Newcomer Callanan challenges Leeman for Portland City Council seat

Posted Oct. 29, 2011, at 5:24 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 30, 2011, at 4:03 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The race for the District 4 seat on the City Council pits a veteran incumbent with a reputation for getting things done against a political newcomer with a plan to spur greater neighborhood involvement.

The race between incumbent Cheryl Leeman and challenger Ezekiel “Zeke” Callanan is the only contested council race on the Nov. 8 Portland ballot, outside of the crowded, high-profile mayoral race, the winner of which will be a voting council member in addition to his or her other duties.

District 5 incumbent John Coyne is running unopposed for re-election.

Callanan, who has written up a seven-page position paper listing his values and plans for office, said he hopes to encourage more neighborhood interaction by organizing localized social events and creating online communities. Through those methods, he said he’d learn quickly about and be responsive on issues of importance to constituents.

Callanan also said he hopes to promote traffic calming measures in areas where constituents have complained about vehicle speeds, as well as “permaculture” designs in homes and buildings throughout the city. Permacultures also are known as self-sufficient “closed loop” environments where fuel and food are recycled.

Before launching his campaign, Callanan’s most recent local exposure came in 2009 when he was hired, then a year later fired, from his post as executive director of the downtown organization Heart of Biddeford.

After the organization board decided to let him go, it distributed a short statement noting Callanan no longer was employed there and the board wished him well in the future.

Looking back on the move, Callanan said he remains confident he was attentive to the needs of downtown Biddeford store owners but “the board and I didn’t see eye to eye.”

Even so, he said his ouster was “upsetting” and the real reasons behind the board’s move were “sort of mysterious” to him.

Callanan said he’s now looking forward and is interested in exacting affordable changes in his home city of Portland.

“A lot of Portland’s problems are communication problems,” he said. “They can be fixed. They’re not all big financial problems.”

While he said in an interview with the Bangor Daily News he isn’t motivated to run for office by unhappiness with the job Leeman’s doing on the council, he said he hoped to appeal to voters seeking fresh perspectives in government.

“I’m not a politician,” said Callanan, a licensed lawyer and president of the Maine Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. “I have no political interests beyond this job, and I think that weighs in my favor. I think people are tired of the same old politics. I have no political agenda. I’m not saying Cheryl does, but I know I don’t.”

If Leeman had plans to use the District 4 council seat as a steppingstone for higher ambitions, she’s taking her time launching off. She first was elected to the position in 1984, and she hasn’t left.

Leeman said she has heard from residents around the city who have told her they’d have voted for her had she thrown her hat in the aforementioned mayoral ring but said she’s happy representing the District 4 constituents.

She described herself as a Republican who is “not wedded to a certain ideology” and who “applies common sense and practicality” to decision-making.

Over her 27 years in office, Leeman prides herself in never growing detached from those who put her in office. She said she faithfully returns constituent phone calls and easily recalls numerous instances in which she dealt with complaints in person.

She remembers helping wallpaper the kitchen of a mourning woman who had just lost her sister, and another occasion during 1991’s Hurricane Bob when she inspected the flooded basements of neighbors and was able to convince Public Works Department employees to come unclog a nearby stormwater pipe to alleviate the problem late at night.

“In the beginning, I thought I could solve every problem,” Leeman said. “Sometimes you can’t, because there are other sides of the issue, but I listen. I return people’s phone calls, and I spend the time to look into solutions.”

Leeman said she’s still sometimes recognized outside the city as the mayor of Portland, even though she hasn’t held the role for a decade. During her most recent term as mayor, longtime City Manager Robert Ganley died and it was revealed that the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, airplane hijackings went through Portland, leaving Leeman in a position of great responsibility and visibility.

Leeman twice was mayor, chosen for the position by her fellow city councilors as essentially the panel’s chairwoman. Last November, voters at the polls approved a slate of charter changes that included making the mayor a popularly elected position for the first time since 1923.

With Portland in a period of flux again — city voters will choose their first publicly elected mayor in 88 years, City Manager Mark Rees has been on the job less than five months and newcomers have yet to be hired to fill vacancies in the police chief and director of planning and urban development positions — Leeman said she again can be a source of stability in City Hall.

“We have a new mayor coming and a transitional period ahead of us,” she said. “I think I can be helpful through that.”

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