LEWISTON — With the election just a few months away, a rift has formed within Lewiston’s Democratic Committee.
City Councilor Safiya Khalid, who had been the local party’s vice chair since 2017, took to social media over the weekend, describing a recent committee meeting that turned hostile, which she said forced her to withdraw her candidacy to lead the party.
“Democrats usually pride ourselves on being inclusive, welcoming, and open-minded, but what took place in that meeting was completely awful,” she said in a Facebook post. The post has since received more than 120 comments and has been shared 28 times.
Khalid, who did not respond to requests for comment from the Sun Journal, said on social media that her nomination was repeatedly disrupted by several meeting attendees, and that she was faced with “disrespectful, xenophobic, and racist” comments.
Elizabeth Eames, the outgoing party secretary, responded to Khalid’s post, stating that committee members were “petrified” and “irrationally fearful” of the possibility of Khalid becoming the committee leader.
“Stunned and appalled by the vitriol, I decided to withdraw from the race for chair—not because I don’t have good ideas or a passion for political activism, but because the level of venom and hatred was intolerable,” Khalid said in the post.
According to those who were there, it was the first in-person meeting for the committee since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were some pent-up emotions.
Elections for party leadership were originally supposed to take place earlier in the year, and now the November election — with the mayor’s position and all of Lewiston’s City Council and School Committee seats up for grabs — is drawing near. Mayor Mark Cayer has already announced he will not seek reelection.
Prior to the meeting, Kiernan Majerus-Collins, who has led the party since 2017, had announced he would be stepping down as chair. But, he told the Sun Journal this week that Khalid, the first Somali-American to be elected to the City Council, was an easy choice to become the new party leader.
Some attendees, including the new party chair, told the Sun Journal that the hostility from some committee members was not aimed at Khalid, but at Majerus-Collins for how he conducted the meeting.
Tom Reynolds, who was elected chair last week, said the field for party leadership was open, and that he had notified members prior to the meeting that he would be submitting his name for chair. He said when committee members made motions to move the election of officers to the start of the meeting, and to use paper (or secret) ballots, Majerus-Collins began repeating that attendees were “out of order.”
He said Majerus-Collins wanted the committee to conduct a roll call vote for Khalid’s nomination, which is out of the ordinary. (Majerus-Collins argues the committee has never conducted a vote by secret ballot during his time).
According to comments on Khalid’s post, one member called Majerus-Collins “a dictator.” Eames said some members “were screaming” at the party leadership.
Reynolds said the reactions from some members directed at Majerus-Collins were “unfortunate,” and that he read Khalid’s account of the meeting, and “can’t speak to her experience, because it was her experience.”
But, he said, he doesn’t believe members were “voting against a Somali-American or a person of color.” He argued that the committee membership is largely the same one that elected Khalid as vice chair.
“I signed her petition to get on the ballot. She’s my city councilor. We supported her and celebrated her victory,” he said.
Majerus-Collins has a different view, and argued this week that last week’s meeting will hurt the committee’s work to attract younger and more diverse members.
“How Safiya was treated was appalling and disgraceful,” he said. “The Democratic Party has a choice to make, whether it’s going to represent all voters in Lewiston, or only older, white people. As former chair, I’m completely convinced that it’s strategically correct and morally correct for the Lewiston party to embrace the full spectrum of voters in Lewiston, and that includes young, diverse leadership.”
He also pushed back against the idea that the anger coming from committee membership was directed at him.
“The person who was receiving a barrage of hostility and hatred was the person who was attempting to become chair,” he said, referring to Khalid.
He argued that members wanting to use a secret ballot were attempting to stop Khalid from being chair “without being held accountable” for voting against her.
On social media, Majerus-Collins added, “I never imagined the lengths to which some local Democrats would go to keep this talented and capable Somali-American phenom from becoming our party’s leader.”
When asked for his reaction this week, State Senator Nate Libby (D-Lewiston), who was also at the meeting, said, “Sometimes families fight and this was an example of that.”
He also said he doesn’t agree with the characterization that members who didn’t vote for Khalid had racist motives.
“To me, that would be the same as suggesting those not supporting Tom (Reynolds) had homophobic motives,” he said.
Calls and emails to several other party members were not returned by the Sun Journal’s print deadline Tuesday.
Reynolds said as the new party chair, he believes Lewiston still has issues with race, and that there’s an “opportunity for us to deepen the conversation” about where racism “intersects with our party.”
The election — Tuesday, Nov. 3 — could result in a large amount of turnover for the city. So far, only two of Lewiston’s current city councilors have taken out nomination papers to run for reelection. Khalid is not one of them.
In her post, Khalid said she wishes her colleagues the best in the upcoming elections this year and next. But, she said, “they have lost, at least for now, an extremely passionate, motivated, and bright young Democratic leader.”