PORTLAND, Maine — Deering High School students on Thursday challenged Portland’s mayoral candidates to get specific in a forum some hopefuls called the toughest one they’ve had during the campaign season so far.
“These have been some of the most intelligent questions we’ve had the whole time,” John Eder, a former state lawmaker and one of the 13 candidates to turn out for the forum, said as the event was winding down. Two candidates out of the 15 that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, Peter Bryant and Richard Dodge, were absent.
Some in the field used the nearly 70-minute question-and-answer forum to urge voters to put a new face in City Hall. Three candidates, Nicholas Mavodones, Jill Duson and David Marshall, are current city councilors.
“It’s not the city staff’s problem when things aren’t going the way they should, that’s a leadership problem,” said candidate Ethan Strimling, indirectly critiquing Mavodones, the city’s mayor.
Still others added the likes of Strimling, Eder and fellow candidate Michael Brennan, all former state legislators, to the crowd of establishment choices that should be avoided.
“I think turning to the same old names and politicians isn’t the most progressive route,” said candidate and Portland firefighter Chris Vail.
In response to a question on how he’d interact with Gov. Paul LePage as Portland’s mayor, consultant Jed Rathband suggested he’d be better equipped than some of his competitors who he said carried “political baggage.”
The Deering forum was broken down into three main sections with a brief fourth section in which students could ask questions of the candidates.
The first segment allowed each candidate a brief period of time to introduce himself or herself and in the next segment, candidates answered questions specific to their respective platforms from students who had researched their campaigns. The third segment randomly broke the crowd of candidates into groups of three or four and had members of each group answer a different general question.
This fall’s campaign marks the first time since 1923 that Portland’s mayor will be popularly elected. For the past 88 years, the mayor has been essentially the chairman of the City Council, chosen annually by his or her fellow councilors.
At the high school Thursday, students called on candidates to provide details of the initiatives they had been touting on the campaign trail.
Eder was asked to flesh out how he’d promote affordable health care in the city, as he previously had pledged, and the former lawmaker said he’d call on small, local health care businesses in the city to organize co-op groups before the 2014 deadline set in President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. He also called for a grant-funded “navigator” position to be staffed at City Hall to help residents wade through the complicated health insurance field to find their most affordable options.
David Marshall was asked to expound upon his oft-stated streetcar transportation plan, and Marshall described how in Seattle, Wash., a federally funded 1.3-mile streetcar track served as the backbone of a revitalized urban stretch with 6,100 new residential units and 30 million square feet of commercial space sprouting up around the public transportation line. He said Portland can seek a similar project in one or more of its more economically depressed neighborhoods.
In response to his specific question, Rathband said in a time of ever-shrinking government budgets, he’d propose a youth volunteer program that organized interested teenagers to tackle tasks such as helping shovel neighbors’ driveways and carrying groceries for the elderly.