PORTLAND, Maine — “Leadership” is the key word in the mayoral race between incumbent Mayor Michael Brennan and challengers Ethan Strimling and Tom MacMillan.
Brennan, 62, of 49 Wellington Road, says he has shown leadership in a variety of ways since elected in 2011.
Strimling,47, of 211 Spring St., says he will lead by working with city councilors in ways Brennan has not.
MacMillan, 29, of 24A Deering Ave., says he will lead by including residents neglected or harmed by policies his opponents have endorsed.
Brennan is a licensed social worker who served four terms in the Maine House of Representatives and three in the state Senate, where he rose to Senate president.
Strimling finished second to Brennan in the 2011 mayoral race. He served three terms in the state Senate. Brennan and Strimling each ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for the 1st Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
MacMillan ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for the state House of Representatives seat held by Rep. Matthew Moonen, D-Portland. He was a lead organizer in the 2013 referendum question to decriminalize marijuana and the 2014 effort to block the sale of part of Congress Square to the owners of the Westin Harborview Hotel.
Just after announcing his candidacy in August, Strimling began racking up endorsements, including four of eight city councilors and seven of nine school board members.
On Oct. 12, Strimling was endorsed by former Mayors Cheryl Leeman, Ann Pringle, Jack Dawson, Linda Abromson and Tom Allen (also a former congressman). Three days later, he gained endorsements from state Sen. Anne Haskell and state Reps. Mark Dion and Diane Russell, all Democrats serving Portland.
Strimling has also been endorsed by unions representing city firefighters, construction laborers, sheet metal workers and pipefitters.
Brennan has been endorsed by six state legislators, including Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. On Monday, state House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, endorsed Brennan.
MacMillan’s endorsements include School Board member Holly Seeliger, former board member Ben Meiklejohn, Portland Water District Trustee Nisha Swinton, and former state Rep. Harlan Baker, D-Portland.
The election is run without party affiliations, but uses the “ranked choice” method that creates an instant runoff if a candidate fails to earn 50 percent of the first-ballot vote.
Election Day is Nov. 3.
Brennan, the first popularly elected mayor since 1923, said he is running on a record that delivered results on what voters wanted most.
“What is up for discussion is my record for the last four years and how well the city has done,” he said. “By almost any metric, the city is doing quite well.”
Brennan said achievements − including increased private investments in the city, improving grades at two city schools deemed to be failing by the state, efforts to boost maritime industries and the passage of a city-wide minimum wage − weren’t done alone, but do embrace what he heard from voters in 2011.
“My interpretation of reading the (City Charter) was to go into the community and build coalitions,” he said.
On Oct. 9, he set out an agenda for a second term, including combating substance abuse, building more affordable housing and investments to improve city services and infrastructure.
“I feel the mayor’s position has shown incredible added value to the city of Portland. Millions of dollars in bond money has come to the city,” Brennan said, particularly state aid for work at Hall Elementary School, the expansion of the International Marine Terminal and support for the Portland Fish Exchange.
Brennan said he also expects his second term to be successful because of the addition of City Manager Jon Jennings.
“You have to have a city manager who can make things work,” he said.
Brennan established subcommittees on the minimum wage, food insecurity and substance abuse. Civic leaders, business owners, academics and leaders of nonprofits have been involved, and he said the results are tangible.
“We have pulled people together who would not ordinarily talk to each other, and moved forward on these issues,” Brennan said.
Brennan opposes the two referendum questions on the city ballot.
The first would set a $15-per-hour minimum wage by July 1, 2019. By rules of the charter, the citizen initiative question cannot be applied to municipal employees.
A $10.10 minimum wage enacted by city councilors will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, almost two years after the first minimum wage subcommittee meeting.
“Passing the minimum wage was a huge step forward for the city; it will make a huge difference for all the workers,” Brennan said, adding he has not seen the “metrics” that show the proposed $15 wage is a “living wage.”
Question 2 would amend zoning on a portion of Portland Co. land at 58 Fore St., set up a task force to determine if other scenic city areas need protection, and require applicants seeking zoning changes to provide more detailed plans of land use.
“I oppose it, but I am willing after the election to sit down and see if we can address some of those issues through ordinances,” he said.
Brennan said his job is still a work in progress.
“The biggest learning curve, and I am still going through it, is giving more definition to the public and the council about what it means to have an elected mayor,” he said.
Since losing to Brennan in an instant runoff in 2011, Strimling said he views the mayoral job differently.
“(Then) I think I saw the mayor’s role more as the chief executive,” he said. “Now I see it as chairman of the board. You are being elected to lead the council. The city manager is the CEO.”
Strimling has criticized Brennan for failing to lead in a cohesive manner that considers all sides, particularly of the budget proceedings this year and the protracted debate on providing assistance to asylum seekers who were to be cut off from state General Assistance eligibility.
“Your job is to try to bring (the council) together and to work and communicate with that body,” Strimling said. “You are never going to get consensus every time, but it has to be your goal.”
He points to his experience as executive director of LearningWorks, which provides educational opportunities to disadvantaged youth, to show how he will listen more to the people who have a stake in city policy decisions.
He promised leadership that will help make the city more affordable, advocates building 150 more units of housing for chronically homeless people and establishing a new “circuit breaker” program to provide property tax relief for some residents.
Strimling said he will demand more accountability in city social service programs.
“We cannot defend a policy as ‘good’ if it has someone in a shelter for 10 years; you have to focus on the outcome,” he said.
Strimling opposes both referendum questions.
He said he supported the enactment of the $10.10 minimum wage, but was disappointed there was no increase in the minimum for workers who earn $30 a month or more in tips. Strimling also supports raising the state minimum wage to $12 per hour.
“However, in other cities where initiatives like $15 have passed, the cities provided a gradual five to seven year implementation timeline and started with minimum wages well above the national $7.25. That is not the case with Question 1 in Portland,” Strimling said, adding economists have warned that setting a minimum wage at more than 60 percent of the area median wage can lead to job losses.
Strimling said it is “very smart” to require developers to provide more details about land use when seeking zoning changes, but he still opposes Question 2 because of the scope of the question.
“I am fearful of the unintended consequences and our inability to fix any potential negative impacts for five years,” he said.
Strimling said he would avoid setting up his own subcommittees to achieve policy goals.
“I think you have to, as much as possible, do it through the council,” he said. “If you are trying to influence that body, you have to work through them.”
He would like to expand treatment options for addicts, while continuing to work for prevention and strong law enforcement.
“We are never going to treat addiction in the way we need to until we understand it is a health issue,” he said.
At every available turn, MacMillan has positioned himself as the choice for voters unhappy with Brennan, Strimling and the system in general.
“I think it is vital. I want to win, but I know the system is the problem,” he said. “Most people are not doing well, but they are not heard.”
Originally a member of the minimum wage subcommittee established by Brennan, MacMillan found the increase insufficient and supports Question 1 to create the $15-per-hour living wage.
The living wage is needed because cost of living, especially rents, has soared in the city, he said.
“A livable wage is not just something that affects 20-year-olds or 16-year-olds,” MacMillan said. “It affects every demographic, especially the old and young.”
To help working families, MacMillan also supports rent control, banning credit checks by landlords and extending the deadline for renters to move from apartments when their leases are not renewed.
MacMillan said he was forced out of a second campaign against Moonen last year when he had to move from the district.
“If you have been a tenant, your landlord should not be able to raise your rent and drive you out,” he said.
MacMillan also supports the zoning amendments and added requirements for developers in Question 2, and has criticized the city for being too close to developers in the past.
“I think views are like parks in that they belong to the commons and we should not privatize them,” he said. “I trust people to make good decisions, and this ordinance adds more transparency to the process. In a city where people don’t feel listened to, more transparency is a good thing.”
MacMillan favors a more democratic process by making Planning Board positions elected, and by providing child care during City Council meetings so more working parents can attend.
MacMillan said it is time to re-examine how the city allows Tax Increment Finance Districts to spur economic development, while working families are burdened with property tax increases. He advocated having city nonprofits make more payments in lieu of property taxes as well.
“Talking about tax fairness is not a conservative issue, it is a social justice issue,” he said.
To help fight substance abuse, MacMillan would like to establish a program similar to those in Scarborough and Gloucester, Massachusetts, which allow addicts to approach police for placement in treatment centers without fear of prosecution.
“Punishing addicts does not work, the same way alcohol prohibition failed,” he said.
He criticized police for still using state law to cite people for possession of marijuana, while a city ordinance passed in 2013 allows personal possession of up to 2.5 ounces.
While noting the City Charter still lacks some clarity on the mayoral duties and powers, MacMillan was clear on how he would govern.
“For me, it is a bully pulpit to speak for the dispossessed in the city,” he said. “I think people are feeling the pinch and they are losing what they moved here for. There is a sense that this isn’t for them anymore.”