In Lewiston, Maine — population 36,299 — the anxiety some Americans feel about certain political philosophies has come into focus in a pretty unbelievable way.
Look no further than downtown Lewiston to understand just what that can mean. A local landlord, who stands accused by the organization for which one mayoral candidate works of renting substandard properties in need of repair, decided this weekend to retaliate. With an ad.
The candidate's name is Ben Chin. Now, just look at the ad.
For those in need of a history lesson, the sign combines the name of Chin, a third-generation Chinese American and social progressive, with Ho Chi Minh, the communist revolutionary and writer who became head of North Vietnam and the United States' foe in the Vietnam War.
In short: Dunne insists that the signs are not racist. Really. He said so in an interview with the Huffington Post.
"If I knew that everyone was just going to assume racism, then I would have obviously done it differently," Dunne told HuffPo. "None of my family is of Oriental race, but I've lived my whole life with daughters that are African American. I don't have a racist bone in my body. ... In retrospect I wish I had put Putin on the sign too."
Yes. Adding the name of the Russian president would have fixed everything.
Chin is not the first member of his family to find himself the subject of a public attack based on little more than his race and widespread fears about communism. Chin has told reporters that his grandfather immigrated to the United States from China illegally (immigration from Asia was at the time banned) as a young child, then fought in World War II, graduated from Columbia University and founded a successful business. Then, during the McCarthy era, was accused of being a communist.
In response, Chin has said essentially this: As disappointing as this experience has been, those forced to live without heat in Lewiston because their landlord won't make repairs are having a far worse time.
This response has earned some high-profile praise. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from nearby Vermont and a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who is seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, shared his thoughts on the race.
If you are wondering about the connection between Dunne and Chin's opponent, Lewiston's incumbent mayor, Bob Macdonald, here it is. As reported by the Maine Beacon:
According to documents filed with the Androscoggin County Registry of Deeds, both of the buildings where the signs have appeared are owned and operated by Normand and Constance Rousseau and Joseph Dunne. Normand Rousseau is a former City Councilor and one of Mayor Macdonald’s largest donors in his 2011 and 2013 races.
Macdonald says he is not responsible for the signs or the images that the Maine Republican Party reportedly posted on Tumblr and Facebook featuring Chin's picture superimposed on the image of a structure in Oakland, Calif., set ablaze by people upset about police conduct. It's pretty unclear what, if anything, that particular image has to do with Chin, either, except that he is an advocate for a variety of progressive causes.
Macdonald did tell a reporter that he told Dunne not to put up the "Ho Chi Chin" sign. His reasoning: Voters would cast their ballot for the real Ben Chin, out of sympathy. But it's not the first racially charged incident of Macdonald's tenure. In 2012, he advised some white "do-gooders" that their meddling was encouraging Somali refugee women living in the area to be less submissive.
Now, the most generous among us might, right about now, suspect that all this activity in little Lewiston can be explained by an influx of immigrants and refugees. According to the 2010 Census, Lewiston is 85.5 percent white, 8.7 percent black, 2 percent Latino, 1 percent Asian and 0.4 percent Native American. And this is what Newsweek had to say in 2009 about the arrival of Somali refugees:
Barely a decade ago, Lewiston, Maine, was dying. The once bustling mill town's population had been shrinking since the 1970s; most jobs had vanished long before, and residents (those who hadn't already fled) called the decaying center of town "the combat zone." That was before a family of Somali refugees discovered Lewiston in 2001 and began spreading the word to immigrant friends and relatives that housing was cheap and it looked like a good place to build new lives and raise children in peace. Since then, the place has been transformed. Per capita income has soared, and crime rates have dropped. In 2004, Inc. magazine named Lewiston one of the best places to do business in America, and in 2007, it was named an "All-America City" by the National Civic League, the first time any town in Maine had received that honor in roughly 40 years.
Chin and Macdonald will face off against three more candidates in a Nov. 3 election.