Colby and the Isgro recall campaign
As emotions swelled at a recent Waterville City Council meeting on April 17, the focus of conversation consistently reverted back to Colby. The central discussion topic that evening was Mayor Nick Isgro’s now-notorious tweet, criticizing Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg on his college rejections and instructing the teen to “Eat it.” However, regardless of stance, nearly every speaker made at least some reference to the College, whether critical of its involvement in the City’s politics or proudly announcing their affiliation with the institution. At one point, the Mayor’s wife Amanda Isgro explained that she was “A graduate of Bates College, and yes, I do feel like I have to make that disclaimer to some of our Colby elitists on the council, who like to make us all feel a little more unintelligent as them,” according to an article in the Bangor Daily News.
The College most certainly has a long history of supplying “on-the-hill” politicians to the “off-the-hill” political scene of Waterville, and the recent controversy surrounding Isgro has caused much of the underlying tension regarding this dichotomy to bubble up to the surface. The campaign to recall Isgro in the wake of his tweet has been lead by Colby graduate and former mayor Karen Heck ’74, an effort that could only be completed once two other residents — including Hilary Koch, a former employee of the College — agreed to take out a petition at city hall a few weeks ago.
“I am not a professor at Colby and I do not work for Colby,” Koch said in an interview with the Echo, adding that, “I have become a target in a way that has been very disturbing, and it’s best for me to remain silent on the matter.”
Indeed, a Facebook page entitled “Waterville Republican Party” (which has since been disavowed by the actual Waterville GOP, and renamed) has consistently posted messages in support of Mayor Isgro while disavowing the “elitist” nature of Colby community members who seem to pervade the town’s political scene. “This is the time to stand for free speech, and against the Bolshevik mob that wants to take over the City of Waterville led by none other than Karen Heck and her Colby College professor ilk like Hillary Koch,” one post on the Waterville Republican Party page said on April 9, despite the fact that Koch no longer works for the College.
Julian Payne, Waterville resident and member of the school board, is no stranger to this type of involvement. A self professed blue-collar Democrat, Payne offered his “full support of mayor Nick Isgro” in a Morning Sentinel op-ed, much against the supposed wishes of Heck and Koch. “I’m not necessarily hearing a lot of support [for the recall efforts], I know a lot of Democrats are upset about it,” Payne said in an interview with the Echo. “Here’s my view on it: it’s a no win situation. If you recall Isgro, you’re going to be left with an unhappy population — I think about 30–40 percent of Dems voted for Isgro…let’s split the difference. You will have 30% of Waterville Dems upset, and the Republicans, the community will not be happy. But if the recall doesn’t go through, then there will be a lot of people upset on that end.” Ultimately, he added, “Everyone is hurting — from Karen Heck to me, everyone is hurting, and it seems like there has to be some way to make peace [besides the recall].”
Payne’s issue with Colby’s presence in this matter does not necessarily stem from the actions of community members such as Heck and Koch, but rather focuses on the efforts of city councilors Lauren Lessing and Winifred Tate — who both currently work at the College. “There is definitely Colby influence in the community…I don’t really see Koch and Heck being a Colby influence. I’d like to think of myself as a person wouldn’t brand the whole of Colby as being involved,” Payne said. “The Colby influence, like it or not, is the employees, councilors [Lessing and Tate]. Whatever goes bad on the council, it’s hard to sometimes separate the community being that it’s not Colby seeing as they work for Colby. What is difficult to me sometimes as a resident [is] they [have the ability to] create a lot of influence amongst powerful people, and amongst students.”
This issue, regarding the councilor’s access to a nearly 2000 member population of students, is what Payne sees as the major advantage council people like Lessing and Tate hold over other resident councilors. “With their political views being an employee of Colby, [they] can recruit 100, 200 students to sign something, come to the poll to say vote d without even being informed about the candidates,” Payne said.
Although Lessing did not respond to the Echo’s most recent interview inquiries, she explained a few weeks ago that “[Isgro’s tweets] do not represent the views of Waterville or the many lovely citizens of the town that I see on a daily basis here,” and that she was “particularly eager that students know that!” As a council-woman, Lessing has not officially supported the recall — however, she has publicly condemned Isgro’s tweet and agreed to sponsor a resolution, backhandedly confirming Waterville community values of inclusivity and equality.
Colby Anthropology associate professor and city councilor Winifred Tate has taken a different approach to the matter. “As a professor, I do not discuss my political positions with my students,” Tate said in a recent email interview with the Echo. “I encourage students at Colby to learn about Waterville and get involved with the community, and I learn from my students about their experiences living in Waterville and working as volunteers in the community.”
On-campus, a bipartisan group has headed the response, making the recall petition available to students registered in the state of Maine. The Colby Democrats have taken a stance of neutrality on the issue, explaining in an email to the Echo that their organization “represents a wide range of views, both supporting the effort and opposing it. For this reason, we decided a neutral stance would best represent our group.” Despite this, the Colby Dems have sent out emails and supported events endorsing the recall. The Colby Republicans, on the other hand, have taken a stance against it, admitting in an interview with the Echo that while “some of Isgro’s statements may be questionable,” they feel a recall would “hurt the people of Waterville more than it would help.”
Heck urges students to “participate in the Democratic process” by signing the petition if they feel so inclined to; Payne has similarly supported students in their efforts to uphold values of the democracy.
“We have lost our freedom of speech; people won’t speak, [for fear of] losing their jobs,” Payne explained, referring to the belief that Isgro was fired from his primary job as the comptroller of Skowhegan Savings Bank (it is unclear if he resigned willingly or not). “Colby is an institution that is so committed to freedom of speech, they should lead by example.”