WATERVILLE — City Democrats are expected to nominate a party member to run for mayor against incumbent Republican Nick Isgro at a party caucus scheduled for Wednesday, but uncertainty still abounds after the only Democrat who had declared her intent to run for the office felt compelled to switch parties and support the first-term Republican incumbent.

After the decision early this month of the only declared Democrat running for mayor, Karen Rancourt-Thomas, to switch parties, city Democrats say they still remain positive about their path forward even as the incumbent Republican mayor called the switch a sign of momentum and unity for his party.

Eliza Mathias, the Democratic Party’s newly elected chairwoman, said that the party voted to postpone nominating a mayoral candidate at its July 10 caucus, which was attended by about 60 people, because there wasn’t a lot of prior notice.

The only declared candidate for mayor at the time of the caucus, Rancourt-Thomas, a day later announced she was switching parties and endorsing the incumbent mayor, Isgro, who had contacted her.

“I don’t think what happened at the caucus was a referendum on Karen,” Mathias said, adding that Rancourt-Thomas was a good candidate whom she supported and that city Democrats are excited and optimistic about the future.

As of Friday, she said, there were candidates interested in the nomination, but only one person officially had declared his intent to seek the party nomination at Wednesday’s caucus: Erik Thomas, who was appointed as the Ward 4 councilor in 2011. The party will reconvene its ssession from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Alfond Youth Center to nominate a mayoral candidate.

Thomas, 31, owner of Digital ImageWorks and Sweet People Productions, was also a three-year member of the Planning Board, and Mathias said he had served as the party’s chairman before. Thomas could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

“We’re looking forward to the caucus on Wednesday night, and we will see then,” Mathias said.

Meanwhile, John Levesque, an independent, also has said he’s also running for mayor.

According to the city clerk’s office, there are 11,605 registered voters in Waterville. There are 4,871 registered Democrats, 2,052 registered Republicans, 403 registered members of the Green party and 4,279 unenrolled voters.

SEEKING OFFICE

In a Facebook post from July 12, the Waterville Democratic Party stated that the new party leadership and several community members felt that the organization and promotion for the 2017 caucus was “severely lacking,” and that was why they decided to postpone nominating mayoral candidates.

“The actions, however, were in no way intended to disenfranchise any candidates running for office,” the post read, saying that the “use of a mandatory legitimate rule coupled with the desire to engage as many people from our community as possible should not be frowned on.”

The later caucus date of July 26 would allow community members to have more time to engage with candidates, the post argues. Any mayoral candidates who were at the July 10 caucus are welcome to return to the next caucus, the post states, but with a larger and more engaged group of constituents.

“This was pragmatic legitimate rule and nothing more,” the post concludes. “The party would like to move forward with encouraging respect for the process, and encourages its (remaining) candidates and constituents to leave emotions at the door.”

Rancourt-Thomas’ decision might have surprised a number of Democrats, but she herself said it wasn’t a big political leap. She identified herself formerly as a conservative Democrat. However, her decision came as no surprise to former Democratic mayoral candidate Steve Aucoin, who said when Rancourt-Thomas ran against him for mayor as an independent in 2014, it took votes away from the Democrats and assisted in a Republican victory.

Former Mayor Karen Heck, who endorsed Isgro last time around, said she is not getting involved in the next mayoral race and is not planning to endorse anyone, but she did reserve her right to endorse someone later. While calling Rancourt-Thomas’ decision to switch parties a philosophical change, Heck encouraged people to follow their instincts and go where they feel most comfortable.

The former mayor said it was a good thing overall that the caucus was postponed, as she sensed it was called too early and a later date would allow more people to participate.

“People used to be very participatory,” Heck said, “and the more we can do to encourage that, the better.”

In a recent op-ed in the Morning Sentinel, Heck said Waterville City Council meetings have “become more combative and less respectful.”

‘MY PARTY LEFT ME’

Democrats at the July 10 caucus did nominate candidates for open City Council and school board seats, despite an attempt to postpone nominations for the Ward 4 council seat.

Whoever the Democrats nominate for mayor will face off against incumbent Isgro, a Republican seeking his second term. He easily won his party’s nomination July 11, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd at the Republican caucus.

Rancourt-Thomas attended the Republican caucus and announced she was switching parties and endorsing Isgro. She said she felt as though she had been kicked out of her own party and had found the Republican Party more welcoming. A self-proclaimed former lifelong Democrat, Rancourt-Thomas said she would do everything she could to get her voter base to support Republican candidates in Waterville.

“I will help elect every Republican in this room,” she said after the caucus.

Rancourt-Thomas said she has received overwhelmingly positive responses from both parties after announcing her decision. As for the July 10 caucus, she said the Democrats put her in a position where she felt she had to switch parties.

“I never left my party. My party left me,” Rancourt-Thomas said.

Last week Rancourt-Thomas said she doesn’t wish the Democrats any ill will, but she said the party needs to look at their base and be more inclusive.

“You can’t push us out. We will go to different parties,” she said.

Mathias said it was unfortunate Rancourt-Thomas felt isolated by the decision to postpone nominating a mayoral candidate but stressed that it was just an attempt to improve organization. Mathias said the party has heard from a few people interested in running and is looking at ways to improve its communication and outreach and development of candidates not just for this race, but for future races.

“Obviously, Waterville Democrats are also a big tent, and we look to make sure that all people see that,” Mathias said.

Mathias said Democrats are looking forward to the July 26 caucus. She said there are a lot of good things going on in the city and it was time to “roll up our sleeves and work together.”

“We’re all in this together to make Waterville a vibrant community,” she said.

CAUCUS CONFUSION

Aucoin, the former city councilor who was the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2014 and placed second to Isgro, said in an interview that the way the Democrats handled their initial caucus earlier this month was “a little clumsy.” In years past, he said, the caucus was held later in the summer. But by word of mouth, the party was able to get 60 people to attend the July 10 caucus, and he did say a candidate stepped up seeking the nomination. However, Aucoin said he was not backing Rancourt-Thomas on that, as she ran as an independent against him and Isgro in 2014.

“It just wasn’t well organized,” he said of the caucus.

Aucoin, 70, said he has no interest in running for mayor again, though he said he had been approached by others about it. He also said he was not surprised by Rancourt-Thomas’ decision to switch parties, saying she must have known running as independent in 2014 would take votes away from the Democrats.

While he didn’t think the move to postpone a mayoral nomination would leave dissent among the Democrats, he did think the party needed to do more to represent a more progressive point of view, with ideas more closely aligned with the vision outlined by the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont who sought the Democratic nomination for president. He said he doesn’t expect turnout at the next caucus to dwindle, as candidates probably will bring out their base. But he said he wasn’t sure if residents who came out only to support a City Council nominee would bother coming again to Wednesday’s caucus.

“That’s a very difficult thing to figure out, to predict,” Aucoin said.

Aucoin, the maintenance director for the Alfond Youth Center, did praise Mathias as a good party leader, saying she has “some deep roots with community and has been involved” in the past. He said he also wants to put his energy into increasing voter turnout.

In terms of switching parties, Rancourt-Thomas said, it’s not that big of an ideological change, as she always considered herself more of a conservative Democrat. Whereas she was fiscally more aligned with a conservative kind of thinking, meaning keeping taxes in check, she identified with the Democrats on social issues, such as on women’s health and transgender issues. She said the Republican party so far has been very accepting of where her ideas differed from traditional conservative ones, and called the Republicans “more independent thinkers” than the Democrats.

She said it’s important to allow people to have different mindsets.

“To switch to the Republicans wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said.

‘SIGN OF UNITY’

Isgro, 35, a controller at Skowhegan Savings Bank, a trustee and financial advisor for St. Theresa’s Church in Oakland, and a commissioner on the Maine Commission for Community Service, is seeking his second term. He was elected in 2014 after Heck served one term.

Before Heck, Republican Paul LePage, Maine’s governor, was mayor. Isgro was the only Republican seeking the nomination at the Republican caucus on July 11.

There are no mayoral term limits in Waterville, and the role is a part-time one.

Last week Isgro said he has heard from people around the city that his party is working to “represent people of Waterville from all walks of life.” He said the decision by Rancourt-Thomas to switch parties was “a good sign of unity” and shows they are committed to working together.

Meanwhile, Levesque, the 46-year-old independent mayoral candidate, said he’s running for a variety of reasons. He said that he thinks local services, including the city’s schools, are “at significant risk due to the inability of people to work together on issues that benefit all of us.” He said he has seen tax cuts that he believes will hurt the city and children’s education.

“I think we have an opportunity to change the discussion from what we can’t or shouldn’t do to what’s possible and what we can do,” Levesque said. “There are several things we can work on to help grow our tax base, bring in more business and improve quality of life, but we have to make sure we have a community where businesses want to locate.

“They need an educated workforce and affordable housing for employees. They need quality schools and decent services.”

Levesque said he has never sought any kind of political office before. He is an educational coordinator and consultant for Professional Disability Associates, a Portland-based organization.

He said he was concerned about building back the city’s younger population and the workforce. He said the types of jobs that used to be in the area are gone and not coming back, so he wants to help find ways for businesses to offer more incentives for a younger workforce. He mentioned trying to figure out some kind of loan forgiveness program for college graduates who commit to living and working in Waterville for a period of time, to which the city would contribute. He said that would be an incentive for a business, as it would be a benefit the business could offer a potential employee, who would then become part of the tax base.

“That’s an investment worth making, in my mind,” Levesque said.

Unlike Republicans and Democrats, independent candidates do not go through a caucus. According to the City Clerk’s Office, an independent candidate needs to get a petition and have at least 15 but no more than 25 signatures from each of the city’s seven wards to get on the ballot.

In addition to the mayoral race, a number of City Council and school board seats are open and will be contested.

In Ward 2, the Democrats nominated incumbent City Councilor Nathaniel White for the council and incumbent Susan Reiser for the Board of Education. The Republicans nominated Bob Hussey to challenge White and Pat Roy to challenge Reiser.

In Ward 4, a motion by resident Charles Ferris to postpone nominating a Democratic candidate for City Council was defeated July 10. Instead, Democrats voted to nominate Chris Rancourt for City Council and incumbent Mary Ann Bernier for the Ward 4 school board seat. The Republicans selected incumbent Sydney Mayhew to run for the Ward 4 council seat but did not nominate anyone for school board.

In Ward 6, the Democrats nominated incumbents Winifred Tate for council and Elizabeth Bickford for school board. The Republicans did not nominate any candidates in Ward 6.

Both parties are also seeking nominations for Ward 5 school board candidates. Two seats on the Kennebec Water District board are also open.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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