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Candidates Strike A New, Unifying Tone In Race To Replace Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Democratic candidate Jay Coelho at his restaurant, Grub, in Waterville.

Over the past few years, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro has repeatedly clashed with council members and faced an unsuccessful recall effort in 2018 after taunting a school shooting survivor in a social media post. He’s also been criticized for his anti-immigrant views.

But this election, Isgro isn’t on the ballot. He decided not to run again, and the two candidates looking to replace him are taking a very different tone.

There’s a campaign ad from Utah that Waterville mayoral candidate Phil Bofia, an independent who previous served on the city council, brings up over and over again.

The ad shows two candidates standing next to each other in front of a white background, and the message is simple: while they both want to win, they also won’t attack or degrade each other, because they think it’s important to work together. It’s a message that both Bofia and his opponent, Democrat and former city councilor Jay Coelho, have embraced.

“This is what we need to see more,” Bofia says. “We need more of politicians who get into politics to lift others, to promote their community and not to attack other people and try to demean anybody else.”

It may seem a bit surprising to hear a unifying tone from candidates in a city whose two-term Republican mayor, Isgro, made headlines after he told a Florida school shooting survivor to “Eat it” on social media, prompting an ultimately unsuccessful recall effort.

Republican City Councilor Sydney Mayhew says local officials have recently found common ground on issues like the city budget and COVID-19. But he acknowledges that the fierce partisan divide nationally has affected Waterville.

“Obviously from the national stage, it has polarized things a little bit,” Mayhew says. “There is a little bit more division and partisanship, which I don’t condone.”

That division is what led both of this year’s unconventional mayoral candidates to enter the race. Coelho received solid support from the local Democratic party, but he doesn’t fit a traditional mold — he’s for both universal health care and gun rights.

Coelho says he’s been a Democrat most of his life.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Independent candidate Phil Bofia in his house in Waterville.

“In 2016, I sort of got disenfranchised by the [Democratic] party,” he says. “I thought Bernie got the shaft. So because of that I was went looking for a different solution.”

Coelho registered as a Libertarian for a few years, but says he decided to rejoin the Democratic Party in 2018, to help change it from within. He has two businesses, and touts his record on the council, where he says he regularly worked with people of all stripes to reach consensus on issues like food sovereignty. He thinks as mayor he could do the same thing.

“We should not be focusing on national issues in Waterville when we aren’t suffering from those same national issues,” Coelho says. “It’s a distraction. It distracts from what is actually going on. And there’s so much good going on in our city. So much that people aren’t paying attention to, because they want to sort of fall back on that anger. Anger is a lot easier.”

Bofia doesn’t fit into any one box, either. He came to Maine from New York after emigrating from his home country of Cameroon. Last year, he was appointed to the city council as a Republican, but he also serves as chair of Waterville’s solar committee. After losing his seat, Bofia registered as an independent who embraces what he calls “positive politics.”

“When I knock on somebody’s door, and they ask me which party I belong to, and I tell them I’m an independent, you can just feel the sense of relief,” he says. “I mean, they feel so much at peace, because they know they don’t have to pick a side. They don’t have, at all, to choose one or the other. All they have to do is present their issue, and then know that they will be heard.”

Despite the overlap on many of their views, most of the endorsements in the race have gone to Coelho — from local and state representatives, the local fire union and several councilors, both Democrat and Republican.

Rien Finch, an activist and former chair of the local Democratic committee, says he’s not surprised that Coelho has managed to get broad support so far. He says Coelho has spent years giving back to the community and has a record of working across the aisle to solve problems.

“That approach of, ‘Let’s find a root-cause analysis, and kind of go from there,’ it’s a very attractive way of governing, that really lends itself to crossing party lines very well,” Finch says.

Bofia says the only endorsement he’s seeks is “from the people” on Election Day. But he has found some supporters, including Waterville resident Jeanine Deas. She says after the acrimony of recent years, she’s been impressed by Bofia’s leadership — including at a Black Lives Matter rally earlier this year, when he helped to diffuse tensions between protesters and counterprotesters.

“He has a positive message that’s uplifting,” she says. “And his confidence, he seems like a natural leader, and I especially like his voice of calm.”

Jeanine’s husband, David, supports him, too. But David says that no matter who wins on Election Day, the slate of candidates this year make him hopeful about a more unified vision for a city that has been so divided.