Obvious contrasts, similar views in Belfast mayor's race

Newcomer Paradis challenges long-time Mayor Ash
By Ethan Andrews | Oct 05, 2017
Photos by: Ethan Andrews Samantha Paradis is challenging five-term incumbent Mayor Walter Ash to be the city's chief moderator, tie-breaker and ceremonial leader.

Belfast — Who knows Belfast better — a lifelong resident and five-term mayor, well-known in the city and involved with city and state government for more than three decades, or a relative newcomer, both politically and as a member of the community, who has knocked on more than 2,000 doors around the city this year to ask residents what's important to them?

That's one lens through which the current race between incumbent Mayor Walter Ash and challenger Samantha Paradis can be seen. Age is another. In conversation with The Republican Journal recently, Paradis, who was 26 when she announced her candidacy earlier this year, talked largely about older residents.

An earlier article in this paper had painted her — too stridently, she believed — as a young candidate who took a dim view of the old timers at City Hall. But her focus on older residents this time wasn't backpedaling. Paradis, a registered nurse, founded Aging Well in Waldo County, an organization that aims to make the county age-friendly and assist elderly residents with problems that arise in old age, including housing, transportation and social isolation.

Asked about the biggest issue facing the city, she didn't hesitate. "Property taxes," she said, and after that, the shortage of affordable housing in the city. She also wants the city to be a leader in a transition to clean energy.

Over the summer, she dedicated several days each week to knocking on doors. By the beginning of October, she had visited more than 2,000 homes. In addition to some of the big issues, many residents told her they were intimidated by the "open to the public" sessions at City Council meetings, which ironically exist to give residents a direct line of communication to the council.

Paradis said she hopes constituents will feel like her door is open when they have concerns involving city government. It wasn't lost on her that thousands of them dropped what they were doing when she knocked on their doors.

Outside of the occasional tiebreaker, Belfast's mayor does not vote on issues that come before the City Council. Past mayors have used the position as a bully pulpit, leading the conversation and dragging the City Council along with them. But Ash has taken the role of moderator, occasionally interjecting opinions, but mostly facilitating discussion among councilors.

Paradis would be at the same end of that spectrum, but she believes she can do it better. The challenger said she would like to see City Council meetings run with fewer digressions and more frequent breaks, which she said would help the council with decision-making. "As a nurse, I know there are better ways to approach things," she said. Taking three-minute stretch breaks every hour, for a start.

She drew other parallels between her work as a nurse and the approach she would take as mayor.

"Health — general public health, community health — is part of every policy," she said. "Property taxes, stormwater, sidewalks, infrastructure, downtown development, every policy affects the health of the community in some way."

A win for Mayor Walter Ash would make him the city's second-longest-serving mayor of the last century, ahead of Lewis F. Greene, who held the seat from 1952 to 1962, and a term shy of Page Worth, who was Belfast's mayor for 14 years, from 1986 to 2000.

Speaking recently in the garage of his Searsport Avenue home, the retired mechanic and small business owner didn't mention his standing among other mayors — he didn't know if others had served longer. But he put stock in his own knowledge of Belfast history, which includes a lot of firsthand experience.

His home sits on land owned by his family for generations. Next door is the East Side Garage that he recently handed over to his son.

Ash has served in city or state government for more than 30 years. He started on the city's railroad committee, when the city owned a majority share of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake railroad. He later was elected to the City Council for terms totaling 12 years, and then served three years in the state Legislature.

"Since the chicken industry went out, I've been involved in one way or another," he said. "There's a lot of history. I think things have gone well with the city."

He returned from the State House to run for mayor in 2007, a year in which candidates won and lost according to their position on big box stores coming to Belfast. Ash was the exception. Despite being characterized in a political ad that year as part of a slate of pro-big-box candidates, Ash beat political newcomer Michael Shell and didn't look back.

Ten years and four elections later, Ash said he's waiting to see what his opponent does before he pulls his well-traveled election signs out of storage. "If people don't know who the hell I am by now, they never will," he said, laughing. "If she puts up signs, I'll put up a few."

Ash had nothing bad to say about Paradis and even met with her when she was considering a run. As then, he still believes she should have taken a smaller step in her first foray into city government. He pointed to his own start on the city's railroad  committee, three decades ago.

"I said, let me help you get on a committee," Ash recalled. "Come to a meeting."

He stopped and made a wide-eyed, skeptical face. She hadn't been to a meeting that he could recall.

Paradis said she did go to some council meetings early on and has taken to watching them online. While she hasn't been here nearly as long as Ash, she wasn't ready to concede that he knows voters better than she.

"I've heard individually from these people what matters," she said. "I'm not making assumptions.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Oct 05, 2017 13:21

Her effort of going to "more then 2000 homes" is impressive seeing there are

2,765 occupied: 1,730 owner occupied, 1,041 renter occupied ..........and 356 empty homes



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