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Michael Brennan’s Portland: From the cannons on Munjoy Hill to Federal Spice, and beyond

Posted Nov. 16, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 17, 2011, at 5:50 a.m.
Portland Mayor-elect Michael Brennan speaks to a reporter in front of City Hall on Tuesday.
Portland Mayor-elect Michael Brennan speaks to a reporter in front of City Hall on Tuesday.
Michael Brennan looks over a breakdown of election results on Election Day.
Joel Page | BDN
Michael Brennan looks over a breakdown of election results on Election Day.

PORTLAND, Maine — The man who would become Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in 88 years was once thrown out of a locker room by a man who would become a two-time Super Bowl-winning football coach.

Before Michael Brennan built a reputation for being a collaborator — credited with an inclusive approach during his 13 years in the Maine Legislature — he proved he’s not afraid to play hardball. And take on some tough customers.

As an editor at the Florida State University student newspaper, the Florida Flambeau, in the early 1970s Brennan uncovered off-season football training programs that exceeded NCAA limits. During his investigation, which ultimately led to the gridiron powerhouse being placed on probation in 1974, Brennan went to the team’s training facilities when the hush-hush activities were taking place to seek answers.

“Guess who the assistant coach was who threw me out of the locker room?” Brennan, himself a touted halfback coming out of high school in Miami, posed recently. “Bill Parcells.”

Taking on powerful collegiate sports programs or a headstrong coach, as Parcells would become widely known during his subsequent tenure in the NFL, was not the experience Brennan campaigned on. But it might be heartening for voters who on Election Day favored candidates like runner-up Ethan Strimling, who campaigned as a take-charge CEO type in contrast to Brennan’s collaborator image.

Over the next four years, Portlanders will get to know Brennan well, as the first publicly elected mayor since 1923 potentially sets the bar for what the job will entail for years to come. It’s not a small — nor unscrutinized — responsibility, and expectations are being set for the high-profile position in all corners of the city.

Voters faithfully returned Brennan to Augusta every two years for more than a decade, first to the House, then to the Senate. Many remember the integral role he played in legislative committees that helped reform MaineCare and develop the nationally touted school laptop program.

Now he’s coming to City Hall. He’s perhaps the most recognizable new neighbor downtown Portland business owners and workers have ever seen move in, thanks to the heavy media coverage of the now concluded mayoral race.

So who is he?

Well, he’s an avid runner and biker who has one marathon and two Beach to Beacons on his road race resume. His favorite spot to grab a bite is Federal Spice, a small Caribbean joint where he laments that the barbecue chicken quesadillas are only occasionally on the menu. The shop rotates through its specials.

Brennan’s early collegiate newspaper days have molded him into a devoted newspaper reader, and he considers himself a family man.

On Election Night — when the early vote counts indicated he was carrying a lead over the other 14 mayoral candidates — his first comment to this reporter was about how proud he was to be watching his son perform live music for the first time at the campaign rally at Empire Dine and Dance.

As he often mentioned during candidates forums over the past several months, Brennan’s family was forced to move from Portland to Florida when he was 5 years old because his father couldn’t find work locally. He talked on the campaign trail about how that experience affected him and helped form his lofty goals of connecting every unemployed Portlander with a job.

But he didn’t mention his fond, early childhood memories of “riding the cannons” on Munjoy Hill and tagging along with his mother to deliver lunch to his father who was working at Union Station, the majestic old train stop later famously razed in favor of a strip mall.

And he certainly didn’t say anything about his college days at Florida State, butting heads with the “Big Tuna.”

Brennan said campaigning as a collaborator better reflects his approach, and his plans for Portland will more likely require diplomacy than face mask grabbing.

In order to establish his proposed Research Triangle, for example, he’ll need buy-in from local higher education institutions, hospitals and research groups, none of whom are obliged to do what the mayor says.

“In order to build collaboration, parties need to see the value in the proposition, and you need to make resources available for it,” Brennan said.

In the case of the Research Triangle, the value is a work force better trained to meet market needs and establishment of a culture promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

The resources, he said, can come from private foundations, business partners, and state and federal bonds.

“When I worked at United Way in the 1990s, we raised almost $1 million to support affordable housing, and that was all banks and private foundations,” said Brennan, who has master’s degrees in both social work and public policy.

Brennan’s got time to build allegiances and seek resources. The mayoral term is four years, and it doesn’t start until Dec. 5, when he gets sworn in.

In the meantime, he’s walking a tightrope between getting up to speed on city issues and being seen as overstepping his bounds. It’s a tougher balancing act than many Portlanders may realize, with members of the media and public getting a jump start on his term by asking him to weigh in on city business before he’s hung any family pictures in his new City Hall office.

Plus, Brennan must find time to wind down or hand off projects he’s involved with as a policy associate for the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Brennan has met with current City Council-appointed Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, who finished third in the mayoral race, and has plans to break bread with City Manager Mark Rees.

He’s got a lot to do before Dec. 5, and even more to do afterward. But he’ll be making time for Federal Spice quesadillas. A man’s got to eat.

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