The power of Portland: Will the city’s elected mayor have statewide clout?

John Eder, candidate for Portland mayor.
Herb Swanson | For The Times
John Eder, candidate for Portland mayor.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 24, 2011, at 9:59 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Holding the highest elected office in Maine’s largest city doesn’t necessarily translate into statewide political muscle, but pundits say the person who wins Portland’s Nov. 8 mayoral election — the city’s first in 88 years — could find a prominent place in the state’s pantheon of politicians.

Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine at Orono, said the new mayor will have a “soft power” over statewide discourse beyond his or her legal authorities within the city of Portland itself.

“I think it creates a power shift,” Brewer said. “How much of a power shift will depend on the individual [who wins], but there will be one — of that, there’s no doubt.”

Brewer said the Portland mayor will vault into the upper echelon of political figures in Maine immediately. Brewer said he’s never seen such a significant new elected official position added to a given political landscape in decades, as most influential government jobs in any state are well-established.

“I certainly think it becomes, in terms of place of profile, within the top 10 right of f the bat,” Brewer said. “Certainly, the Blaine House and the two U.S. Senate seats are the highest, then you’ve got the two Representatives to the U.S. House and the state Legislative leaders. Then maybe the Attorney General’s and Secretary of State’s office. If you asked me to make a call right now, I’d place the Portland mayor in that tier, along with the Attorney General and Secretary of State.”

Last November, Portland residents voted to install a popularly elected mayor position in the city, the first such position since 1923. For more than eight decades, the city’s mayor — like Bangor’s — has been essentially the chairperson of the nine-person City Council, chosen annually by a vote of the councilors.

This November, voters will elect a full-time mayor directly, and the chosen candidate will receive $66,000 and benefits each year over a four-year term, during which time the new mayor will have veto power over the annual municipal budget and be expected to provide another layer of advocacy for the city both locally and statewide.

The City Council will be able to override the mayor’s budget veto with six votes.

The new mayor position has attracted the interest of as many as 21 candidates, with an Aug. 29 deadline to submit the requisite 300 signatures to the city clerk’s office to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the city clerk’s office had certified the signatures of 10 candidates. Those candidates are current mayor Nicholas Mavodones, fellow city councilors Jill Duson and David Marshall, former state lawmakers Michael Brennan and John Eder, Portland Democratic City Committee Vice Chairman Ralph Carmona, businesswoman Jodie Lapchick, consultant Jed Rathband, businessman Hamza Haadoow and high school teacher Markos Miller.

Other candidates who have submitted signatures being reviewed by the clerk’s office include Charles Bragdon, Peter Bryant and Ethan Strimling.

Whoever emerges from that group will set a precedent for how the newly elected mayor will fit into Maine’s political landscape, say some of those with experience analyzing — or taking part in — state politics.

Being popularly elected “will certainly raise the political visibility of the position, and I think that’s important in terms of not just working with the state government, but also other governments within the state, whether they’re other municipalities or regional organizations,” said Steve Rowe, who represented Portland in the Maine House, rose to the position of House Speaker and subsequently spent eight years as the state’s Attorney General before most recently running for governor in the Democratic Primary.

“It will increase the mayor’s stature in the eyes of other public officials throughout the state,” he continued. “The mayor will have more political clout in representing the city. It provides the potential for Portland to have stronger, more effective leadership, but the extent to which the new mayor plays a role in the state depends on the interests of the individual” who wins.

Glenn Cummings is another Portland Democrat who spent eight years in the House and served a term as the Speaker, and he told the Bangor Daily News on Monday an elected mayor could help unify the city’s delegation to Augusta behind issues deemed to benefit Portland.

“I think that there is value in having a clear and singular voice out of Portland in the Maine Legislature,” Cummings said. “The mayor position could bring together the delegation and unify the message.”

The former House Speaker, now executive director of the Good Will-Hinckley Home for Boys & Girls, said the city’s policy committee, which meets with members of the delegation regularly during the legislative session, hasn’t always been able to coalesce lawmakers behind a unified position.

“There’d be three of [committee members] in the room, and they wouldn’t always agree,” Cummings said. With the publicly elected mayor, “the legislature is getting a clear, singular message.”

Brewer theorized the mayor will might carry particular weight among legislative Democrats.

“The Democratic party knows a chunk of its support is from Portland and some of the surrounding communities,” Brewer said.

The flip side, he acknowledged, was that the Republican party knows that, too. If an elected mayor hoped to use the position as a takeoff point for higher office, Brewer warned, the city’s left wing reputation might be a hindrance.

“You do have this idea of the two Maines out there, and someone could argue that it would be difficult for a mayor of Portland to run in a statewide race much north of Lewiston or Waterville,” he said. “There’s a view that Portland is a liberal enclave and a suburb of Boston. If someone’s running in a statewide campaign, that’s going to be difficult for a mayor to overcome.”

Douglas Hodgkin is a Lewiston-based political scientist, professor emeritus at Bates College and has run for political offices as a Republican.

“It is a liberal town, and so liberals are more likely to win the office,” Hodgkin told the Bangor Daily News.

Hodgkin acknowledged that working as mayor in Maine’s largest city and media center would provide him or her with exposure, and that the job might attract “persons … who have aspirations for higher office,” but said: “Whether or not its ceremonial, [the Portland mayor] doesn’t make a great deal of difference in terms of any statewide office.”

District 9 state Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, also disagreed that the new Portland mayor would carry more clout in statewide affairs than the city manager currently does or the previous mayors have. As a lawmaker from the city considering how effective the mayor might be at lobbying in Augusta, Brannigan said he felt “ambivalent” about new mayor’s role.

“I think [the Portland delegation will] lead through working with other service centers and similar groups,” Brannigan said. “I think we’ve been pretty well represented by the city manager and city people and figurehead mayor we’ve had. If they’re particularly dynamic or have in some way taken over the real leadership in the city, then I think it’d be up to the person. But I’m not sure (the new mayor) would be any more powerful than the people we’ve had.”

Cummings said the new mayor might be more powerful as an organizer among like-minded municipal officials and advocates around the state, rather than as a solo power broker throwing his or her weight around. He said the mayor could be most effective forming coalitions with other cities and towns on common issues, saying, for example, that increasing the amount free and reduced priced school lunches play into the state school funding formula would benefit Portland and many “poor, rural communities” alike.

“The joke in the Legislature is that it’s ‘North versus South, inland versus the coast, and everybody versus Portland’ — and there’s an element of truth to that,” Cummings said. “I think you have to approach it delicately. There can be an anti-urban bias, and you have to be very careful about how you approach things. I do agree that if you try to do a power play, it may come back against you. However, if that mayor can work effectively with other regional and town leaders, it could be more powerful.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/08/24/news/portland/the-power-of-portland-will-the-city%e2%80%99s-elected-mayor-have-statewide-clout/ printed on July 30, 2014