LEWISTON, Maine — On the front page of the Lewiston Journal’s local section on Oct. 18, 1984, was a story about the nascent effort by the Maine People’s Alliance to register low-income people to vote in the area.

The progressive group is on the ground now in Maine’s second-largest city but for a different reason: It’s trying to replace Mayor Robert Macdonald with one of its employees, Ben Chin.

Their race will be decided in a Dec. 8 runoff election after Chin outpolled the conservative mayor on Election Day but without reaching the 50 percent threshold needed to win the office outright.

Chin’s employer has a central role in his campaign, illustrating how the alliance has grown from a progressive grass-roots social justice advocate in the Reagan years to a key player in Maine’s political landscape today.

In 1985, the MPA placed an advertisement in the Bangor Daily News, saying it had 7,000 members and a budget of $250,000. In 2013, tax records say it spent nearly $900,000, and the organization touted a membership of more than 30,000.

The organization is rooted in door-to-door organizing that started in Lewiston. But its role has expanded to the point where it works shoulder to shoulder with the Maine Democratic Party to elect progressive candidates and sway public opinion against conservatives. It also has been one of the most vocal critics of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and worked aggressively against his re-election in 2014.

The alliance’s strategists and volunteers played a large role in electing Democrats in key campaigns, notably state Sen. Geoff Gratwick of Bangor in 2012 and Eloise Vitelli in a 2013 special election for a Senate seat in Sagadahoc County. It is playing a lead role in the effort to increase the statewide minimum wage with a 2016 referendum.

For some Republicans, the MPA has eclipsed the Maine Democratic Party as a political adversary. LePage regularly expresses scorn for the organization, criticizing it for being out of touch with Maine values with rhetoric reminiscent of how Ronald Reagan affixed a negative connotation to “liberals.”

Chin’s candidacy allows the MPA’s political opponents to attach that label to a person instead of an organization, raising the stakes in Lewiston, a historic Democratic linchpin that has shifted rightward, electing Macdonald and twice backing LePage.

Despite big money on Chin’s side, beating the two-term mayor would be “a massive upset,” said Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist, but the race already has “shown the Democrats some positives” — including a high-energy campaign and a clear slate of progressive policies — that they could emulate to gain ground in areas where they have fallen behind in recent years.

“Depending on the outcome, it could show them some more,” he said.

Chin’s campaign highlights the MPA’s transition from canvassers to political strategists and candidates.

The MPA was founded in 1982, centered on the Lewiston area and focused on housing and utility issues. Among its early actions included a rally against a proposed gas rate hike.

The group’s early efforts largely revolved around door-to-door activism, by which Christopher “Kit” St. John, who has donated to Chin’s campaign and did lobbying work for Pine Tree Legal Assistance in the 1980s, was “taken aback” at first and didn’t understand.

Now he calls the MPA one of the best citizens’ action groups in the country, praising it for building a political base at people’s doors and “a financial base that is not 100 percent at the whims of grant funders.”

“That, over decades, really builds something larger and pretty cool,” Mike Tipping, a Maine People’s Alliance spokesman, said.

Chin rose to prominence as an activist in 2004, when the MPA and other groups banded together to fight a city plan that would have created a new street and displaced 850 low-income people. The plan didn’t move forward.

Douglas Hodgkin, an emeritus professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston — from which Chin graduated — and a Republican, said other than that and lots of door-to-door canvassing, “they haven’t been very visible to me” over the years.

“But, of course, I live outside the downtown area and I’m not terribly in tune with their thinking,” he said.

However, St. John, who worked with the group in the 1980s through his 2011 retirement as executive director of the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, said the MPA has “grown hugely in political sophistication” since its founding, and while Chin’s campaign may be seen as the group returning to its Lewiston origins, it’s more than that.

“The difference is they’re going back to their roots with lessons they’ve learned all over the state over 20-plus years,” he said. “It’s an extremely sophisticated [way of] going back to the roots.”

Win or lose, Chin’s campaign could be ‘a way forward’ for Democrats after losses.

This nominally nonpartisan race has importance outside Lewiston: The Maine Republican Party is seeking contributions to help Macdonald, and state Democrats have been working on the race — though neither party would fully detail its runoff effort.

For Democrats, it’s the key contest in the run-up to Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s first re-election race in the 2nd Congressional District in 2016, one of the most targeted races in the country. It’s also a proving ground for campaign tactics that could be used in legislative elections across Maine as Democrats strive to reverse their loss of legislative seats in 2014 by expanding their House majority and gaining Senate control.

Support from Republicans could be important for Macdonald, who has raised just $1,600 through Oct. 20 to Chin’s $63,000. Of that, more than $12,000 went to the Maine People’s Alliance for campaign work, office services and equipment.

The Maine GOP has created a website called “The Real Ben Chin,” and Jason Savage, the state party’s executive director, said Chin’s “track record at the Maine People’s Alliance” shows a “disturbing trend of radical behavior that we feel must be exposed.”

But Democrats have been excited by Chin’s progressive agenda for the city, which includes building resident-owned housing and championing solar energy. Rachel Irwin, a state party spokeswoman, said Chin is “really inspiring people,” and Republican attacks won’t work.

“I don’t think it’s going to win out when you have a candidate like Ben Chin, who has come in and offered a fresh vision for the city of Lewiston,” she said.

Even if Chin doesn’t win, his issue-driven campaign perhaps “points toward a way forward” for Democrats in contested parts of Maine, said Brewer, the political scientist.

“There’s nothing that generates enthusiasm within a party like coming to believe that you have a shot at winning a race that initially you thought was, if not unwinnable, just very difficult to do,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...