PORTLAND, Maine — Candidates ratcheted up their intensity Tuesday morning at a mayoral forum held by the Portland Community Chamber and Maine Real Estate & Development Association as opportunities to make a splash in the eyes of potential voters began to dwindle before the Nov. 8 election.
In two weeks, city voters will choose their first publicly elected mayor in 88 years, and 15 candidates submitted the necessary paperwork to appear on the ballot. The city will use a new ranked choice voting program to determine the winner.
Former state lawmaker and current LearningWorks head Ethan Strimling was one of the candidates to make impassioned cases before the business-oriented crowd at the Holiday Inn By the Bay, railing against what he called the city’s current “government by bureaucracy.”
“We’ve lived in this world of government by committee, government by process,” Strimling told those in attendance. “This election, for me, is about choosing what kind of government we want. … As mayor, you’ll never hear me say, ‘that’s the school board’s fault’ or ‘that’s the city manager’s fault,’ ‘that’s this councilor’s fault or that councilor’s fault that the Maine State Pier wasn’t developed.’ You’ll hear me say it’s my fault. The buck stops here and change will start with me.”
Michael Brennan, who served for four years alongside Strimling in the Maine Senate, later challenged his fellow Democrat.
“Ethan described one style of leadership,” Brennan told attendees, calling for a “collaborative” approach to governing. “He talked about having a strong, forceful voice, but he never said ‘inclusive.’”
Candidate and current city councilor Jill Duson warned those in attendance to be wary of political speeches during the campaign season, citing her work in City Hall and as head of the state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services as “not just promises, but results.”
Duson said she has “managed and led in a public service environment,” and said as mayor she would spearhead a proactive legislative agenda for the city.
“I’m not going to wait until [Gov. Paul LePage] cuts the budget” for state programs and services important to Portland before advocating for the city in Augusta, Duson said.
Fellow city councilor David Marshall adopted a forceful tone when moderator Chris Hall, the chamber’s vice president for government relations, said some chamber members who acknowledged Marshall’s understanding of city government had reservations about whether he’s “ready to be a leader.”
Marshall reminded forum attendees he was twice rebuffed by his fellow city councilors in votes to re-establish a publicly elected mayor position. Undeterred, he said he helped create a charter commission and worked to put the issue before voters directly last fall. Voter approval of the resultant slate of proposed charter changes last November restored the popularly elected mayor position.
“That’s leadership,” Marshall declared. “That’s not sitting back.”
A common pledge spoken throughout the forum involved tackling what one candidate, Deering High School teacher Markos Miller, called “really restrictive and cumbersome,” the city’s permitting processes.
Nicholas Mavodones, the city’s current mayor as chosen through the previous method of appointment as chairman of the City Council, called for streamlining the development review process and making city permitting “predictable, clear, and with an end.”
The Tuesday morning forum included three segments. In the first, a so-called “lightning round,” Hall made a series of statements about possible initiatives important to the business community, and candidates who agreed with those initiatives raised their hands. In the second segment, candidates stepped forward in groups of two or three and were given three minutes per candidate to speak about a general topic such as education or city permitting. In the third segment, Hall called up some of the candidates, although not all of them, for follow-up questions based on statements they’d made earlier in the event or in the previous weeks of campaigning.
Candidates John Eder and Peter Bryant were absent from the event.