Lewiston vote shows the corrosive power of the politics of division

Lewiston vote shows the corrosive power of the politics of division

When Ben Chin conceded his race for mayor on Tuesday night, he did so with the optimism and grace that had defined his campaign, in the face of sustained and insidious attacks on his heritage, his faith, and his authenticity as a resident of the great city of Lewiston or as a Mainer in general.

That last line of attack, the question of authenticity, while certainly being more subtle than the gross public display of racial caricatures and mendacious claims of the devout Episcopalian lay-minister being anti-Christian that marked the campaign, is one that I believe needs to be as critically evaluated as the others by every person that takes pride in calling Maine their home.

When we get pulled into conversations about whether a person truly belongs to a community we are engaging in an exercise of “othering:” drawing arbitrary lines to determine which individuals and groups deserve to freely exist in and represent our communities. As Maine has grown more diverse, as the contrasts in the levels of prosperity between urban and rural areas continue to sharpen, as the economic stability of white working-class families continues to erode, othering has become a powerful tool wielded by conservatives to sow fear and mistrust among those of us who would benefit from working together to create social, economic, and political systems that function in equitable ways.

Othering occurred in a myriad of ways in Lewiston this election, whether it was in discussions about whether Bates College students should be able to vote in local elections, or continued attempts by the Maine GOP to cast Ben’s support for our growing community of New Mainers as a disqualifier for seeking office. Discussions of which of our neighbors get to be considered as “legitimate residents” have come to dominate political conversations in the Twin Cities, and were brought to a head in this mayoral race.

These tactics, of course, mirror the divisive, bigoted politics currently on display on the national stage within the contest for the Republican nomination for president. As if to make this connection abundantly clear, just one day after his re-election Mayor Macdonald endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Conservatives have become so adept at drawing these divisions, that in a state that proudly gave America the progressive icons of Hannibal Hamlin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Perkins, and Ed Muskie, a narrative has been meticulously built that progressivism itself is inauthentic to our state.

When defending himself from allegations of being a racist for putting up his now infamous “Ho Chi Chin” signs after being called out by Ben’s campaign as a corporate slumlord, Joe Dunne attempted to make an argument that it was not Ben’s Chinese ancestry that he was attempting to label as foreign and unwelcome, but his progressive politics and values themselves that represent an outside, even un-American (or at least inauthentic to Maine) influence in Lewiston.

This election, while disheartening in its illustration of the power of using race, national origin, age, class, and political identity as weapons to be wielded in the political arena, shows us why the continued work to break down those imaginary barriers remains as essential as it is unfinished. But even in Ben’s defeat, the movement he helped to build around his campaign paved the way for a progressive majority in the Lewiston City Council that will have the power to carry forward a positive vision for the city’s future.

And, perhaps most importantly, by running a race so bold and—yes—authentic to his values and the needs of the people of Lewiston, Ben has laid a blueprint for a campaign that works as a tool to build community and one that lays bare the machinations of those who seek to create power through division rather than unity. The battle against those forces may not have been won on Tuesday, but they have been exposed, and as long as they remain in the sunlight, they will continue to wither and the movement against them will continue to flourish and grow.

Photo via Flickr/Sam T

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 18 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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