A mayor’s resignation amid turmoil that included the disclosure of a racist text message is renewing tensions in a Maine city that has grappled with diversity since the arrival of thousands of African immigrants.
Shane Bouchard acknowledged sometimes saying “stupid things” after a text message surfaced in which he likened elderly black people to “antique farm equipment.” He resigned Friday.
The text message comes in a year that has seen intense debate about how casual racism infects American politics — most recently and spectacularly seen in Virginia, where a photo from the governor’s yearbook page surfaced that shows one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.
It also laid bare racial difficulties that have garnered national attention for Lewiston before, but that are rare for Maine, the whitest state in the nation. Fleeing war and famine in their homeland, Somalis began settling in Lewiston two decades ago, and the city of 36,000 is now home to several thousand Somalis. Bouchard’s remark may have particularly stung because the Somali Bantu were farmers in their native land.
Fatuma Hussein of the Immigration Resource Center in Lewiston said there was nothing funny about making jokes about a vulnerable population, especially by someone in a position of power.
“There’s nothing laughable about that,” said Fatuma, who was born in Somalia. “We have to stop this.”
While most Lewiston residents accepted the Somali immigrants, the rapid arrival of thousands of newcomers — many of whom didn’t speak English, most of whom were Muslim — caused tensions in this former mill city, which was previously 95 percent white, like the rest of the state. The city, Maine’s second-largest, is now home to more than 5,000 Africans.
“When things like this happen, it sets you back,” said Kristen Cloutier, the acting mayor of this city built by French-speaking immigrants from Canada more than a century ago. “It’s painful for me because it’s painful for my community.”
There was no formal refugee resettlement program in Lewiston. Instead, newcomers who settled in Portland sought out Lewiston for more affordable housing. After the initial arrival of Somalis, other Africans fleeing turmoil have followed, figuring Maine’s harsh winters are a small price to pay for safety and peace of mind.
The migration got off to a bumpy start in 2002 when the then-mayor created a furor by asking Somalis to discourage family and friends from moving to Lewiston.
That letter generated national attention and prompted an out-of-state white supremacist group to hold a rally, followed by an outpouring of local support for the newcomers.
By 2016, the newcomers seemed to have found their place in the city, most obviously symbolized by the fact that several Somalis helped lead the local high school soccer team to the state championship. That victorious run was commemorated in a book, “One Goal,” which Netflix has optioned for a possible series.
But difficulties have remained.
President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration has created unease, and Lewiston’s native son, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, blamed people of color for fueling Maine’s drug problem.
The latest scandal unfolded when a woman announced at a City Council meeting last week that she’d had an affair with Bouchard and had given him a political rival’s emails. Then she dropped another bombshell by providing the Sun Journal newspaper with Bouchard’s racist and sexist texts.
When he abruptly resigned Friday, Bouchard denied having an affair with the woman, suggesting it was an old rumor, but acknowledged that he’s “not perfect.” He also acknowledged saying “stupid things and stupid jokes occasionally.” He blamed the media for perpetuating “rumors.”
“It’s bad. It hurts me,” Muhidin Libah, director of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine, said of Bouchard’s text. “It’s not helping the Lewiston community.”
The Lewiston High School soccer coach, Mike McGraw, said the mayor’s text message offers him an opportunity to talk to his players about racism.
“Hopefully we all regroup, rethink and talk to put it behind us and move on the best we can,” he said.
But Bright Lukusa, who is from the Congo, said the episode is unnerving.
“Why is this happening in 2019?” she asked. “When you have people in power hiding their racism or doing racist things in the personal life, it’s worrying.”