PORTLAND, Maine — In a targeted shot against Mayor Michael Brennan’s re-election bid, half the City Council and more than half of Portland’s school board have announced their support for challenger Ethan Strimling.
The bloc, led by Councilor Nick Mavodones, revealed itself formally during a news conference Wednesday morning in Portland. The move thrusts into sharp relief dissatisfaction with Brennan among the elected officials with whom he is tasked with working most closely.
Strimling and Brennan, both former Democratic lawmakers, share much of the same vision for Portland, but Mavodones and others criticized Brennan’s style of leadership in announcing their support for Strimling.
“Over the past few years, I have seen firsthand as a city councilor the impact of failed leadership under Mike Brennan,” said Mavodones, a longtime councilor and former appointed mayor, who lost to Brennan four years ago. “Our council is divided, our school board is divided, our community is divided. Many key city staff members have left. The frustration I’ve felt has been profound.”
All told, 11 of the 17 city councilors and school board members will back Strimling, who came in second after Brennan in the mayoral contest four years ago — the city’s first popular mayoral election in 88 years.
Those include Councilors Mavodones, Jill Duson and Kevin Donoghue, as well as Ed Suslovic, who previously had taken out nomination papers to run against Brennan but has said he will not run for mayor and also will back Strimling.
Seven of the 10-member Portland Board of Education, including chairwoman Sarah Thompson, also oppose Brennan’s re-election. They are Pious Ali, John Eder, Anna Trevorrow, Holly Seeliger, Stephanie Hatzenbuehler and Marnie Morrione.
Criticism of Brennan included allegations of stubbornness, echoing earlier concerns by some city councilors about the mayor’s iron grip on the City Council agenda.
Eder, who served in the Maine Legislature with both Strimling and Brennan, said he knew and liked both men. But the mayoral challenger has a more conciliatory style, which the city needs, Eder said.
“I’ve always found that, agree or disagree, I knew that I could have a conversation with Ethan, that he has always been open to listening,” Eder said in an interview. “I know him to be somebody who can take input, receive it and synthesize it, in a way to bring people together. … I’ve not known Michael to be much of a listener. Michael gets an idea in his head and he doesn’t receive input very well, in my experience, and he generally sort of digs in.”
For his part, Brennan said he has a good working relationship with other city officials. He pointed to the passage of the budget, as well as his signature policy initiative, a minimum wage increase, which won council approval in July.
Brennan said that with Portland’s economy and population growing, and unemployment below 4 percent, he was proud of his record after nearly four years in office.
He also highlighted his collaboration with outside groups and officials, such as the Maine Mayors Coalition, a group representing Maine’s largest cities and towns, which Brennan founded. He also touted the Growing Portland initiative, focused on economic development, and Portland ConnectED, which is aimed at improving the city’s education system.
“The Growing Portland initiative is made up of 21 organizations that had never worked together before,” he said. “Portland ConnectED is 11 groups that had never been together before. The mayors coalition is made up of the largest cities in Maine, and I’ve been able to work with them effectively to address issues of common concern.”
Strimling announced his candidacy Tuesday, after months of speculation about whether he’d run. He already was perceived by many to be the most credible threat to Brennan, even before more than half the city’s highest elected officials turned against the incumbent.
Strimling was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but said in a written statement he was grateful for the councilors’ and school board members’ support.
Six other Portlanders also have taken out nomination papers for the office of mayor. They include Portland Green Independent Party chairman Tom MacMillan; Portland firefighter and Washington Avenue resident Chris Vail; Arcadia National Bar co-owner Benjamin Culver; Maine College of Art student Brendan Glass; Deering Center resident Karl Nordli; and Zouhair Bouzara, who lives in the city’s Parkside neighborhood.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine. BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.