A Tribute to the “Mayor of Maine”

A new biography chronicles John Jenkins’s journey from a magnetic young student and fish out of water to one of Maine’s most popular mayors and its first Black state senator.

John Jenkins, speaking to students in Oxford County, in 2014.
Photo by Brewster Burns
By Brian Kevin
From our May 2023 issue

Peaks Island author Chuck Radis was one of many, many friends that John Jenkins made when the New Jersey native enrolled at Lewiston’s Bates College, in 1970. “Right from the beginning, he was just the kind of guy people were attracted to,” Radis remembers. Jenkins’s popularity — with classmates and faculty, with former mill workers employed alongside him in the school’s kitchens, with students at the martial-arts academy where he was a karate instructor (and, later, owner) — eventually propelled him into politics. Jenkins was elected to two terms as Lewiston’s mayor, beginning in 1994, and served concurrently in the state senate, from 1996 to 1998. Nearly a decade later, after he’d moved across the Androscoggin, he won a write-in campaign to become mayor of Auburn, Lewiston’s “twin” city.

John Jenkins: Mayor of Maine

After Jenkins died, of esophageal cancer, in 2020, Radis was among a group of Bates alums who set out to establish a scholarship in his name. That effort gave rise to John Jenkins: Mayor of Maine (Down East Books, $16.95), for which Radis interviewed friends, family, and colleagues from Jenkins’s varied career as a civic leader, motivational speaker, and world-champion martial artist. The new book covers Jenkins’s policy successes — which include enticing businesses to an ailing Lewiston and serving on a federal equal-opportunity commission — but it’s best read as a portrait of a determined everyman who seemed to bring out the best in anyone who met him. We talked to Radis about his friend, “the mayor of Maine.” 

How did you come to know John Jenkins?

We had sports in common, running track together at Bates. He was a sprinter and also, even at that time, kind of a coach — he gravitated towards people who needed a little more help, and he’d encourage them, keep them on track. I had also grown up in New Jersey, only about six miles from where John was from, in Newark, but it was different. I lived in suburban New Jersey, whereas Newark was a tough city. 

What were your early impressions? 

He looked like an Olympic competitor, just a hugely coordinated and strong athlete. And yet he was very approachable. He gave out an aura of, you know, just wanting to be friendly with everybody. Loved to joke around, a great teammate. Even in school, people started calling him the “mayor of Bates College.” We didn’t think about politics then, but you could see that no matter what he ended up doing, it would involve that social connection he had with people. In school, I didn’t know he wanted to be a doctor, that he was trying to do pre-med, and I didn’t know much about his struggles academically. But he was probably the most well-known person on campus. 

Do you suppose some of Jenkins’s gregariousness had to do with being a Black man in a very white state — a feeling of pressure to be amiable? Is it something he talked about?

He never talked about it with me. I always looked at him, as a young man, as someone who was color-blind, who just enjoyed people in general. I know now that wasn’t necessarily true, that when he first came to Bates, he kind of had a chip on his shoulder, initially, about white people, partly because white people he’d met in Newark weren’t always the greatest people. But in later years, I associated him with someone like Obama, someone who built bridges, and I think people in the community saw him that way too. I know in the background, race is always there, but he seemed to put it aside. In a situation where I was the only white person in the room, my tendency might be to melt against the wall. For John, it was the opposite. 

In one memorable passage, Jenkins coolly predicts that he’ll someday be mayor, right after a driver in a passing car shouts a racist epithet.  

That was a memory of a former girlfriend. And I think it fits with John quietly wanting to be well-known, wanting to be on a bigger stage. I think he’d have loved to have been governor. 

He won his first race for Lewiston mayor by a three-to-one margin and, later, his senate race by a two-to-one margin. What do you think accounted for his political popularity? 

Really important was the fact that John connected with the Franco-American community, first while he was working in the cafeteria at Bates, and then later, his dojo — his karate school — was in the heart of the Franco-American district. He worked with a lot of kids whose parents were first-generation Franco-Americans, and they just adopted him as someone who understood their struggles. And I think in a close-knit community like that, you’re perceived as someone who’s really invested in that community and word just gets around.

Later, when the Somali immigration to Lewiston began, John wasn’t mayor anymore, but he was a coordinator of a rally showing support for the Somali community. And I think that if he hadn’t been mayor, their entry into Lewiston and Auburn might have been even more difficult. There was plenty of backlash, of course, but I think there were people who had a higher level of acceptance because they’d had a Black mayor. 

I interviewed a woman who spearheaded his write-in campaign for Auburn mayor, and she was still just a cheerleader for John Jenkins, now in her 80s. She had a scrapbook, and any influence she’d had in the Franco-American community, she had used it to say, you know, he’s really one of us. There was just this connection, where people really, really loved the guy.

Did you ever get to see him practicing karate?

Oh yeah, and in his prime, he would do these incredible things — leap over a bunch of people sitting down and spin in the air, then land a punch to some boards someone was holding 10 or 12 feet away, breaking the boards. It was like, “Oh my gosh, did I just see that? That’s incredible!”

I think a lot of the karate stuff that John did, he translated those lessons to his relationships with people, and I think they helped him manage adversity. Discipline, delayed gratification, a willingness to learn skills by practicing over and over. John was an extraordinarily jovial and happy-go-lucky guy, but he was also extremely focused on his goals — ease and accessibility as his personality, and yet he quietly had this inner strength of knowing where he wanted to go.

How do you hope he’s remembered?

I hope John is remembered for his ability to overcome barriers, someone who was able to achieve a lot of his dreams — and the dreams that he didn’t achieve, he adapted. I hope he’s remembered for his energy and his enthusiasm. And for that high-wattage smile of his. Anybody who was in a room with him will know what I’m talking about.