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Charting a New Path: On Portland's Charter Commission and School Budget Vote

by | Jun 3, 2021

F. Eugene Farnsworth was born in Columbia Falls, Maine, in 1868, and he’s one of those uniquely American characters. You know the kind, a conman living a bizarre life full of odd adventures and privileges, becoming remarkably influential and then largely forgotten to history. For example, as Frank Farnsworth, his career as a hypnotist ended when he accidentally killed his assistant, crushing his head with a boulder in front of a live audience. He avoided jail time by publicly admitting to being a fraud. He would later reappear as F. Eugene Farnsworth and hold the title of King Kleagle, lead organizer and recruiter of the Maine Ku Klux Klan at its height, from 1923 to 1924.

Farnsworth and the Klan were proponents of “good government” — government representing the interests of business elites while keeping the country out of the hands of “hyphenated Americans.” One of the ways to accomplish this goal was to change city charters — specifically, by replacing elected mayors with unelected overseers called city managers.

Farnsworth and the Klan got their way. From the New York Times, late summer of 1923:

PORTLAND, Me., Sept 10. — The Ku Klux Klan scored a notable victory here today in the city’s special election — the Klan’s first venture in the political field of New England. The Klansmen backed the council-manager charter plan, which calls for the election of a City Council of five members chosen at large without regard for party designation or ward lines.

While Portland currently has an elected mayor, that position’s power is still dwarfed by the city manager’s, so the city government has largely maintained this structure ever since. But there is an opportunity to change that very soon. On June 8, Portland will hold a special election forming a 12-person commission to review, and perhaps re-write, the city’s charter.

One of the candidates running for an at-large position on the Charter Commission is Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef. In a column featured in the Portland Press Herald in March, she wrote about the Portland Chamber of Commerce’s pivotal role in the Klan’s 1923 victory. She asked that the Chamber acknowledge and apologize for that role.

A representative of the Chamber replied in another column, “Let me be clear, if the Chamber of the 1920s ever colluded in any way with the Ku Klux Klan in an election 100 years ago or otherwise, I, along with our full board and our CEO, absolutely condemn that.” While that is an expected sentiment, it neither acknowledges nor apologizes for their well-documented role — one example of the many ways the ghost of the King Keagle still haunts us.

The school budget will also be on the June 8 ballot. Focused on economic and racial justice, the budget was placed on the ballot by the City Council after a 7-2 vote. One of the crucial votes came from Councilor Mark Dion, a former law enforcement officer who is also white. Having initially supported a reduced school budget, he explained his change of heart: “I supported the [lower budget] in committee, and that’s something I did through the eyes of my own experience. I spent all the time since asking myself one question: What if I’m wrong?”

Dion then added, “My experience looks like me. Maybe the families who don’t look like mine deserve us to do the hard work.”

But that ol’ racist apparition is even prowling around the school budget. Yard signs recently appeared around town telling people to vote against it. The signs read, “Provide Equity for ALL Students,” in true all-lives-matter fashion. (Incidentally, the group paying for the signs — which I will not dignify by naming — also has an Instagram account. The account follows 15 others: exclusively those of Republican politicians and avowed white supremacists. They only have two followers: a get-rich-quick spam account and a porn-bot. Hopefully that reflects their campaigning ability, though you never know.)

I will, of course, be voting for the school budget. And I’ll be voting for Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef. I happen to live in District 1, where Shay Stewart-Bouley is running, and so I will be voting for her as well. In case you didn’t know, aside from writing this column, I also write for Shay’s website, blackgirlinmaine.com. This gives me a particular insight into who she is as a person and a candidate. Her life, history and work make her an ideal person to honestly consider what this city should be. She said it best herself: “Given my background and personal journey as someone who didn’t grow up with financial or class privilege, my experience as a young parent and even now, as a middle-aged non-profit director and anti-racism writer, I believe that I will bring a unique and necessary perspective to the process. One that will allow me to make sure everyone is represented.”

I agree, and I hope my neighbors do, too.

 

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

 

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