Ep. 56 ME-02: "The old Democrat that's coming back" in a working class district.
Welcome to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
George Edwards: The rich have got richer, CEOs pays have gone up, I mean you know it's a crying shame that you can run a company into the ground, get paid 30 million dollars a year, leave there and go work for the competitor and get 30 million by just running a company in the ground, nobody'd do that, you wouldn't run your business that way. But yet it happens and they're allowed to do it. And I'd challenge anybody where's your health care? Where's all these tax breaks that you were supposed to get and where's all these jobs that are coming back?
Those words could be the working class anthem for 2018. That’s George Edwards. He was once a machinist at Bath Iron Works. He’s now Assistant Directing Business Rep for lodge 4 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. That’s a mouthful, I know. He’s basically a union rep for the Machinists and Aerospace union. We’re opening this episode with Edwards because Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is uniquely large and working class. Maine’s top ten wealthiest cities are in the other Congressional district - District One.
Bath Iron Works - the shipbuilding facility in Bath that builds Zumwalt class guided missile destroyers - is the single largest employer in the 2nd district. It has 6,000 employees and 4 unions. Other important industries in the district are so iconic they make postcards of them: lobstering, wild blueberries and forestry. Some of that work is feeling heavy pressure to adapt to 21st century needs. Some of it is being squeezed by tariffs, and some of it is flourishing with new workers. Agriculture in Maine is small, it’s not Big Ag, but there are so many new people going into it that state programs to support new farmers are humming. Some of those new farmers are Somali.
Over 15 years ago, Somali refugees began settling in Lewiston. To have a large group of Muslim Africans arrive in a mostly white, economically challenged city has not been easy, but soccer has helped. And farms might help, too.
Maine’s 2nd congressional district is the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi, and the second most rural district in the country. It is the only Republican-held Congressional district in New England. The district shares 611 miles of border with Canada. 700,000 people live in an area that Connecticut and Rhode Island would fit inside with room to spare. Delivering health care here, under a whittled away Affordable Care Act, in a state without Medicaid expansion, is becoming impossible work. Voters here chose Obama twice by almost 10 points, and then they chose Trump by 7. Cook’s Political report considers this race a toss-up.
This is the MidPod, the Midterms Podcast. I’m Heather Atwood with Nicie Panetta. We’re two moms, travelling America to chronicle what may be the most important set of elections in our lifetime, the midterms in November. In these elections the American people have the chance to elect a new generation of leaders who could begin to repair this broken U.S. Congress -- our first branch of government.
Chapter 1: The Fight’s in Me.
Edwards: I grew up downtown Lewiston, graduated from Lewiston High
School and on a Thursday and started at Bath Iron Works on Monday morning. Thirty-two years ago.
I asked George Edwards how he moved from being a Tin Knocker - someone who works with sheet metal at the Iron works - to his union work.
Edwards: My background growing up, where I grew up you know always bein’ considered the underdog where we grew up. The fight’s in me and it’s the right thing to do and I like representing people and helping ‘em. So that’s why I did what I did.
As we know from our Pennsylvania 18 story, a lot of union workers voted for Donald Trump in 2016. We wanted to hear from a union person what he thought was happening with unions, which were once almost synonymous with the Democratic party.
Edwards: And you got to get out there and listen, right. And I don't think the Democratic Party has really done that. I don't think they've been out there to listen to what the working class and union members really want and they need to step up you know. And don't get me wrong, there's some really good Democrats out there, but there's also some Republicans that work for us and they do a good job. Susan Collins does a lot for the state. She's a Republican, she's done a lot for us and you know, 10 years ago, we fought. She wouldn’t even let us through the door. We fought. And then she sat down and started listening. That's what I'm talking about. She actually sat and listened and started hearing and started seeing the things that we did and say “wow, these guys ain’t the bad guys, they’re actually the good guys, they're fighting to do the right thing.”
Jared Golden is the Democratic nominee for U.S. House in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district. He is a 36 year-old state legislator from Lewiston. As a legislator, Golden refused to endorse a citizens’ group that was pressuring the Kittery Trading Post, one of Maine’s most iconic business, to stop selling assault weapons. Golden supports universal background checks but he opposes a ban on assault weapons. This position will certainly make some Democrats pause before voting for him. But it’s a position that sits well with George Edwards and probably many others in the district. Edwards believes the answer here is sitting down and talking and listening.
Edwards: Maine’s a hunting state, right? I mean you hunt year around you do different things so when you start saying that you should take guns away. Oh wait a minute. Some people live on right up north in Maine you have people that actually live there and they live off of hunting and they say “oh, wait a minute, woah, woah, woah.” So I think it's again misconceptions not sitting down and talking about it and looking at root causes. Right. What is the root cause is it mental instability, is it you know bullying, is it whatever. Right. And sit down and look at the root cause and say let's fix it. Right. Because I would like to think that United States we have the technology the people and the smartness to actually sit down and fix if we just sit at the table and stop pointing the finger across and listen to what people are saying. There's always a good solution that makes everybody happy.
Here’s Edwards on Golden.
Edwards: And I think that both parties personally have lost sight of what's really right and wrong and they won't reach across the aisle. I shouldn’t say all of them, reach across the aisle and do the right thing. I think Jared Golden's that guy. I think he's the old Democrat that's coming back that understands it. Is there for the working class, can reach across the aisle, grew up with nothing worked his way up through, so he understands the highs the lows and the good times. He doesn't want to take your guns away from you. He will reach across the aisle. He does understand that companies have to survive. But at the same time, the working class should come first and that we need to work together. You know, he's an up and comer, I think he's the best guy for the job and I think he can do it.
Chapter 2: Jared Golden, A progressive heart and pragmatic approach to delivery.
Jared Golden grew up in Leeds, Maine. He told me right away that being in the Marines for 4 years - those deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as an infantry assault man - is an important part of who he is. Golden has been endorsed by Serve America, a PAC that supports candidates with a history of service, who put people over politics. Golden gave me a sense of this philosophy.
Jared Golden: I think maybe some people think that we're idealistic or something but we truly believe that this generation of veterans, Democrats and Republicans and maybe even people who aren't in a party and I'm not just talking about running for Congress, running for state legislatures, I'm talking about in the workplace in the community. I believe we can help kind of pull this country back together and get back to that focus on serving each other, on serving the country, and serving our communities. And I find service to be the most rewarding thing. It's basically been the center of my life since I joined the Marines.
When Golden returned home from Iraq he went to Bates College, where one of his best friends was an Afghan. Through that friend, Golden returned to Afghanistan to teach. But he was also struggling with PTSD from his time in Iraq. Seeing Afghan kids in the midst of a war-torn country, pushing so hard to get to college, Golden says gave him some perspective on his own personal challenges. After returning home, Golden served as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee for Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Then, a Maine lawmaker became ill and had to step down. This opened up a seat on the state legislature and Golden was encouraged to run. He described how he sees himself as a legislator.
Golden: I often talk about myself in this day and age people ask me you know what kind of Democrat are you. Are you a progressive or conservative Dem, are you a blue dog or you know whatever it may be and I always say progressive heart and pragmatic approach to delivery and getting things done because that's what the job is about at the end of the day. But something that I did learn about the difference between staff side of politics representing our community is that gut check of knowing that every vote you cast has an impact on the people that you represent.
Now Golden is running for the U.S. House of Representatives. We talked about the most critical issues facing this district today:
Golden: We are the oldest state per capita and that means we need more health care. That also means that access becomes increasingly harder, particularly as you get more rural. So a lot of challenges and struggles, it's hard. Our workforce shortages particularly in the health industry are quite severe. Nursing shortages, physician shortages, healthcare providers and hospitals are really struggling to make ends meet to to keep those doors open. Often losing money. And the reason why they are trying to keep those doors open is to preserve access to care in rural communities. For years, they have been clamoring for this state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and saying, not only are we struggling to make ends meet and continue to provide these services, but we're leaving federal dollars on the table. One way that I like to talk about this is Maine taxpayers pay federal income tax. That money is helping to provide expanded Medicaid access to people in other states. But we're not taking advantage of that here in Maine to handle our own health care problems.
Golden pointed out that 1 in 5 Mainers is on Medicaid. In May 2017, Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin - the incumbent in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district - voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including massive cuts to Medicaid. This means huge losses to Maine’s healthcare system and the loss of many middle class jobs in nursing and healthcare. Then, Golden talked about “work” in the district.
Golden: Everyone associates Maine with lobsters and lobster fisheries. We got a lot of work in the forest products industry. Farming is coming back in Maine as well, it's, it’s smaller scale and not big ag focused, but really I think there is this common misbelief that our old ways of making a living are gone or going away or dying and I don't think that's true. I think that it's going through a struggle of trying to reform these industries for the future, and we have to find how to make competitive products in the 21st century. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop making them. I think that's key. Democrats had better understand in a community like this, we like to work with our hands. We like to work outdoors, we take pride in our past and in our traditions.
Golden is on record saying he would oppose Nancy Pelosi for Speaker if the Democratic party takes the House in November. He offered us this statement by email on the president’s tariffs: “Although the recent move toward heightened tariffs may have some short-term negative impacts, if the end result is a more robust and thriving middle-class in America, any temporary downside will be seen as worth it.”
Chapter 3: Punxsutawney Phil and The Nerd Mom
There are four candidates running for U.S. House here: The Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin, who we were unable to reach. The Democratic candidate, Jared Golden, and 2 independents, Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, the latter we were also unable to connect with. In some ways, there’s also a 5th candidate running: Maine’s Rank Choice Voting system, which makes the two independent candidates players, even with very little money behind them.
Here’s how Rank Choice voting works: instead of voting for 1 candidate on a ballot, a voter ranks their votes, starting with favorite to least favorite. On this ballot they will rank the candidates 1-to-4. After the first round of voting, if no one gets 50% plus one - or a majority - the candidate with the least #1 votes is eliminated, and their votes are re-allocated to those voters’ Number 2 choice. This goes on until a candidate wins at least 50% plus one. Rank choice voting is less expensive than holding runoff elections, which are run separately and typically have very low turnout.
Independent Tiffany Bond is a family law attorney. She says she was inspired to run because Congress is making her job harder. Laws are being passed - for instance, the spousal support changes in the tax code - that do very little for the Federal Government, but have serious impacts on her clients. For Bond, lawmakers should really be servants to the law.
Tiffany Bond: I look at the law and I look at the job very differently than I think most people running for Congress. What I really see it as is we take the law as it stands now and that's the baseline. And you take each individual piece of law that you're looking at, and you say can we change this in a way that helps people or does it help people does it protect the vulnerable does it save money, if we spend 10 percent more or 5 percent less is that a better use of resources. And you move the law gradually. America really likes gradual consistent progress to our law. We don't like, and we have a hard time generally, with dramatic progress or dramatic backwards. I mean, we don't like either one when there are dramatic changes to law, we don't know how to handle that as a country. Some countries are more adapted to that. We are not. And I think that we stopped looking at incremental progress. I think we've started shifting towards short term gain and I think that's not great for our economy and it's not great for the stress level of our citizens. And it's not great for our law.
Bond is raising money differently from anyone running for Congress. She’s not fundraising; she’s Maine Raising. Interested donors make a donation to their favorite charity, and put Tiffany Bond for Congress in the memo line.
Bond: So if enough people donate then I won't need ads. I'll just be a special interest story and people get to hear about good things that you can, you can do with political contributions instead of gross ads.
Or interested supporters can shop - in person or online - with a Maine 2nd Congressional district retailer - and mention Tiffany Bond for Congress.
Bond: And I would rather have small businesses all over the state have a serendipitous connection to the campaign because they got a customer and have them be able to take better care of their kids and be able to pay their mortgage that month than ever have a campaign ad, where I tell you that the guy’s maybe aren't as good as me.
As we mentioned, we were unable to reach Rep. Poliquin. In August of 2017, Poliquin was secretly recorded by the Maine People’s Alliance saying that he avoids the press and won’t answer questions about his conservative agenda because that’s what he has to do to get re-elected. The sign outside his district office makes it clear that absolutely no recording equipment or cameras are allowed inside. The author Stephen King - who grew up in the district and lives there now - has launched a Twitter campaign against Poliquin. He describes the Congressman as quote: “Maine’s political version of Punxsutawney Phil - once every 2 years he comes out of his hole to run for re-election - and take big bucks from the NRA - and then he disappears and goes back to doing nothing.” King pointed out that Poliquin has received more than $200,000 over the years from the NRA. That was confirmed by the New York Times in October, 2017. King tweets “Send him your thoughts and prayers in November, but not your votes.”
Poliquin seems to be responding, as many Congressional Republicans have, to a new threat: support Trump administration policies or else. In 2015, Poliquin voted against repealing the ACA, but then voted for repeal - reportedly under pressure - in 2017.
Poliquin gets a better grade on the environment than many of his Washington colleagues. He opposed oil drilling off the Maine coast, he supported the federal government’s study of climate change and he opposed cuts to the EPA. In June, Poliquin was a co-sponsor of a bill requiring the Federal government to reunite families separated at the border, as soon as possible. A constituent actually met Poliquin in an airport, and was able to express her concerns about family separation. Here’s a little sound from that video which aired on Maine Public Radio.
In late July, the Mellman Group surveyed 400 Maine voters. This is a poll that imitated Maine’s ranked choice voting system. After that first round, candidate Will Hoar was eliminated and his votes were reallocated to the remaining candidates, which left Golden and Poliquin tied at 48 percent and Bond at 4 percent. After Bond was eliminated, Golden took the lead over Poliquin by 2 percent. Here’s Bond on those results:
Bond: I'm not really running against the gentlemen, I'm running against exposure. I found that when I get exposure, everybody who meets me probably about, 75, 80 percent are converted to people who want me there, they want me, they want the nerd mom making law. If I get the exposure I think I win, if I don't get the exposure in a sort of ironic twist, my votes determine the outcome of the race. So I'm sort of unintentionally one of the most important factors in the race.
Chapter 4: Suffering - the 5th Vital Sign.
Maine’s Governor, Paul LePage, vetoed Medicaid expansion in the state 7 times, including after a voter referendum that passed by 59%. We spoke with Dr. Noah Nesin, a family doctor and Vice President of Medical Affairs at Penobscot Community Health Center, in Bangor. As the ACA is chipped away, and without Medicaid expansion, rural communities are leaning hard on Community Health Centers.
Noah Nesin: I think the community health centers in Maine and in many rural states are the backbone of primary care. So really you're talking about only a handful of options for primary care, one is hospital owned-practices which certainly is the case in Maine. But rural hospitals in Maine are struggling mightily and are at great risk of closing or significantly downsizing, many of them have stopped doing obstetrics leaving people who are in labor having to travel hours to the nearest hospital that does obstetrics and that's a big challenge in the state, and so along with those hospitals downsizing their their primary care practices either shrink or disappear as well.
Penobscot Community Health Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center. Federally Qualified Health Centers provide comprehensive primary and preventive care, including dental, behavioral and substance abuse, regardless of ability to pay.
Nesin: Interestingly prior to the Affordable Care Act, the administration that had increased funding most dramatically to federally qualified health centers was the George W. Bush administration, because this movement has had bipartisan support since its inception in the 1960s under the Kennedy administration and politicians on both side of the aisle, see the benefit of having these resources in their communities, especially their rural communities. But with the Affordable Care Act, in addition to expanding access to health care, to allowing people to access insurance who previously hadn't been able to access insurance, there was money to expand the number of federally qualified health centers and for the existing ones to expand their services. And that was a very important piece of improving access to primary care. So if you're going to insure a bunch of people who hadn't previously been insured they have to have somewhere to go and federally qualified health centers were a big part of increasing capacity to provide primary care across the country including in Maine.
Lack of Medicaid expansion has seriously cut into these centers’ ability to provide their comprehensive services. And, Nesin says that Federally Qualified Health Centers are among the first to respond to the unpredictable needs of a population - like the opioid epidemic. We talked about the opioid epidemic, which we’ve covered here before, but Nesin touched upon a new side to this crisis - the larger consequences for our society of over-medicating pain.
Nesin: Through the campaign to promote opioids for the treatment of chronic pain, there was a parallel campaign of pain as the fifth vital sign which is we're supposed to assess pain and everybody and address it and relieve their pain and in fact I'd argue that we need suffering as a fifth vital sign on that if we can address that if we can recognize identify suffering in individuals identify the cause of their suffering and help them gain insight into their suffering that's actually the appropriate treatment for suffering drugs like opioids or benzodiazepines drugs like Valium or Xanax or Klonopin actually block people from getting insight. And so my concern is that, we know that people who suffer with chronic pain often have a heavy burden of of emotional trauma in their lives not always but very often. And that if we don't help them address that emotional trauma then we're not helping them gain insight. Victor Frankl wrote that suffering without insight is despair. And so we've been imposing despair on people by blocking them from gaining insight by not offering them resources to help them gain insight into the nature of their own suffering and give meaning to their suffering which is what makes life livable for people.
Chapter 5: Work in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district: traditions, tariffs, and resilience.
The major industries in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district are usually described as traditional. Lobstering, wild blueberries, forestry and farming have been successful commercial work for hundreds of years. Maybe that proves how resilient they are? Maybe that resilience will keep them going.
The most forested state in the nation, Maine was at one point the global epicenter for paper production. But 6 paper mills have closed in recent years, and the few that are left are struggling. We spoke with Russell Edgar, a manager at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. There’s an enormous lab there with all kinds of high-tech forest product work going on. Without a paper industry, Edgar says, something has to happen with all those trees.
Russell Edgar: This last decade has been one of transition for the Maine forest products industry. If we do nothing we're in big trouble, if we glorify the good old days and hope that it comes back the way it was, we're in big trouble. We need to shift gears, we need to create new products we need to look for new opportunities.
One of the most exciting products coming out of this lab is something called Cross Laminated Timber: enormous wood panels strong enough to replace concrete and steel.
Edgar: And now the new technologies that we've been promoting and very involved with are mass timber products, which is a category of structural building products made from wood. So you engineer these massive products and you're gluing together, nailing together, screwing together, nothing more than two by fours, two by sixes to by eights. So we already make in plenty in the state and create these massive products that I'll show you out in the lab that can be used to build large buildings and replace potentially steel and concrete. So for mid-rise buildings for example in urban cities, let's say between 6 and 14 stories, these mass timber products stand to gain lots of market share in that area, building mid-rise skyscrapers out of timber. They go up much, much faster than steel and concrete. The environmental footprint is significantly lower than steel and concrete. Often they're built as hybrid systems, so steel is great in certain applications so it is concrete and so is wood. So how do you create hybrid systems that utilize these products and put them in their proper place where you're balancing cost versus performance and it turns out that these mass timber products stand to do very well.
After our conversation, Edgar gave me a tour. The Advanced Structures Lab is a vast warehouse-like building, over 100,000 square feet. It houses two 10-ton cranes and what looks like an Olympic sized swimming pool where wind turbines are being tested. This building is big and it’s made of wood. I told Edgar it was surprisingly beautiful.
Heather: If this was all metal and steel, I would not be saying that I would feel as if it was cold and, yeah, I’m just in another one of those big metal buildings. But there is definitely almost a church like feeling to this place because it's all wood.
Edgar: You're preaching to the choir so there's a term that is going around nowadays called ‘biophilia.’ So that just being around natural products make you feel good. And this whole idea of wooden buildings and cross laminated timber is trying to take advantage of that effect. It's true that most people feel comfortable and that buildings potentially are even healthier being made out of natural wood products as opposed to some some competing products. But as a laboratory that was built to investigate wood products and wood composite products, it is inspiring just working here everyday being surrounded by these products and seeing what they can do when they're engineered properly.
Lobstering just might be both the most iconic and the most resilient Maine industry. Dr. Bob Bayer is executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. He says that up until the 1990’s the lobster catch was 20 million pounds a year. Then all of a sudden it surged. Last year it was 130 million pounds. Bayer gave us the hypothesis for this bonanza.
Bob Bayer: And the best guesses are we've caught up most of the predators, the haddock and the cod, particularly the cod, and there were really big cod in the Gulf of Maine at one time and the size of the lobster that that cod would eat would be proportion to its mouth size. So, you know on cod could eat a pretty big lobster. So that's part of it. And the other part might be a positive effect of climate change. With warmer surface temperatures, the larval lobsters spend less time on the surface. Normally, they’d float for a couple of weeks as they metamorphose into fourth stage lobsters ready to hit the bottom. This is the most vulnerable time in their life cycle so what it means is you shorten that vulnerable time and you might have more lobsters that are able to make it to fourth stage.
In recent years, China has been the industry’s largest overseas market. But in July of this year, that country imposed a 25% tax on American lobster. Maine dealers are scurrying to diversify their markets. But Bayer says they’re not seeing a huge impact of the Trump tariffs. Supermarkets are taking up a lot of slack, and - thanks to a friendly relationship with Canada - Maine ships a lot of lobster there to be processed. That processed lobster is sold all around the world, including China. And yet, there is one indirect but significant tariff impact.
Bayer: One negative effect is the steel tariff, ‘cause one of the big companies that makes trap ware, Riverdale Mills, they, as it happens, buy most of their steel from Canada. So they've got to up their price for trap wire and that means the price of traps goes up.
Wild blueberries grow nowhere else in the world except in the marine clay left by a glacier 10,000 years ago across northern Maine and parts of Canada. Dr. David Yarborough is a wild blueberry specialist and professor of horticulture at the University of Maine. He says, by the way, the number one use for the wild blueberries is smoothies. He described the important economic benefit of the wild blueberry to the state of Maine and to the district.
David Yarborough: It’s situated in Washington and Hancock counties which are fairly poor and there is not much industry there. So this provides a source of local labor, local industry. When they looked at the multiplier effects felt was about 450 million dollars to the state of Maine for growing wild blueberries. But you know it's not only how much it's where it is, and it's providing incomes and jobs for people in an area that doesn't have really much for industry.
And yet, Yarborough says the wild blueberry industry IS feeling the effects of the Trump administration’s trade wars.
Yarborough: There’s still a lot of money in China, we still expect them to buy some blueberries, but there are other places like Chile that have negotiated a trade agreement with China for zero tariffs. So it makes it very difficult for us to compete with that type of situation. So, yeah, the tariffs are hurting us as far as our exports to China, or potential exports.
Tori Jackson is an educator. She works with new farmers in the Beginning New Farmers Program specifically helping them with business plans and marketing. Pro-tip: farm close to farmers markets; and post lots of pretty pictures on Facebook, if you’re a new farmer.
Tori Jackson: We are seeing a huge surge in interest in agriculture and people thinking that they want to somehow be involved in the food system which is great. We do have a lot of farms in Maine. We've got about 8,000 farms of all sizes. So it's not like there's a huge gap, but there's a lot of interest and we have a lot of available land. So, sort of to meet the need of these people who are saying I need to know more about farming, and to make sure that we don't create a situation where we've got all these new farmers who are maybe unintentionally putting the older farmers out of business, we decided to come in and kind of make a bit of a coordinated effort for new and beginning farmers, so that they can get started on the right foot.
One group of farmers Jackson is working with are not new to farming, but they are new to this land, this climate and these crops.
Jackson: There are a number of organizations in the greater Lewiston and Portland areas that are working directly with Somali refugees. We've got Somali Bantu populations, Somali Somali and three main groups who are working directly with them to help them get their farming ventures off the ground. In a lot of cases, these folks were farmers in their home country. However, there are very few similarities to the growing conditions and certainly the market conditions here than they were used to at home.
Chapter 6: Without Education, Without Light
After centuries of colonial rule and then civil war, by 1991 the country of Somalia was lawless. And then there was a crippling drought. U.S. troops were sent in to protect United Nations food deliveries, but they were ambushed by a local warlord. Images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu sickened the world. Since then Somalia has known almost nothing but violence and instability.
In 2001, Somali refugees began arriving in the U.S., invited here under the strict rules that govern the Refugee Act of 1980. They had spent years and years in refugee camps, most of them in Kenya, waiting for word that another country would take them in. Most were directed, initially, to Atlanta, Georgia. But, eventually, some Somalis heard there was housing - vacant apartments, the remains of the city’s closed mills, in Lewiston, Maine. And there were good schools for their children.
It has not been an easy time. In 2002, Lewiston’s mayor sent a letter to the Somali elders asking them to stop more Somalis coming to Lewiston. In 2006, someone threw a pig’s head through the door of a mosque. And yet, there have been bright spots. Crime is down in Lewiston. High school graduation rates are up. And high school soccer is really really good. We’ll tell you about that. But first, we visit the farmers at New Roots, the Somali cooperative farm stand in Lewiston. They also have a food truck where they are selling traditional Somali foods. Food is always a bridge. We spoke with Isnino Ibrahim, translated by Mohamed Dekow.
Isnino Ibrahim: (Somali, then English translation). Well the reason we grow food is to meet our kids expectations because they really love fresh food and some things that we cannot promise we are going to buy from the market. Always. And to make sure that what we provide in our kids we know that we grow our own and we have is our own. So that is one big part of why we want to make sure that we grow food for our kids.
Ibrahim: (Somali, then English translation). What really keeps me keep going is my family because when the season comes on us this is the season everyone and all kids are asking me “Can I help, can I help.” And that is what empowers me to continue growing our own food.
I also spoke with Jama Mohamed, a leader in the Lewiston Somali community. We met with him as a celebration of World Refugee Day was just finishing up. There were hundreds of people there, and a huge tent of foods from many different nations, all set up in a park along the Androscoggin River in downtown Lewiston. Mohamed said that World Refugee day was a big celebration in the Refugee Camps when he was there. Here’s Mohamed:
Jama Mohamed: I was born in Somalia and I grow up in Kenya. But I came to United States and back December 2004. But I moved here in Lewiston in 2008. So I came to United States when I was probably 18.
Mohamed is the first member of his family to graduate from college. He is the director of Family Services, a non-profit in Lewiston, and he is the first Somali American elected to the Lewiston School Committee. Mohamed described the Somali community in Lewiston - and their values.
Mohamed: We have a lot of business here, you can see a lot of property owners, tax payers. So a lot of professional and at the same time also when it comes to their education. So we have a very high number of the Somali kids who graduate from the high school and also move into the college. Now some of them maybe they just don't want out of the city to get education, but again the good news they are coming back and also made back to the city. And an education, is, I know how it's important, cause you know we have a proverb saying like you know without the education without light you know you know if you just go to the dark room, if you don't count on the light so you won't be able to see anything. So I feel like education is like in the light of the, you know, your life.
Chapter 7. The Game that Brought A Divided Town Together.
Spoiler Alert: In 2015 the Lewiston High School Boys Soccer Team won the state championship for the first time. Soccer is one of the main pastimes in the Kenyan refugee camps, and the Somalis brought their passion for that sport to Lewiston. We spoke with Amy Bass, the author of “One Goal, A Coach, A Team, and the Game That Brought A Divided Town Together.”
Amy Bass: I've been writing about sports and politics with a particular focus on racial politics and identity pretty much my whole career. I have been really lucky to have opportunities to work for NBC with the Olympic Games and to write for sort of more popular outlets like CNN and Slate. So this story, when it emerged, in particular, at this moment in U.S. history, it really appealed to me just on so many different levels.
Here’s the story: There’s this economically struggling former mill town called Lewiston. It’s 95% white. Suddenly 5,000 Muslim Africans try to make it their home, and there’s a lot of tension. But there’s also the high school soccer coach named Mike McGraw who - in 35 seasons of coaching - has never won a state championship. He recognized the Somali kids’ soccer talent - and passion - and he created a united, winning team. Here’s Bass again:
Bass: Soccer was being played in Lewiston and McGraw tells this story over and over again I've heard him tell it a thousand times about a couple of players coming up to him in the summer at a summer game and saying you know we play soccer and he had a conversation with them that absolutely showed that they didn't know about, you know, physicals or permission slips or trying out or even uniforms and shin guards and cleats. They played a soccer in which, you know, you play soccer where you live. But with a lot of community networking and support and you know connections made with Somali leaders and good folks in the community, the entrance to them playing on the high school team began. It's not just McGraw he's he's a key person. But his relationships with others. You know Coach Abdullahi Abdi who is the eighth grade coach and as one person in the book says, is the coach of everyone he mentors and coaches every kid that finally makes his way onto that varsity roster and the youth leagues and, you know, the support of so many folks helping with permission slips in and physicals and things that probably when we think of soccer mom or Soccer Dad, we don't think about as being obstacles that have to be faced. But all of these things have to be dealt with. You know, learning how to coach a team during Ramadan when the overwhelming majority of your team is fasting and not drinking water. Thinking about the different family obligations that these players might have as opposed to players that they've had in the past.
Bass describes just how Athletic Director Jason Fuller responded to the question: how do we deal with Ramadan?
Bass: His answer is you accommodate. These are our players they're our players. You know emphasis on the "our". So you know if you can't practice today sit, come, sit. You won't be benched. We get it. If you need to come out more often from a game you know Ramadan moves around and that was one thing that they had to figure out how to deal with. So summer games tend to get more affected than others. But it can hit season it can hit tryouts and the players sort of shrug it off. There's lots of elite athletes in this world who are Muslim and who observe Ramadan. But I hope that the book through a lot of different players' eyes shows how teammates had to understand Ramadan, how coaches, had to understand Ramadan, how parents had to understand Ramadan. If the sun goes down at halftime, there's a feast on that sideline that probably very few teams are engaging in Maine.
Bass says this is a story of a community working hard to come together. There are still troubles, but as the little brothers of that first championship team rise, hopefully that speckled team, as Coach McGraw describes it, will feel more and more normal. By the way, the Lewiston Boys Soccer team won the state championship again in 2017.
There have been times in history when this nation has answered the world’s refugees with open arms - displaced Europeans after World War II. Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees after the Vietnam war. Even the Refugee Act of 1980 passed unanimously in Congress. Bass says we live in different times.
Bass: The stereotype of the Somali in American culture is, you know, things like movies like Black Hawk Down. You know, the image of pirates or the image of terrorist. And understanding that refugees are fleeing from these kinds of things, right, rather than perpetrating these kinds of things is something that the United States I don't think is there yet, and I think we see it in much rawer form in the last 18 months than we have previously. It's not to say it's new, it's not to say it wasn't there. But refugee migration to the United States right now from Muslim majority countries is down 94 percent in the last 18 months. And you know you look at those first seven countries that were named in the first travel ban which is almost a year ago now. Somalia's right there.
Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is predominantly working class, but the work and the workers are changing. The forest products industry is taking on the 21st century. Under threat of trade wars, the lobster industry is scurrying to find new markets, and the wild blueberry industry may have to do the same. And refugees - Muslim, African - are part of Maine’s new farmer’s movement. Remember what Tiffany Bond said about law? - Americans don’t like drastic changes forward or backwards; we like gradual change. Perhaps that is true of our work and culture, too. To lose the vast paper industry in less than 10 years has been brutal for this district. To steadily build up a new industry from those standing trees is exciting but not shocking. To have 5,000 Somalis arrive in a small city almost at once was hard, but for their children to start showing up at soccer practice and for their parents to slowly find avenues into work life in the community is not threatening. This makes it even more clear that we need strong, steady leadership in government, leadership that doesn’t act impulsively, that doesn’t react. That doesn’t hide. That listens.
Thanks for listening to The MidPod this week. For more information, follow us on social media @themidpod and visit us at themidpod.com. The MidPod is a production of Bird on the Wing Media. The executive producer is Helen Barrington and the mix engineer is James Donahue. The program is produced at Whiskey Lane productions in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. We're grateful to Alex Bronstein and her team at the Pier Arts Podcast Garage for their recording studio and for all their support. Special thanks this week to musical contributor Shawna Caspi for her original song, “Numbers Game”. And there were a lot of numbers in the show. You can hear more about Caspi’s music, read about her touring travels and see her paintings, at ShawnaCaspi.com. That’s S-H-A-W-N-A C-A-S-P-I .com. Our theme music is “Wake Up Call” by Cercie Miller, performed by the Cercie Miller quartet. Thanks for listening, and see you soon.
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