February 18, 2020
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What makes Portland so liberal?

Josh Noel | MCT
Josh Noel | MCT
Bricks are heavily featured in the buildings of downtown in Portland, Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine — One thing liberals and conservatives agree on is that Portland is, by far, Maine’s most liberal community.

Political analysts from Clarity Campaign Labs confirmed that perspective last year, after crunching poll numbers on subjects such as abortion, climate change, gun control and government spending.

Portland remains a stronghold for the Maine Democratic Party, even if the party is not liberal enough for some of the city’s residents.

About 47 percent of Portland’s nearly 51,000 registered voters are registered Democrats, nearly another 6 percent are registered Greens and fewer than 14 percent are registered Republicans.

During the most recent elections in November, Portland voters bucked a statewide and nationwide wave of Republican victories to side almost exclusively with Democratic candidates.

Seventy-one percent of Portlanders marked ballots for Democratic challenger Mike Michaud in a race convincingly won by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, and 56 percent of city voters lined up behind longshot Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows in what became a lopsided loss to incumbent Republican Susan Collins.

Portland voters also picked Democrats for two state Senate seats and seven out of eight state House seats. The eighth was won by incumbent independent and former Green Party member Benjamin Chipman. In many of the legislative races for Portland seats, members of the progressive Green Party posed greater threats to Democrats than did Republicans.

The nine-member City Council lost its only Republican, when Cheryl Leeman opted not to run for re-election last fall.

Name a historically liberal cause, and there’s a good chance Portland was on the front lines of its advocacy.

The city was among the first anywhere to adopt an Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination ordinance focused on sexual orientation in 1992 and opened City Hall at midnight to accommodate the state’s first same-sex marriages when they became legal in late 2012.

Mayor Michael Brennan is seeking to establish a citywide minimum wage higher than the state and national amounts. Last June, City Council passed a ban on polystyrene containers and new fees on plastic and paper shopping bags.

City Council over the years passed resolutions urging Congress to adopt stronger air pollution standards, cut off funding for ongoing wars in the Middle East and amend the Constitution to abolish so-called corporate personhood, among other largely symbolic moves that illustrate a municipal mindset far left of the governing bodies of most major U.S. cities.

What makes Portland so liberal?

That’s harder to pin down. Lately, it has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Matt Gagnon, leader of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, acknowledged Republicans have been reluctant to aggressively pursue political offices in the city, effectively leaving Portland to elect and re-elect left-leaning candidates to the largest pool of legislators in Maine.

At the municipal government level, the Green Independent Party has made inroads on City Council and liberal advocacy groups have used the citizens initiative process aggressively to rein in commercial development and promote liberal causes.

Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said the city has continued to grow liberal through a process of “self-selection.”

“People in the upper or middle class see themselves as progressive. That’s where you’re going to go because you know you’re going to find like-minded people there,” he said. “If you’re progressive and you live in Maine and you can afford it, you go to Portland because that’s where you think your ideals are going to be reflected in the policies and social approaches.”

Being a small city, he said, perhaps allows Portland to be more one-sidedly liberal than bigger cities, such as New York, where the gravity of the larger populations attracts more people of all political persuasions.

But even as a small city, Portland has much of what people look for when they’re seeking an urban lifestyle, Schmidt said.

“I was amazed when I moved here how much of an urban life Portland maintains,” he said. “I’ve lived in much larger cities where they don’t have a minor league baseball team, a symphony, a ballet and the audience to sustain those things.”

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