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Somali immigrants gave this town something to cheer about, especially in the midst of anti-immigrant fervor

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Ben Chin, center, at a campaign event last week in Lewiston, Me. Mr. Chin is a candidate in a runoff election for mayor that will be held Tuesday. CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times

LEWISTON, Me. — This city’s high school teams have won state championships in football, hockey and basketball, but never for soccer.

Then last month, the undefeated Blue Devils, made up largely of refugees from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and elsewhere, eked out a 1-0 win to claim the state crown. Just as remarkable as that story was the prequel: eight of the players grew up together in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the United States.

Their triumph gave this hardscrabble town something to cheer about, especially in the midst of a vituperative political season in which anti-immigrant fervor has flared both on the national stage and here in Maine, the whitest state in the country, where Lewiston is preparing to vote on Tuesday in a runoff election for mayor.

The election comes as Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city, seeks to define its future against a backdrop of roiling demographic change.

Because of an influx of Somali refugees starting 15 years ago — drawn here by abundant affordable housing, after unhappy relocations to other American cities — Lewiston is on the leading edge of otherwise glacial shifts in Maine’s demographics.


Abdi Shariff, 17, is the captain of the soccer team at Lewiston High School, which recently won the state championship.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times

In addition to being the whitest state, Maine is also the oldest. But Lewiston’s population of 36,300 has become younger and more racially diverse. The median age here is 40, about four years younger than the state median, though still older than the national median of 37.7. The city is 86 percent white, while Maine as a whole is 93.8 percent white; the national average is 62 percent.

“We’ve been through this transformation now for 15-plus years, but things continue to change,” said Phil Nadeau, the deputy city administrator in Lewiston. “More new asylum seekers are coming in than new refugees. And most asylum seekers are college-educated and have working skills. The question over time will be whether they stay. Will we lose the talent?”

The nonpartisan mayoral election, which offers a sharp generational and ideological contrast, could help answer that question. It pits a two-term incumbent, Robert E. Macdonald, 68, a former Marine, Vietnam veteran, retired police detective and virulent opponent of welfare, against Ben Chin, 30, a political activist with the liberal Maine People’s Alliance and an Episcopalian lay minister; in the past he has advocated for allowing noncitizens to vote.

Mayor Macdonald has cast the race as a referendum on his tenure. “People know what I’ve done,” he said in his closing remarks at a recent debate, during which he referred to his attempts to limit welfare, rehabilitate downtown Lewiston and bring in new jobs. “I can look in the mirror,” he said.

Mr. Chin, a third-generation American who has been subject to some race-baiting, framed the election as a choice between uniting and dividing. “We have two roads we can go down,” he told reporters here. “Pull together, do big things, or just stay stuck and fight with each other, immigrant pitted against native-born, seniors against children, working class against the poor.”

Lewiston, a former mill town along the Androscoggin River in south-central Maine, has struggled to redefine itself since its once-thriving textile mills began closing in the 1970s.

Most jobs now are in health care, education and the financial sector and light industry. The latest wave of immigrants, after the Irish and French Canadians in the 1800s, began in 2001, when refugees from war-torn Somalia began relocating here.


Fatuma Hussein, 36, who left Somalia in 1991, arrived in Lewiston in 2001 via Georgia and is now executive director of United Somali Women of Maine.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times

Today, 5,000 or 6,000 call Lewiston home. They have been joined by hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa.

It was not an easy adjustment. In 2002, Mayor Laurier T. Raymond Jr. wrote an open letter to Somalis urging them to keep out. “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all,” he wrote. This prompted out-of-state white supremacists to rally here against what they called the Somali invasion.

Such overt hostility is long gone.

“We have moved on in ways we didn’t foresee 15 years ago,” said Fatuma Hussein, 36, who left Somalia in 1991, arrived here in 2001 via Georgia and is now executive director of United Somali Women of Maine.

“People don’t ask me anymore at the grocery store, who are you and why are you here?” she said. “I’m a Lewistonian. I have seven children; five were born here. My daughter goes to Georgetown University. I am the person who grows the population of Maine.”

Somali businesses have helped revitalize Lisbon Street, the main commercial thoroughfare. Tucked between the street’s historic brick and granite buildings are so many Somali shops that part of downtown is now called Little Mogadishu. Somalis have even been elected to the school board.

“Lewiston hasn’t always had the best reputation,” said Abdi Shariff, 17, captain of the winning soccer team. He arrived here in 2008 from Somalia via Louisville, Ky., and is now mulling scholarship offers. “But we see now that everyone supports everyone in the city and the school.”


Said Mohamud, owner of the Mogadishu Store, a market he runs with his wife in Lewiston.CreditTristan Spinski for The New York Times

This includes Mayor Macdonald, who has celebrated the team and been supportive of the refugees. But his strict attitude toward those on welfare is sometimes perceived as anti-immigrant, especially because of initial fears that refugees would overwhelm the welfare system. The mayor declined to be interviewed for this article.

In 2009, refugees accounted for 16 percent of Lewiston’s welfare costs, according to the Lewiston Social Services Department. But in 2010, the city began seeing a steady increase in asylum seekers, and welfare costs started climbing. This year, asylum seekers accounted for 37 percent of the city’s welfare costs, while other refugees accounted for 11 percent.

Mayor Macdonald, who in 2012 told the BBC that immigrants should “leave your culture at the door,” has sought to ban welfare payments to asylum seekers, saying they unfairly burden Lewiston. He has also called for the public disclosure of the names of “every individual on the dole.”

At the same time, the mayor has distanced himself from racially tinged campaign episodes. This included a sign put up by a local landlord urging voters to “vote for more jobs and not more welfare.” It featured a drawing of Ho Chi Minh, the communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and said: “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin.”

The Maine Republican Party created a blog on Tumblr with Mr. Chin’s picture in front of a city in flames. In addition, a state representative, Lawrence Lockman, a Republican from a town about 130 miles away, strung together various quotations from a lengthy sermon delivered by Mr. Chin and, in a post on Facebook, called him an anti-Christian bigot. “Chin hates America, hates Americans, and hates Christians, and he wants to allow noncitizens to vote,” he wrote.

Lance Dutson, a Republican political consultant who is trying to combat what he views as extremist elements in the party, said such “xenophobic and bigoted undertones” would backfire.

Mr. Macdonald has run what might be called a stealth campaign, with no events, has no campaign headquarters and no website. He has accumulated $5,800, compared with Mr. Chin’s haul of $87,800, a record for a mayor’s race in Lewiston. Mr. Chin is spending the money on an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort.

While Mr. Macdonald is not running a traditional campaign, his supporters do not count him out. “He’s an incumbent, he has a longtime following, and a lot of longtime citizens like him,” said Steve Morgan, a prominent real estate broker and losing candidate in the Nov. 3 mayoral election that led to Tuesday’s runoff. “And they like that he screams about welfare.”

But Mr. Chin’s supporters are just as determined. Inside the Mogadishu Store, where the aroma of warm sambusa wafts across the entryway and freezers are packed with camel meat, Said Mohamud, 56, the proprietor, who had been a chemical engineer in Somalia and even ran for president of that country, said he supported the new generation.

“Macdonald is the past,” he said. “Chin is the future.”

Correction: December 7, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to fund-raising in the Lewiston mayoral race. The $87,800 raised by Mr. Chin was a record for a mayoral race in Lewiston, not in all of Maine


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