Chin seeks po­lit­i­cal change in Lewis­ton, Maine

Hop­ing to turn the page on an overly vo­cal mi­nor­ity that mis­rep­re­sents the whole town

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­

When China Daily in­ter­viewed Ben Chin in early Novem­ber, the 30-year old had just out­polled the in­cum­bent mayor of Lewis­ton, Maine, se­cur­ing 44 per­cent of the vote in an elec­tion that had five can­di­dates.

But be­cause the city’s char­ter says that a can­di­date must have 50 per­cent or more of the votes to be de­clared the win­ner, a runoff will take place be­tween Chin and Repub­li­can Mayor Robert Macdonald on Dec 8.

Soon af­ter the runoff was an­nounced, Chin, a Demo­crat, was back out knock­ing on doors and talk­ing to po­ten­tial vot­ers in Lewis­ton neigh­bor­hoods.

And his wife had just given birth to their first born, a daugh­ter.

“We’re definitely sleep­ing less, and too many di­a­pers,” he joked. “Still, it’s really nice to have a new lit­tle hu­man be­ing around.”

But other than first-time par­ent­ing du­ties, Chin is con­tin­u­ing as he did be­fore, speak­ing with com­mu­nity mem­bers about the econ­omy, hous­ing is­sues and im­mi­gra­tion con­flicts that have arisen over the years, of­ten land­ing the city in the na­tional news.

Lewis­ton is about 35 miles north of Port­land and has a pop­u­la­tion of about 36,000, making it the sec­ond-largest city in Maine. Lewis­ton is a blue-col­lar town, one that has seen dif­fer­ent waves of im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing the English, Ir­ish, French Cana­di­ans and most re­cently, So­ma­lis and other Africans.

The city has had a hard time bounc­ing back af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008. The econ­omy, which pre­vi­ously re­lied on the tex­tiles in­dus­try, was al­ready suf­fer­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing high un­em­ploy­ment.

There are ser­vice sec­tor jobs at hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties, but the econ­omy is dif­fer­ent from the one that Maine is gen­er­ally known for, which is the seafood in­dus­try and ex­port­ing pa­per and pulp-re­lated goods.

The hous­ing mar­ket was hit par­tic­u­larly hard, too. Fore­clo­sures were wide­spread, and many con­demned build­ings re­main va­cant.

“We’ve ac­tu­ally had some out-of­s­tate fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions come in and do the same sort of preda­tory lend­ing pro­cesses that led to fore­clo­sures in other places,” Chin said. “It’s very low in­ter­est-rate mort­gages or ‘ex­plod­ing’ mort­gages, where your pay­ments are very small in the be­gin­ning, and then sud­denly the fine print in the con­tract means they bal­loon and blow up, and you’re pay­ing huge amounts of money, and you can no longer af­ford to take care of your place,” he said.

Hous­ing is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to Chin be­cause it’s how he got his start in pol­i­tics, through com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing over hous­ing is­sues. He went to Bates Col­lege in Lewis­ton, study­ing po­lit­i­cal science and was orig­i­nally plan­ning to go to sem­i­nary school af­ter he grad­u­ated in 2007, but at the time, a city ad­min­is­tra­tor had pro­posed to de­mol­ish one in four units of af­ford­able hous­ing in down­town Lewis­ton and have a ma­jor road criss­cross the city.

“That was my first ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing to a pub­lic meet­ing and see­ing a guy in a suit get up and telling peo­ple, ‘There’s noth­ing you can do, you’re go­ing to lose your homes, it’s a done deal,’ ” Chin re­called.

“That group of peo­ple ended up get­ting or­ga­nized and get­ting spon­sored by Maine’s Peo­ple Al­liance and formed an or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Vis­i­ble Com­mu­nity, and a year later, we had won ev­ery­thing,” he said.

“We had blocked the road, come up with a new sort of peo­ple’s down­town mas­ter plan,” Chin said. “That just flipped me from feel­ing like I had a call­ing as a pas­tor to feel­ing like I had a call­ing to con­trib­ute to my com­mu­nity in an­other way.”

Grow­ing up, Chin split time be­tween Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, and Syra­cuse, New York, af­ter his par­ents’ di­vorce, but it was really Lewis­ton where he first felt at home. The city is a place he’s proud of and in­vested in, even if there’s a long way to go on the econ­omy and com­mu­nity re­la­tions.

Lewis­ton’s com­mu­nity re­la­tions and ten­sions have at times brought the city na­tional at­ten­tion. Though it has a long history of im­mi­grants, the lat­est wave from Africa has stoked a re­ac­tion in pre­dom­i­nantly white, work­ing-class parts of the city.

Around the year 2000, African im­mi­grants be­gan ar­riv­ing in Lewis­ton, and in 2003, Larry Ray­mond, then mayor of the city, said that the So­mali pop­u­la­tion was grow­ing too fast. Three years ago, Macdonald set off protests by say­ing that they had to leave their “cul­ture at the door” and should as­sim­i­late to Amer­i­can cul­ture.

“He said a bunch of other really aw­ful, in­flam­ma­tory things about im­mi­grant folks,” Chin said. “Our gov­er­nor just got re-elected ba­si­cally run­ning on an anti-im­mi­grant plat­form as his main thing, which is some­thing not a lot of peo­ple would guess — a Maine gov­er­nor, one of the whitest states in Amer­ica, would be talk­ing about im­mi­gra­tion as one of his big things, but that’s what he did,” Chin said.

He said that one rea­son why he wants to be mayor is to help Lewis­ton turn a new page, be­cause a vo­cal mi­nor­ity was harm­ing the city’s rep­u­ta­tion and mis­rep­re­sent­ing the rest of the pop­u­la­tion.

“I think the rest of us are just try­ing to fig­ure out how to put a dif­fer­ent foot for­ward,” Chin said.

Chin said he wants to open a cen­ter in down­town Lewis­ton that will help im­mi­grant res­i­dents learn English, be­come cit­i­zens and get ac­cli­mated to Amer­i­can cul­ture. Lewis­ton has a strong tra­di­tion of in­te­gra­tion, he said, and he wants to help the city re­claim that.

Im­mi­gra­tion is also per­sonal for Chin, who is half Chi­nese and half Cau­casian.

“I’m third-gen­er­a­tion, half Chi­nese, and this would be an is­sue for me just in terms of who I am and be­ing proud of my her­itage, and be­ing proud of the her­itage of my neigh­bors,” he said.

Chin’s per­sonal history has been at­tacked, draw­ing racially charged re­sponses from those who didn’t sup­port him dur­ing his may­oral run.

In Oc­to­ber, there were signs posted around the city from a real es­tate man­ager that said, “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin. Vote for more jobs, not more wel­fare.”

The red sign had pic­tures of a com­mu­nist ham­mer as well as a car­i­ca­ture of an Asian man along­side the text.

The real es­tate man­ager said that the signs were posted as a way to “fight back” against be­ing des­ig­nated as a bad land­lord by the Maine Peo­ple’s Al­liance, where Chin is a po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor.

But Chin was not dis­cour­aged by the signs, and in fact felt the op­po­site: “Those signs were just in­cred­i­bly mo­ti­vat­ing to me, be­cause as hard as it is to see your race and eth­nic­ity at­tacked, it’s way harder to live in one of th­ese apart­ments that one of th­ese slumlords own. I think those signs in many ways re­vealed the true char­ac­ter of the op­po­si­tion that we’re deal­ing with, and it’s good for a light to be shown.”

He went on: “The only way that progress really hap­pens is when things are brought up in pub­lic. I run this cam­paign to have a pub­lic fight about real is­sues, and we clearly had got­ten un­der the skin of those guys, and they put their cards on the ta­ble, and now ev­ery­one can see what’s go­ing on, and I’m con­fi­dent that when ev­ery­thing is laid out there, peo­ple will see our vi­sion, peo­ple will see their vi­sion, and they’re go­ing to choose ours if it’s all laid out there.”

Chin’s Chi­nese lin­eage stems from his pa­ter­nal side, when his grand­fa­ther came to the United States from South China dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. He served dur­ing World War II be­fore grad­u­at­ing from col­lege and start­ing his own busi­ness in New York City.

Chin’s grand­mother fled Hong Kong as the Ja­panese were push­ing into the re­gion, and went on to study at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. She grad­u­ated from MIT in 1946 at the age of 19.

“When you look at her class pic­ture, there are not a lot of peo­ple who look like her, ei­ther from a gen­der or eth­nic back­ground. So be­ing a 19-year-old, young Chi­nese woman, grad­u­at­ing from an elite univer­sity in Amer­ica is a pretty big ac­com­plish­ment,” he said.

“They raised my dad, and dad raised me to definitely em­body those val­ues of work­ing hard and really try­ing your best, but then also re­al­iz­ing that it takes other peo­ple in­vest­ing in you and tak­ing risks on you to be able to make it. No­body really makes it alone — we make it when we pull to­gether.

I’m third-gen­er­a­tion, half Chi­nese, and this would be an is­sue for me just in terms of who I am and be­ing proud of my her­itage, and be­ing proud of the her­itage of my neigh­bors.”


Ben Chin, Demo­cratic may­oral can­di­date for Lewis­ton, Maine, is headed to a runoff race on Dec 8.

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