‘A fleck on the globe’: Liberal writer ignores too much in her analysis of the Lewiston mayoral election

“Lewiston is a fleck on the globe, a bleak Franco-American mill town …” or so says Paula Young Lee of Salon.com.

Gee, thanks, Paula.

How wonderful that the Lewiston mayoral race has brought more negative national attention to our state. Gov. Paul LePage was already doing enough damage in that arena. Our state doesn’t need national media outlets, like Salon, using Maine to play into the over-sensationalized blue vs. red national story line. Articles like Lee’s only exacerbate the situation nationally and here in Maine.

Before I go any further, let me clarify (as I do whenever I write about race) that there is racism in Maine, but as I’ve written before, I don’t think it is at all predominant. It certainly hasn’t been a prohibitive factor in my life here. It was unfortunate that there seemed to be a small amount of racism expressed by a few who opposed Ben Chin’s candidacy, but I find it difficult to believe that racism was a significant factor in the outcome of the election that resulted in the re-election of Mayor Robert McDonald.

Christine Lachance verifies votes for Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald during a hand count after polls closed Dec. 8 in Lewiston for the mayoral election runoff. (Amber Waterman)

Christine Lachance verifies votes for Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald during a hand count after polls closed Dec. 8 in Lewiston for the mayoral election runoff. (Amber Waterman)

I also want to clarify that I don’t live in Lewiston, so I don’t really care who their mayor is, and this post is not intended to support either candidate in the recent run-off election.

Further, our state is having a difficult and uncomfortable discussion about immigration and the economy, and small amounts of racism have bubbled up in this discussion, as well. This immigration discussion is both unique to our state and a part of a larger national narrative.

However, to reduce our unique discussion solely to terms dictated by the national narrative is unfair. Grossly unfair and, in the case of Lee’s piece, borderline offensive and lacking in subtleties. Her article does offer insight into the ways liberals undermine their own messaging in their attempts to win over rural voters, though.

Lee’s opinion that assumes Lewiston is steeped in prejudice that births “xenophobic paranoia” is steeped in prejudices of her own.

Lee bemoans the fact that McDonald, “a 60-ish white man who sticks to short declarative sentences” defeated Chin, “a smart and talented community leader who’d worked out feasible plans to revitalize the community.” Lee’s compulsion to identify McDonald’s racial background, but not Chin’s is an example of how liberals have no problem being on the flip side of the same prejudiced coin they use to attack conservatives.

The bit about “short declarative sentences” is classic, liberal elitism, which will backfire with rural folks every time. Old-school Mainers are people of few words. If you can’t get it into a simple sentence, some of them are going to assume either you don’t know what you are talking about or you are trying to pull something over on them. It’s part of that old Yankee common sense.

Her description of Lewiston reeks of prejudice, too, in that it could be interpreted to imply that its Franco background is part of its purported bleakness. Lee is treading on thin ice given that people identifying as French or French Canadian make up 24.3 percent of Maine’s population. That statistic comes from an interesting report prepared for the legislative Franco-American Task Force by James Myall in 2012 (click here).

Myall’s analysis shows that people of Franco descent comprise “the largest single ethnic group in our state.” Later in the report Myall talks about the strong work ethic that is part of this group’s culture — which isn’t to say other ethnic groups don’t value work, but it is to say that it’s hard to think of the famed Maine work ethic without thinking of the state’s deep Franco heritage.

It’s disrespectful to a plurality of Mainers to associate that heritage with bleakness. It’s disrespectful to us non-Franco, as well. Pick a town where there was a healthy mill economy in Maine, and there’s Franco lineage there. Myall’s report identifies agriculture and “natural resource-based occupations” as other strongholds for Franco-Americans.

It makes no sense that liberals, like Lee, refer to the “xenophobic paranoia” they say is at the heart of our immigration discussions, while simultaneously ignoring the cultural heritage of the purported xenophobes. And it makes no sense that Lee writes about spending time in France, but seems to have no appreciation for the sensibilities of her descendants living in Maine.

The Maine heritage and the Franco-American heritage are intertwined, and Lee’s article doesn’t reflect the subtleties of this intermingling. It’s been my experience that Maine’s Franco-Americans, like other Mainers, are mostly hard-working, frugal people who are willing to listen if you talk with them instead of at them or down to them.

It also helps to know a couple colloquialisms, like knowing when to throw in a “Voyons” (pronounced locally in Augusta as way-on but varies regionally). It translates literally to “we see/let’s see,” but is a versatile exclamatory that can be used in a variety of situations. There’s another versatile exclamatory that starts with a “T,” but I probably shouldn’t bring swears into it.

I’m sure it was muttered more than once in the last few months in Lewiston.

Knowing Francos tend to be family oriented is a good idea, too. When you insult or offend one, you’ve insulted or offended a whole bunch. All over the state.

Maine Francos are also unimpressed by shows of wealth; such things run against their frugal nature. I’d guess part of what defeated Chin was backlash against his expensive campaign, which raised $88,000. This backlash is not limited to the mayoral race in Lewiston or just Maine Francos, another subtlety lost on Lee.

Mainers as a whole are bucking the intent of political spending. Spending hasn’t been matching electoral results since the gubernatorial race in 2014 when more was spent in support of former Congressman Mike Michaud and against our current governor.

Personally, I like this trend because it truly reflects what makes Mainers great: one well-placed “Voyons!” in a conversation will likely get a candidate or idea a lot farther than $1,000 in fancy campaign materials.

Example: Lewiston, a mere fleck on the globe? A bleak, Franco-American mill town choosing, as Lee describes, to live in fear? Voyons! (The word that starts with a “T” is probably more appropriate, but again, I probably shouldn’t bring swears into it!)

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.