No matter who gets the most votes next month to be Mayor of Portland, the real winner will be those who opposed the resurrection of the position a decade ago and are still saying I told you so to anybody at the bar or barbershop who’ll listen. Congratulations, asshole.
The members of the charter commission who created the role in 2010 envisioned a mayor, directly elected by the people, who could “unify” Portland in ways the old ceremonial mayors, chosen by fellow city councilors, could not. Trouble is, they didn’t give the mayoralty any meaningful authority, so the mayor lacks the political power necessary to make councilors or staff fall in line behind his or her vision. The mayor can’t write the city budget, hire or fire anyone, or, indeed, tell any city staffer what to do. Portland’s mayor has no veto power other than over the budget, and that veto can easily be overridden.
During the past eight years we’ve seen a series of childish squabbles among the mayor, the eight councilors and the city manager (who remains responsible for all city business) over the limits of mayoral authority. There seems to be no precedent for the position. In 2017, the city’s HR director was unable to find another city in America with this weak form of mayorship. It’s basically an experiment in Maine’s “laboratory of democracy,” and the monster it birthed has broken through the door. It was last seen lurching up Munjoy Hill, looking for another affordable apartment to smash.
Portland’s first elected mayor, Mike Brennan, was so unpopular with his colleagues on the Council that most of them backed the challenger who unseated him in 2015, Ethan Strimling. Strimling has since managed to piss off the councilors who supported him four years ago, plus a whole lot of other people. Last week, one of his challengers, City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, announced that nearly a dozen former Portland mayors are endorsing his bid to wield the gavel. That posse includes Brennan, Pam Plumb (who chaired the aforementioned charter commission), and longtime Councilors Nick Mavodones and Jill Duson, who were in Strim’s camp back in ’15.
It appears the argument has finally been settled: the elected mayor doesn’t have much more power than the ribbon-cutters of old. This has not been an inexpensive or painless lesson to learn. Opponents of the elected-mayor position warned it would bring big city–style political corruption, if not outright bribery, into the boring, polite, and officially non-partisan realm of Portland government, long dominated by liberal-to-moderate Democrats who mostly got along and kept their nose clean. That prediction has come true with a vengeance.
Campaigns for City Council, even for the at-large seats representing the whole town, seldom cost more than $15,000 back in the day. This year, Strimling has raised ten times that amount ($150,000), Thibodeau’s pushing six figures, and former school board member Kate Snyder has raked in roughly $70,000. (The fourth candidate in the race, waiter Travis Curran, is not actively fundraising.)
Compounding the compromising influence of big campaign contributions, this year there are shadowy political groups pouring cash and conflict into the race. A political action committee (PAC) called Unite Portland has been running ads urging voters to choose anyone but Strimling, the most progressive of the three front-runners. The PAC made a half-assed attempt to conceal the identity of its main consultant, Republican operative Lance Dutson, whose resume includes stints leading a conservative Maine think tank and propagandizing for Sen. Susan Collins.
Strimling’s in league with Progressive Portland, a group led by the execrable social-media troll Steven Biel. Together with his wife, recently elected Portland school board member Emily Figdor, Biel brought a new level of organization and tech savvy to the city’s Democratic left-wing, but the couple has been a divisive force in local progressive politics, employing unsavory tactics and alienating potential allies. As was the case when he worked on Diane Russell’s failed State Senate bid in 2016, Biel, a political operative by trade, claims he’s “volunteering” for Strimling, so Prog Portland’s activities needn’t be disclosed on campaign finance forms.
Electing the mayor has thus given Portlanders politicians beholden to big money, sleazy campaign tricks, and a city more politically and economically divided than it’s been in living memory. Portland voters may as well write-in Frankenstein on their ranked-choice ballots. But if you insist on choosing a human, here’s this year’s Voters’ Guide.
We began by asking the contenders about a proposal floated by City Manager Jon Jennings last March. Over the years, the city hasn’t been spending the money necessary to maintain and modernize our public properties. It’s not just the schools that we can’t afford to fix, it’s also infrastructure like the Maine State Pier and public spaces like Congress Square Park, as well as fire stations and City Hall itself.
This is the result of what’s known as austerity. Cities like Portland are quite limited in their ability to raise funds for public needs. They collect property taxes, change from the parking meters, and all manner of fees, but it’s the state and federal governments that make the big bucks from sales, corporate and personal income taxes. Politicians in higher office don’t want to cross wealthy donors by raising their taxes to a level sufficient to support the cities and towns, so they give municipalities just enough cash to keep the lights on, and make them dependent on the private sector in the process.
For example, cities and towns can issue bonds to fix or build schools and other public stuff, but this is basically borrowing, with interest, from the same corporations and fat cats who weren’t taxed enough to cover the cost of routine maintenance in the first place.
Another popular option is called privatization, selling public assets to private companies when, due to years of neglect, the big repair bills come due. That’s what Jennings had in mind for Portland Police headquarters, on Middle Street: privatize it. His plan was to sell the old cop shop (with its leaky windows, treacherous entryway and flood-prone evidence room), most likely to a condo or office developer, then have a private developer build a new building for police and fire administration on public land out by the Cumberland County Jail. The city would then rent its police and fire headquarters from this landlord for the foreseeable future.
As with the State Pier and Congress Square Park, which the city tried and failed to sell, this plan hasn’t happened — yet. We got the candidates’ takes on this situation, as well as their proposals to create more affordable housing, help homeless people and addicts, address the climate catastrophe and support public arts events like the recently defunct Old Port Festival and Portland’s semi-privatized Fourth of July celebration.
Political newcomer Travis Curran is a waiter at Empire, the Chinese restaurant and comedy club on Congress Street. He’s in his early 30s and rents an apartment on Munjoy Hill, living paycheck-to-paycheck — or, more accurately, off tips.
Curran hadn’t heard of Jennings’ plan to sell police headquarters, but said, “it sounds a little disrespectful to the police if you ask me. … I 100-percent disagree with that.”
“I don’t know why we don’t have the money for those kind of repairs,” he added. “I can’t wait to get in there and find out where all this money is going.” It’s like the city’s parking meters, which keep getting more expensive while the streets crumble to pieces. These days, “if you put a dime in, it just keep it,” quipped Curran, who’s done stand-up comedy and some acting in the past. “Is that paving my road right now? It’s not.”
Curran pledged to find the money necessary to maintain public assets without slashing funding for education “or anything” else. If he had to find extra cash somewhere, he half-seriously suggested cutting Jennings’ salary, which is upwards of $170,000 these days. The city manager “got a nice raise I’m not sure he fully deserves,” since he’s “doing such a bang-up job chopping up our town and selling it to the highest bidder.”
To increase affordable housing, Curran said he’d start by further restricting Airbnbs, which were recently capped by the Council, by requiring that the property owner live on site. Then he’d advocate for zoning changes to encourage more residential development in mixed-use areas. Curran would also increase the number of housing units that developers of big projects must make affordable, from 10 percent to between 25 and 50 percent of the total number of units built.
Asked how the city can best help its homeless population, Curran said, “I prefer compassion. As much compassion as I can.” He said he’s been one friend’s couch away from homelessness himself, and opposes proposals to limit shelter beds to Portland or Maine residents.
Curran called the current plan to build a “mega-shelter” on the outskirts of town “abhorrent.” He prefers the so-called “scattered site” model of small, specialized shelters in different neighborhoods. Noting residents’ opposition to shelters, he acknowledged that “not everyone’s a good soul waiting to be saved,” and “people don’t want those bad apples in their neighborhood. But,” he added, “we have to treat those apples like seeds, seeds with apples around them.”
To reduce Portland’s carbon footprint, Curran wants to increase the public’s use of city buses by running more buses more often and later into the night for late-shift workers. He advocates implementing “light electric rail” service in town and sees permaculture farming as part of the solution, but concedes that large parts of the peninsula seem doomed to be underwater by the end of the century. That will require bold new ideas. “I’m not talking about putting houses on stilts,” he said. “But I’m not 100-percent opposed to building on the water, over the water. Making our own islands and stuff might have to be our solution.”
Curran supports the establishment of so-called “safe injection sites” in Portland — places where intravenous-drug users can shoot up under the supervision of staff trained to intervene if there’s a problem, and where addicts can connect with counselors and treatment programs. “I’m the only candidate to talk about the opioid crisis willingly, without being prompted,” he said. “It’s a super-serious problem no one wants to talk about.”
Lastly, I asked Curran about the Old Port Festival, which will no longer be produced by the publicly funded nonprofit Portland Downtown, and about the Fourth of July fireworks celebration on the Eastern Prom, which the city has largely handed over to corporate event producers due, as usual, to lack of funds.
“I hate the Old Port Festival,” Curran admitted. “I thought it was dirty. I hate everyone who came [to the Old Port] for it specifically. I don’t think it boosted anyone’s profits except for Amigos’.” That said, Curran pledged that as mayor he would support efforts to revive a smaller version of the festival, one that doesn’t create hassles for Old Port workers trying to get to their jobs that day. He called the privatization of the Fourth of July “horseshit” and said he’d advocate for full public funding.
Curran also criticized the city’s crackdown on live music outdoors, observing that its noise ordinance has been selectively used to appease wealthy condo owners. “It’s just another example of putting the will of one rich person over much happier, poorer people,” he said.
Kate Snyder is the only mayoral candidate who’s not a renter on the peninsula. The 49-year-old married mother of three lives in Oakdale, near the University of Southern Maine’s campus, and served two terms on the Portland school board, from 2007 to 2013, including service leading the board and its finance committee.
Snyder knows all about meeting public needs with private money. She’s executive director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, a nonprofit set up to collect (tax-deductible) donations from businesses and philanthropists to support arts programming for students. In recent years the foundation’s mission has expanded to provide free breakfast for impoverished elementary school children and to “market” the district’s new comprehensive plan, Portland Promise. Its top contributors include L.L. Bean, Unum, and numerous local developers and banks. Snyder is also a founding board member of the Portland Parks Conservancy, which seeks to improve public parks with private dough.
“We need to be really, really careful and thoughtful about how we, as a community, sell city-owned land and buildings,” Snyder said when asked about Jennings’ plan to flip police HQ. “Not that I’m opposed to the discussion,” she added. “We just need to be careful [that] we include the community in the question. Then, what’s the cost-benefit analysis?”
“There’s always a lack of funding for routine maintenance,” she observed, “and the capital improvement budget [the city’s bond program] is more than we can do. It’s an ongoing struggle not unique to Portland.” Snyder said she’d advocate for the long-elusive local-option sales tax, which would allow the city to increase the levy on things like restaurant meals and hotel rooms, and keep that extra money to pay for needs like a waterproof evidence room. State lawmakers have never approved this idea, despite decades of lobbying for the tax.
Snyder said there are “many lessons to be learned” from the fight that saved Congress Square Park. “One is, when you have public land that’s threatened, when a community group steps forward and engages philanthropy, that can be really successful.” However, “you can’t look to philanthropy to do the repairs at the police building,” she said, and must spend tax dollars as necessary to maintain public-safety infrastructure.
Like Curran, Snyder thinks rezoning will help ease the city’s housing crunch. She also wants to use tax breaks and public funds to incentivize private developers and nonprofits, like Avesta, to construct more units, especially off-peninsula. “If we want to build affordable housing, we can’t build on the most expensive land,” she said.
On the issue of homelessness, Snyder has more questions than answers, like “How can we pull in regional partners?” to help Portland mitigate the impact of being a social-service hub. And, “If we say no cap [on length of shelter stay] or no residency requirement, and if that’s the recommendation of people who are experts in the field, what does that mean for engagement with other communities?”
Snyder said she wishes those kinds of questions had been addressed before the city decided to build a big shelter far from downtown. But she does know what the shelter should do. “The goal is to make sure the homeless shelter isn’t somebody’s residence,” she said. “I don’t know if service providers have enough of what they need to respond to the need out there. How does the city work with them to increase the availability of apartments and housing?”
Snyder said she doesn’t think there should be any kind of residency requirement to use the shelter, but sounds softer on the question of limiting how long people can stay. Even Portlanders who advocate for a residency requirement “wouldn’t turn someone away if they were there for a night or two,” she hypothesized. “They get frustrated when someone is staying at the shelter for months on end.”
Snyder supports sale-injection sites.
On the climate issue, Snyder also starts with better public transit, as well as bike lanes and more walkable neighborhoods. Then the questions start again: “What are the requirements for new buildings and old buildings with renovations?” “Are we committed to solar for municipalities?”
As for public arts events and festivals, Snyder said she’s “hesitant about the city being the lead” organizer for such happenings, and wants to be sure there’s a clear accounting of the cost and public support to spend tax dollars to cover it. She said the city’s annual celebration of America “has to be a hybrid” of public and private funding and execution.
“Strim Dog,” as Travis Curran calls him, is wrapping up his fourth year as Portland’s mayor. Now in his early 50s, Strimling is a former state senator who previously led the Portland-based social-service agency LearningWorks. He rents a bachelor pad in the Arts District.
“Selling public assets always should be a very high bar,” said Strimling, and should not be done solely for financial reasons. “If there’s a way to do it that can allow us to have better outcomes, that’s what I’m most interested in.”
“If they were looking at selling the police station to build a shelter or affordable housing or something that the community really needed, then I would take a look at it,” he added. “If you’re simply doing it to get rid of a public asset because of something on a balance sheet, that to me does not serve a public purpose.”
The mayor readily acknowledged that his city doesn’t spend the money necessary to maintain its properties. He called the fight to save Congress Square Park “a real defining moment in the city. It was the first time where people said, ‘No, you’re not gonna come in and take our public asset and give it to a multi-billion-dollar international hotel chain,’ and we won.”
Strimling was a dogged advocate of borrowing $64 million to renovate four Portland elementary schools. The crummy condition of those schools is a prime example of what happens when routine maintenance isn’t funded, he said. “The last three years, we have increased the amount we are putting into infrastructure,” said Strimling. “But there is a pull right now in which they are saying we are no longer going to make the extra investments.”
He’s referring to the belief among some city officials that Portland shouldn’t borrow more money through bonding than the amount of bond debt it pays off in any given year. That approach “has nothing to do with what we actually need,” said the mayor. Besides, “interest rates are incredibly low right now [and] our fire stations are falling down. I don’t see borrowing as a bad thing.”
In that spirit, Strimling also wants a $10 million bond for affordable-housing construction, with the goal of building 1,000 units over the next five years. That ten million bucks can leverage another $60 million for construction via private investment, tax credits and other public subsidies, he said.
The mayor tangled with Thibodeau and other councilors over limits to residential rental properties, and didn’t get rules as strict as he wanted. “There are 400 units that could be long-term rentals that are in Airbandb,” he said. “And that is 100 percent because of a five-to-four vote that we lost, in which my opponent was the deciding vote to increase the number from 300 to 400.”
“Just to give it some context,” he continued, warming up the rhetoric machine, “when all the immigrants arrived in this city — this remarkable moment where we sort of had this incredible inspiration and all these folks were here — we had to open the Expo. You want to know why we had to open the Expo? We had to open the Expo because we couldn’t find 100 units of housing. That’s it. In a city with 17,000 apartments, we couldn’t find 100 units of housing that were affordable. And I’ve got 400 Airbandbs.”
Ultimately, “you simply have to force developers to build [affordable] housing,” said Strimling, who wants to at least double the percentage of affordable units developers must construct under the city’s “inclusionary zoning” ordinance, from 10 to 20 percent or more. When public land or funds are involved in a housing project, he favors deed restrictions and other requirements to ensure affordability.
Strimling said Portland missed a huge opportunity when it didn’t tie the sale of city-owned property in Bayside to a requirement that projects there include affordable housing. The former Public Works parcels sprouted only a couple dozen micro-condos on acreage zoned for as many as a thousand units, “and right now there’s twelve hundred people on a waiting list at Portland Housing Authority trying to find a place to live in this city.”
“We ended up selling to the highest bidder and getting lousy returns,” said Strimling. “It’s just a wasteland down there … these big, huge, one-story warehouses with a whiskey bar and Class B office space instead of what could have been ten-story buildings with a thousand units of affordable housing — which, incidentally, is about exactly what we need.”
“It’s not even going with the highest bidder,” he added. “We went with what developers said, ‘This will make me the most money, so let me do this.’”
Strimling wants the Council to reconsider its decision to build a big new shelter in Riverton. He correctly points out that the city already uses the “scattered site” model, with specialized shelters for women, teens, domestic-abuse victims and people with substance-abuse problems, located in different neighborhoods (mostly, it should be pointed out, on the peninsula).
His response to the question of residency requirements is worth quoting at length. “Residency requirements are terrible. They’re inhumane, but they also aren’t even practical,” Strimling said. “You have to be an ideologue to believe that residency requirements [are] a good idea, because how would it work? I show up at the shelter and you’re going to turn me away because I can’t produce some identification that I’ve been here for more than 12 minutes? Or is it 24 hours? Or is it two days? A year? What is the cutoff?”
“If you live in Portland, you’re here. I don’t distinguish you as being a more human person because you’ve been here for 12 minutes versus 11 minutes. That’s crazy,” he continued. “And then what do you do? … Two weeks and then I’m going to ship you out? And then the person says, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Then they’re going to say, ‘OK you’re going to sleep on the street.’ Is that the right answer? Because these are human beings. They get to decide if they want to get on the bus to go back, and they’ll probably say, ‘Not interested, I’ll sleep on the street.’”
Strimling supports safe-injection sites.
On climate, the incumbent is on the same bus (and train) as his challengers in advocating for more and better public transportation, including a rail line linking Lewiston with the Eastern Prom. He also wants building codes with teeth capable of forcing commercial property owners to make their structures more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.
“We do all these lofty goals,” Strimling said. “We do this thing called benchmarking, which we basically say to businesses downtown, ‘If you’ve got a big building, you’ve got to tell us what your carbon footprint is.’ But then we do nothing else. It’s like all you’ve got to do is tell me that you’re fucking up the environment. I don’t then have any requirement that says you’ve got to reduce your carbon footprint.”
Strimling used the question about the Old Port Festival as an opportunity to question the legitimacy of Portland Downtown, which is funded by a mandatory surcharge on downtown property owners and businesses. The nonprofit funded and produced the popular festival for many years before voting to discontinue it during a private meeting of its executive board earlier this year.
“There needs to be a lot more accountability with Portland Downtown,” Strimling said. “They have a private board, but they have public money, and if they’re making decisions like [canceling the festival], you really oughta make sure that either the public is allowed to be present at that meeting or that the people on that board are public representatives of everyone. They’re all business owners, right? There’s nobody on there that’s from the homeless community or … a renter.” The mayor said he’d prefer the organization’s board to tackle issues like tenants’ rights and affordability, “as opposed to over-militarizing downtown with more [police] cadets.”
Strimling also said the city needs a “real arts commission” to prioritize spending on public art and events, and wants to double the amount of city money dedicated to those pursuits.
Several years ago, Strimling spearheaded the move to pull public funding from the July Fourth party on the Prom, and remains opposed to spending tax dollars on the event so long as higher priorities, like smaller kindergarten class sizes, exist. He concluded by saying there needs to be more transparency concerning the city’s actual contribution to the festivities, noting that past assurances that private donors were footing the bill turned out to be false.
Spencer Thibodeau is a real-estate attorney in his early 30s who lives on the West End, a district he’s represented on the City Council since 2015. He won reelection to that post last year, and even if he loses the mayoral race, Thibodeau can keep his seat on the Council for at least two more years.
Thibodeau said Jennings’ plan to privatize police headquarters “seemed to me to make sense,” but added, “obviously I wouldn’t suggest that for a school facility.” Renting office space for city administrators is more acceptable to him than, say, renting a fire station.
“So what about selling City Hall?” I asked Thibodeau — it’d make a handsome hotel.
“But that’s different, right?” he replied. “That’s not just an administrative building. That is the building where the people’s business gets done every single day by their elected representatives, so for me that’s a little bit different.
“There are still upgrades that [City Hall] needs,” he added. “We still have executive offices there without air conditioning. … But I think that building is very different from police administration [or] fire administration.”
On the more general issue of lack of funds for maintenance, Thibodeau recalled, “When I came in, there were parks without lights, there were sidewalks that hadn’t been done. I’ve gotta fix those things. So you target and you prioritize. But the budget just doesn’t go far enough. That’s why I think routine maintenance if oftentimes the first thing to go. I’d maintain that we’d want some commitment from ourselves going forward that we’re not going to let a police building get like that ever again.”
To increase affordable housing, Thibodeau advocates “public-private partnerships” by which developers get city land practically for free on condition that the housing they build is affordable for people making low-to-moderate incomes. He sees the micro-condos built in Bayside on the old Public Works property as a good example of this approach. The units at Parris Terraces, one of which was listed at $338,000 for a one-bedroom, have about 675 square feet of living space.
To help homeless people in Portland, Thibodeau speaks of a “21st century facility” with centralized services for a wide variety of needs. He supports the plan to build a bigger shelter out by the Westbrook line. “Aside from the access piece” — the difficulty homeless people will have getting to the shelter — “Riverside is a great site,” he said.
Thibodeau is undecided on the issues of residency requirements for shelter access and limiting the number of days people can stay there. “I am open to that discussion, because I do think we have to have it, about whether we would return or work to return someone to their home community within a certain period of time,” he said.
In addition to more bike lanes, better bus service and a transition to electric buses, Thibodeau advocates for a “climate action plan” to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the city to zero in the coming decades. He wants to pursue a project to create a “carbon-neutral street” in Portland, install solar panels at city-owned buildings, and negotiate a power contract for the city government’s electricity needs by which 70 percent of the juice comes from renewable sources.
Thibodeau supports safe-injection sites “if we can do it right” with an effective plan. “This is not something you just pilot,” he said.
The councilor said he’s willing to do “literally everything and anything” he can to bring back the Old Port Festival, “but I want to make sure that it’s directed to the people who live here.” He’s also open to restoring full public funding for the Fourth of July celebration. “I want the community to have fun,” said Thibodeau. “That’s also part of the job.”