that outlook is representative of generational differences “that have never been more heightened” across the country. And locally, one of those is the youth perspective on immigration.

“To us, that was just us as kids in school, and they were just our classmates,” he said. “There was never really a moment where it was like, ‘Whoa, things are changing,’ it was just kind of like this is what we’re used to.”

“I’m excited about having some new people on the City Council,” said Mayor-elect Mark Cayer this week. “But the incoming council also has a wealth of experience around them. When you get new, fresh faces in, they bring a different level of excitement.”

Cayer, coming from the School Committee, is a former council president who is familiar to many at City Hall. He said the diversity of experience and political backgrounds coming to the council is a “good thing,” but said the key will be having councilors that are willing to work together.

UP TO SPEED

For City Administrator Ed Barrett, turnover on the City Council is nothing new.

With Lewiston’s election system, it’s possible to have the entire council be replaced every two years. Going into 2020, there will be five new officials on the council, including the mayor. He said the system for getting them acclimated has remained the same.

“Some turnover generally happens at each election,” he said recently. “From staff’s point of view, this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves that we have an obligation to assist the newly elected officials in coming up to speed on the ongoing challenges the city faces and to enjoy the process of meeting and getting to know those new to office.”

Barrett said that prior to the inauguration, the city holds an orientation session to review the City Charter and adopted council rules, open meetings and records requirements, major city policies, background information on city departments “and the issues/projects they are involved in, and the major issues the city faces.”

Staff also schedules a council retreat early in the new term so that the new council can outline goals and priorities for the next two years.

Barrett said as issues appear on early council agendas, city administration makes an “extra effort” to ensure that background information known to prior elected officials “is also provided to those new to the process to ensure everyone is working off of the same knowledge base.”

With nearly two decades in Lewiston, Barrett said he’s confident in the methods used to get new elected officials up to speed.

Safiya Khalid became the first Somali-American to be elected to the Lewiston City Council. She replaces outgoing Ward 1 councilor Jim Lysen.

“I’ve generally found that when there are changes on the City Council, there is a short period of adjustment where the council works to clarify its priorities and issues of concern and communicate those to staff,” he said. “Given our orientation program and the early council retreat, that period is usually relatively short.”

FIRST STEPS

When asked about the first steps for the new council, Cayer said his biggest focus is going to be economic development, which was at the center of his campaign.

In the lead up to the inauguration, Cayer said he has a slate of meetings lined up with the presidents of Bates College, Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, among other local institutions and developers.

“I want to assure them the mayor’s office is going to be a positive voice for Lewiston, and share my vision for economic development and creating a vibrant local economy,” he said. “So far I’m excited about the response I’m getting.”

Cayer foresees the new council dealing with a number of issues in the near future. Most of them should already be familiar to residents, including housing and the downtown “transformation plan,” Bates Mill No. 5 and the city’s canal system and Riverfront Island Master Plan.

Jensen said he’d like to see the council take steps to reduce crime downtown, which he said has a “visibility” issue with loitering and littering that impacts business.

BALANCING ACT

While local races in Lewiston and Auburn are officially nonpartisan, with candidates’ political party affiliations left off the ballot, political insiders often pay attention to the makeup of the council.

For the last two years, Councilor Michael Marcotte, a conservative, has often been an outlier in many 6-1 votes. Pettengill, who describes himself as “fiscally conservative, socially moderate,” would sometimes join Marcotte. Former Mayor Shane Bouchard, also a Republican, resigned in March after racist and sexist messages were revealed.

Marcotte did not respond to requests to comment for this story. After he lost to Stephanie Gelinas by five votes on Nov. 5, a Facebook page sprang up called, “Save Michael Marcotte Ward 7 City Councilor.” In one post, the page said a recount was important because “Control of the city council hinges on this outcome if it will be Republicans or liberal Democrats again.”

The recount showed Gelinas winning by three votes.

Cloutier, a Democrat in the State Legislature, doesn’t put much stock in the role of party affiliations in local government. She said she is still not active in her local party and never felt inclined to be because the City Council and School Committee are supposed to be nonpartisan seats.

“Partisan politics should not have a place in the issues we deal with at the municipal level,” she said.

However, she said, she knows that a lot of times it’s difficult for elected officials to leave partisan leanings out, especially when making decisions on certain issues. For Cloutier, the push and pull over development came to mind.

Recent council votes on items related to the downtown transformation plan have been symbolic of that rift. Marcotte, from his seat on the council and Finance Committee, has railed against the city’s financial decisions regarding downtown properties and demolition. But Cloutier argues the plan has received support across the board (a resolve supporting it was unanimous) and that the entire council “sees value” in the plan.

“It’s an interesting balancing act between how you feel personally about something, how you interpret what your constituents feel about it, and what’s best for the city,” she said.

Cloutier believes the newly elected City Council will work well together, and that Cayer is “extremely thoughtful” when it comes to making decisions. In all, she said Cayer’s approach to issues, along with moderate newcomers including Gelinas and Kerryl Lee Clement, will provide balance.

“I think the council works best when there are varying viewpoints and I think this council will have that,” she said.

When asked about the council makeup, Jensen had a similar take. He believes most of the council can be described as moderate.

“I really don’t see any big splits,” he said. “And with someone like Mark at the table who’s just really good at building relationships, I really don’t see any conflict like that coming up.”

The Lewiston inaugural ceremony is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 6, at the Dolard and Priscilla Gendron Franco Center on Cedar Street. 

The Sun Journal’s look at changes in Auburn city government will appear next week. 


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