LEWISTON, Maine — Mayor Robert Macdonald’s comments to the BBC earlier this year have again put the city in the spotlight — and not in a good way.

In a documentary on America that aired Sept. 11, Macdonald told the BBC: “You (immigrants) come here, you come and you accept our culture and you leave your culture at the door.”

Those comments came up again last weekend when the Maine Global Institute played the segment during a workshop in Portland.

Macdonald attempted this week to clarify the statement, telling WGME television: “When anybody comes here from any country, they have to embrace our culture. Now, do they have to give up their own culture at home? No. If they want to carry on you know, the Irish St. Patrick’s Day, the French, the Italians, everybody, they all keep their culture, but we all practice a unique culture, and that is an American culture that over 200 years has been developed.”

He also dismissed concern from the immigrant community that the comments apparently aimed at Somalis were divisive and hurtful.

“If you believe in (Somali culture) so much, why aren’t you over there fighting for it?” Macdonald said in the WGME interview. “If you believe in it so much, why aren’t you over there shedding your blood to get it? Why are you over here shirking your duties?”

He has said his statements to the BBC were taken out of context and used as a political weapon against him by former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert.

Gilbert serves as chairman of one of Maine Global Institute’s boards. He said Wednesday he had no political motivation for bringing the BBC video forward.

Since leaving office, Gilbert said he has stayed involved in several organizations including Welcoming Maine, which is aimed at embracing immigrants and tamping down friction between them and other residents in their new Maine communities.

Gilbert said he has been concerned about a column Macdonald pens for the Twin City Times, a free weekly newspaper circulated in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

“Because I said his comments in one of the columns he wrote was divisive, as was his previous articles, it was kind of a steady diet of divisive articles and that was making the work of the police even harder,” Gilbert said.

The reaction among Lewiston’s Somali immigrants Wednesday was a mix of anger and disappointment. Those who would speak to the Sun Journal said Macdonald’s comments were hurtful and misplaced.

Local community leader Hussein Ahmed, owner of Barwaqo Halal, a Lisbon Street market, said he knew Macdonald’s comments did not reflect the sentiment of most people in Lewiston.

Many Somali residents are hardworking, taxpaying people, Ahmed said, but to suggest they should abandon their culture seemed absurd.

“Would he ask that of the other cultures in Lewiston?” Ahmed said. “Would he ask that of the Franco-Americans and of the Irish?”

Ahmed said he was proud to be an American businessman and that American culture to him was one of many ideas, values and beliefs.

“I think one thing is very clear,” Ahmed said. “This is a country where we have millions of people with different political ideologies, different religious theology but with one important sense of communal commitment that we have and that communal commitment is far more important than anything else.”

Ahmed said he wished Macdonald would have spoken about the shared challenges Lewiston residents face, including how to improve education, the local economy and job creation.

“That’s what we should be talking about, not me leaving my culture behind at the door,” Ahmed said. “We are all facing the same challenges . . . My community needs good schools, my community needs good jobs and employment, my community needs good housing, my community needs a place which is safe, my community needs a place which we can play in and which we can live in and socially prosper.”

He said his customers represent the multiculturalism that make the U.S. a great country.

“I see and serve customers from all walks of life: white, black, Somali, African, Asian groups, and I’m proud of having all that and I think we have a good, good community in Lewiston and (Macdonald’s comment) does not reflect all of Lewiston and that is one thing I am very certain about.”

Lewiston City Council President Mark Cayer said he didn’t believe Macdonald intended to be controversial or hurtful with his words.

“I think he’s truly a good guy who sometimes isn’t always politically correct,” Cayer said.

He said the idea that any group of people should be asked to check their culture at the door was not an idea or position he supports.

“I would hope we don’t do that,” Cayer said. “Because without that diversity, I mean that’s what made America the way it is, that diversity.”

Ahmed agreed with that sentiment.

“What will make me stronger is when I embrace my culture and have a community that is willing to accept my culture and I accept their culture,” Ahmed said. “We will be a stronger Lewiston community and that’s what I see and that’s what is happening in Lewiston today.”

Attempts to reach Macdonald were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.