Portland mayor candidates make cases to seventh-graders at last forum

Posted Nov. 03, 2011, at 2:44 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — In what was likely the last candidates forum before Election Day, Portland mayoral hopefuls on Thursday morning diversified their messages before a Lyman Moore Middle School crowd, with some aiming to prove they’re not running single-issue campaigns.

The seventh-graders who organized the forum and wrote up the questions didn’t seem swayed by polling numbers released this week which projected a clear group of frontrunners among the 15-candidate race. The Maine People’s Resource Center survey found Michael Brennan, Ethan Strimling and Nicholas Mavodones at the head of the pack, followed by David Marshall and Jed Rathband.

But after listening to the candidates’ answers, student organizers who spoke to reporters said they plan to urge their parents to vote for Peter Bryant and Hamza Haadoow, two hopefuls pollsters didn’t count among the top nine most likely to win.

Dylantha Musonerwa, 12, said Bryant, who has railed against the city’s pay-per-bag trash pickup during the campaign, showed students he’s interested in more than just garbage when he told the audience about a plan to have middle school students interviewed about career aspirations as a way of creating more interest-based educational paths.

“Some of the candidates really changed my mind,” Musonerwa, who counted Haadoow as her first choice, said. “Peter Bryant changed my mind.”

Nicholas Taliento, also 12, said the whole trash issue resonates as well.

“When we go to pick up trash bags, it costs like $7,” he said. “It would be a lot easier and more affordable to get a regular box of trash bags at a department store or something.”

Alexis Bolduc, another 12-year-old, said she and her classmates gravitated toward candidates they felt presented plans to take incremental steps and facilitate communication among city leaders, rather than those with pledges to implement big and immediate changes. Bolduc said Haadoow and Markos Miller, a Deering High School teacher, are hopefuls who stand out as being down-to-earth.

“We read the preamble and we realized the position doesn’t really have a lot of power, so a lot of these are just empty promises,” she said.

The new mayor, which will be a popularly elected job for the first time since 1923, will serve a four-year term and make $66,000 in annual salary. In addition to serving as the chairman of the City Council, the new mayor will have veto power over the annual budget which can be overridden by a subsequent two-thirds vote of the council. Other mayoral authorities are less defined, and the winning candidate will be looked to as an advocate for Portland and its interests while the city manager will continue leading day-to-day operations.

On Thursday, the Lyman Moore Middle School forum included two formal rounds and an informal round. First, seventh-graders asked a series of questions to which the candidates could only give one-word answers, which were written down on small dry-erase boards and held up simultaneously. In the second round, students asked each candidate a question they had written based on research into that candidate’s platform. Finally, a third, informal round allowed the candidates to mingle loosely with sixth-graders and any members of the public who turned out for the morning event.

Queries seeking one-word answers included whether the candidates planned to prevent the middle school track program from falling victim to budget cuts (they all wrote down “yes”), what their favorite subject was in school, how long they’ve been in public service, and whether they favor the ranked choice voting system to be used in the mayoral election.

Only Bryant, current mayor Mavodones and Richard Dodge held up “no” on the ranked choice voting, while public service years ranged from zero, by several candidates, to 20, by Mavodones. Favorite school subjects included gym, held up by firefighter Christopher Vail; to politics, by Democratic City Committee Vice Chairman Ralph Carmona; to a handful of math, history and English responses.

The second round offered candidates a last public forum in which to hammer home campaign points.

Businesswoman Jodie Lapchick called for a local option tax on goods and services primarily consumed by tourists to help further market the city and its creative economy. Marshall, an artist and current city councilor, fleshed out his “24-hour pothole guarantee,” a program managed through a time-stamped computer database that would ensure quick responses to reported streetlight outages or holes in the roads.

Brennan, a former state lawmaker and current policy associate with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, discussed his focus on increasing the high school graduation rate in Portland in the face of statistics indicating 75 percent of new jobs in the country will demand workers with a postsecondary degree.

Strimling, who served alongside Brennan in the Senate, again trumpeted his track record turning around the nonprofit alternative education group LearningWorks, where he came on as executive director and tripled the organization’s assets, added 50 jobs and doubled the number of children served.

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