WATERVILLE — Sitting in Castonguay Square eating an ice cream and wrapped in a cardigan, the roughly 90-pound Lauren Lessing is hard to picture as causing a stir in city politics.

Yet the former Ward 3 city councilor, who resigned this month to move to Iowa, has been at the forefront of some of Waterville’s most intense political debates in recent months.

Lessing, the former director of academic and public programming at the Colby College Museum of Art and a councilor since 2017, supported a recall of Mayor Nick Isgro and often clashed with his supporters.

The mayor recently called her a “consistent advocate of shutting down residents who question her ideological agenda and attacking those citizens who dare to speak out.”

She criticized his statements against immigrants and led an effort against his suggestion to cut funds from the municipal pool.

It’s been stressful, but also rewarding for Lessing, who said she stands by her politics, including her support for the recent city budget with an 8 percent tax increase.

“I always felt like I was doing what most people in my ward wanted me to do,” said Lessing, 49. “That was pretty much borne out in the phone calls and the feedback I received. Even when there was a vocal minority that would show up to city council meetings and voice their opinions, they might have strong opinions, but those were by and large not the opinions of people in my ward.

“I could hear them and listen to them as a city councilor, but also knew the things I was supporting were the things my constituents elected me to support.”

Lessing, who is originally from Indiana, was elected in 2016 to replace longtime councilor Rosemary Winslow after she chose not to run for re-election.

She and her husband, Uri Lessing, a former fifth grade teacher at the Albert S. Hall School, said the recently contentious atmosphere around city politics did not play into their decision to move.

Lauren and Uri Lessing pose for a portrait outside of City Hall in Waterville on Thursday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Instead, they said her new job as director of the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa and their son going to college in Indiana were the main factors in the decision.

“I enjoyed my time working with Lauren on city council,” said Council Chair Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, in an email. “As many people may or may not know, Lauren won her ward by a wider margin than the rest of us on the present council. In this extremely trying time in politics, whether it be national, state or local, it takes a very thick skin. Lauren was tough. Each decision comes with support and dissent.”

From the beginning, Lessing, a Democrat, said she knew there were a lot of things she didn’t agree with the Republican mayor, Isgro, on, though in 2017 — her first year on the council — they were able to work together.

She also said she made a decision when she was elected to not be on social media, including Facebook and Twitter. So she largely wasn’t aware of things Isgro was saying on social media until it was reported in the news media in April. “It was the one tweet, but it was also the string of other tweets that had happened in the past,” Lessing said. “That in my opinion was even more disturbing, particularly comments about immigrants, which I feel like, in a town like this, where everyone is either the child or grandchild of immigrants, that was particularly beyond pale.”

Lessing was one of four councilors who signed a petition to remove the mayor following his tweet telling school shooting survivor David Hogg to “Eat it, Hogg.”

Recently, the mayor’s wife, Amanda Isgro, said councilors were so consumed by the recall effort they failed to find adequate cuts in the city budget and criticized Lessing in particular for distributing a flier at the municipal pool saying Nick Isgro wanted to close it.

“I don’t think that was exaggerating at all,” Lessing said of the pool flier. “I think if he turned down the money from the Alfond Foundation for the slide repair, I don’t think we would get future money for other repairs that are needed and next year the pool would be closed.”

In a statement, Isgro did not name Lessing but addressed a number of upcoming vacancies on the council saying, “I am looking forward to working with new city councilors who will work to unite — not divide — the community, whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or folks not affiliated with a party.

“Residents expect their councilors to be respectful, to listen and address their concerns, to encourage input, and to serve Our City, rather than belittle, draw mocking cartoons of residents who are speaking, seek to limit First Amendment rights, and serve outside special interests. I share these expectations.”

Some have blamed Lessing for being part of the recent divisive environment in city politics, including creating doodles mocking residents during council meetings, something Lessing said she never did.

“I think Nick said that, actually,” Lessing said. “I’m not sure why. It’s a mystery to me. I do take a lot of notes and I doodle — I have a fine arts degree. Maybe people thought I was drawing (the audience), but I’m not.”

Isgro also said residents and the media should be looking more closely into whether “it was moral or ethical to vote on tax increases while bags were packed to skip town immediately after.”

Over the last few months, Lessing was the target of attacks on the anonymously run Waterville Resistance Facebook page, which has been taken down but for months was spreading misinformation about city politics. More recently, several of her emails have been shared on another anonymously run Facebook page, Waterville Leaks.

Lauren Lessing, of Ward 3, raises her hand to recuse herself from a vote on Colby College development during a city council meeting in the city chambers at The Center in Waterville on Feb. 7, 2017. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

School Board member Julian Payne, whom Lessing has clashed with in the past, has pointed to one of the emails written by Lessing in which she asked the city attorney what it takes to remove a mayor, as a sign of her involvement in the recall.

He has also criticized her for distributing the pool fliers and including his personal email on them and a policy she proposed in 2017 to ensure civility at council meetings, but that Payne said was an attempt to limit free speech.

“I believe our community will soon revert to being more civil, tolerant, open and respectful,” Payne said at a recent council meeting addressing Lessing. “You are moving soon and Iowa has a lot to look forward to, and I am sure they will be quite surprised. In the meantime, I ask you to try and stop ripping whatever is left of our community apart.”

Others, however, said Lessing’s departure will be a loss for the city.

Rosemary Winslow, a Democrat and Lessing’s predecessor as Ward 3 councilor, said despite an unusual atmosphere in city politics, Lessing did a good job of communicating with residents and city officials and learning the budget process as a new councilor.

“One of the things she was very good at was listening and then taking the time and the next steps with our city manager or other individuals working for the city or other members of the council,” Winslow said. “It was a good fill and many of us in this neighborhood feel the same way.”

Lessing said the anger expressed at council meetings by Payne and others reflects the national political climate, and as a woman, she has been a particular target.

“I think there’s a lot of misogyny behind the backlash, and it’s disproportionate in terms of where the anger is being directed on the city council,” she said. “I think in the community you see that too. It’s hitting women harder than men. I think just broadly speaking, there are a lot of people who were angry and felt left behind and suddenly feel the power to express that.”

Uri Lessing, a board member at Waterville Creates! and frequent actor in Opera House productions, also said he has been disappointed by the negative attention his wife and other councilors have received of late.

His wife’s departure means the council will have to consider whether to appoint someone to fill her seat or allow the seat to remain vacant until the November elections. It’s also one of four seats up for election this fall, which means the city could see a majority new council in 2019.

Lessing said she fears people may be deterred from running because of the recent atmosphere at council meetings, but she hopes they also recognize the majority of Waterville residents know serving on the council is a public service and are grateful.

“It has to be the right person, but for people who enjoy helping their neighbors and having thoughtful conversations about the public good, it’s just incredibly rewarding work,” Lessing said. “So I’m hopeful people will step up for those seats.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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