Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald needs to get out more. Starting with a short trip south to Maine’s largest municipality.
Macdonald, in case you haven’t heard, has created a bit of a mess for himself in the city by the Androscoggin.
First, resurrecting a local tradition started 10 years ago by his predecessor Laurier Raymond, Hizzoner Macdonald insulted Lewiston’s sizeable Somali population for no apparent reason.
Then, rather than tamp down the ensuing controversy with a heartfelt mea culpa, he threw more fuel on it.
And finally, at a Lewiston City Council meeting Tuesday evening, Macdonald topped it all off with a question that, at least in his world, gets right to the heart of the problem.
“Why,” he asked the crowd in the packed council chamber, “does the trouble always start down in Portland?”
Umm … come again?
Back in June, a crew from the British Broadcasting Corp. interviewed Macdonald for a documentary on the impact of immigration on the United States.
Clearly, the BBC chose Lewiston because it attracted worldwide attention in 2002, when Raymond wrote a letter to the city’s growing Somali community asking that they “exercise some discipline” and stop moving to Lewiston.
In the BBC documentary, which aired on Sept. 11, Macdonald stopped short of demanding that the Somalis simply go elsewhere. Rather, he said, those who do touch down in his fair city need to “accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.”
The mayor’s unannounced trip to xenophobia might have gone unnoticed if not for the Maine Global Institute, which showed the documentary on Sept. 22 at the University of Southern Maine in (you guessed it) Portland. That gathering was organized by the institute’s founder, Ralph Carmona, who lives (where else?) in Portland.
Naturally, more than a few people who attended the event at USM were upset that Lewiston’s Somalis, who have done quite well since the last controversy died down, were once again taking it on the chin from their own mayor.
Enter WGME-TV, which asked Macdonald on Sept. 24 for his reaction to those who loudly complained that he was out of line. The mayor, apparently unaware until then that the BBC had mastered transoceanic transmission, responded by invoking his role model for all things controversial.
“As Gov. Paul Lepage has noted, you get into a … fight with a skunk, you both come out smelling bad,” Macdonald said in a written statement to the TV station.
“That’s all he said,” reported WGME anchor Adrienne Stein that evening. “Mayor Macdonald has not responded to our request tonight for an interview to clarify what he meant by the comment.”
Last week, the station finally caught up with Macdonald and, well, let’s go to the tape:
“If you believe in (Somali culture) so much, why aren’t you over there fighting for it?” he snarled. “If you believe in it so much, why aren’t you over there shedding blood to get it? Why are you here shirking your duties?”
He continued, “These people that are yelling about I’m insensitive to their culture — well if it’s so great, why aren’t they back in Somalia? Why are they here?”
Little wonder that by this week, the Maine People’s Alliance and other groups were clamoring for Macdonald to resign. Which, at Monday’s City Council meeting, he most definitely did not.
First, like all these guys who crave the taste of their own shoe leather, he lamely blamed the media for taking his remarks “out of context.”
Macdonald insisted that his crack about “shirking your duties” by not going back and “shedding blood” in war-torn Somalia wasn’t aimed at Lewiston’s 6,000 Somali residents.
“I was not talking about the Somalis. I was talking about the person,” he said.
The person? And … all due respect and all … what person might that be?
“That was directed, if you look at that, that’s a first person,” Macdonald continued. “That was directed at the person that was ripping me apart in the paper, OK?”
Sure, whatever you say, Mr. Mayor. Can we get you a glass of cold water, maybe a mild sedative to help you speak in coherent English?
By “first person,” we can only assume Macdonald meant Maine Global Institute founder Carmona. Who, for the record, grew up in the Spanish-speaking barrio of East Los Angeles, not Somalia, and, also for the record, has a heckuva lot stronger command of the English language than Macdonald.
But suddenly, it became much bigger than Carmona. In his next breath, Macdonald set his rhetorical sights on “a bunch of people from Portland.”
“They started something down in Portland,” he complained. “It’s always coming out of Portland.”
Actually, Mr. Mayor, if you came down here and looked around you’d find that the only thing coming out of Portland is a long, proud history of accepting newcomers with open arms — not unlike the welcome many in your own community have extended to their Somali brethren.
You’d also find city leaders who generally think before they speak, keep their traps shut when it’s their constituents’ turn to sound off and, when the chips are down, wouldn’t dream of blaming their occasional screw-ups on a neighboring community. (Just imagine: “Portland Mayor Claims Waterfront Rats ‘Always Coming out of Lewiston.’”)
The problem here isn’t that Macdonald is a card-carrying racist. The more I watched the video of Monday’s painfully long public forum, the more I concluded that the mayor’s problem with Somali immigrants pales by comparison to his inability to accept legitimate criticism.
That’s why, as I searched for the one comment that best captured the 66-minute discussion, I kept coming back to Mohamed Abdillah, a Lewiston businessman who spoke eloquently about the disconnect between Macdonald and his Somali constituents.
“I’m giving you an advice, Mr. Mayor,” suggested Abdillah. “Hire a PR director who can teach you how to do speeches.”
The man has a point, Mayor Macdonald. A public relations specialist isn’t such a bad idea.
And just so you know, Portland’s crawling with them.
Bill Nemitz — 791-6323