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Ethan Strimling first ran for Portland mayor as a CEO-type leader. He beat an incumbent in 2015 promising to be the “ listener in chief.” As mayor, he has positioned himself as a hard-charging progressive amid a power struggle with the city manager and many councilors.
He is being challenged for a second term in November’s election by lawyer and City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, former school board chair Kate Snyder and server Travis Curran. The tension and the scope of the position is going to be one of the key issues of that campaign.
The mayor is neither a legislator nor an executive. That makes for two main ways of doing the job — the Strimling type of movement-building aimed at pressuring the council or a facilitator role envisioned by Snyder. Thibodeau lands somewhere in the middle of those two candidates.
After 88 years of rotating councilors through the chair, Portland established the elected position that Strimling holds in 2011 as the only full-time mayor in Maine, where such offices are largely ceremonial. Given Portland’s prominence, the role has a high profile, but the commission that defined it in the city charter walked a fine line on its power.
The mayor is a voting member of the council and chairs it. He can veto spending and represent the city publicly. But while Strimling has an annual salary of nearly $75,000, the mayor is largely defined as someone who will “articulate the city’s vision and goals” and “build coalitions” to further them. City Manager Jon Jennings controls all departments and agencies.
Strimling won in 2015 with a wide coalition of councilors, businesses and progressives. Half the City Council then endorsed Strimling, who was critical of then-Mayor Michael Brennan for several reasons, including what he said was a high number of 5-4 council votes.
But Brennan’s relationship with the council looks quaint after more than three years of tension between Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings that hit a nadir in 2016 and 2017. The same year, Strimling hammered a Jennings budget proposal that closed a city-run health clinic.
The council cut the job of Strimling’s assistant in 2017 as he and Jennings continued to clash over access to city staff. His request to review the charter that year fell on deaf ears in the council. This week, Thibodeau was endorsed by half of councilors, including two who are former mayors and ran in the 2011 race.
Strimling rolled out more than 20 other endorsements, including five school board members, a councilor and two Portland legislators. He responded to Thibodeau’s endorsements by tweeting that councilors indicated after he took office they “wanted a puppet” for a mayor.
In an interview, Strimling said his “greatest strength” is listening to the community and argued his advocacy has led to action that the council may not have otherwise taken, including authorizing a $64 million bond for improvements at four schools that passed overwhelmingly at in a 2017 referendum and a property tax relief program the same year for low-income seniors.
“What I’ve done for the past four years is, despite the pushback, I’ve gotten significant policy passed that has been unanimous,” Strimling said in reference to the tax relief plan.
At a Tuesday debate held by the Back Cove Neighborhood Association, Snyder most clearly viewed the position as that of a facilitator. She said the job “depends on relationships” and that she doesn’t want “any 5-4 votes on a big issue that’s been in committee for over a year.”
“The key is making sure that the agenda reflects the priorities of the council, which reflects the community’s priorities,” she said, while Curran said he would “listen to the people” and appeal to the “common folk.”
Thibodeau said the mayor should spend time doing “background work” for city councilors and nodded to Strimling by saying the next one should be “willing to partner with the city manager to push the policies and goals the council sets and the community sets.” He also said it’s unrealistic to expect a unanimous decision from city panels.
“The mayor’s position, I believe, is a bully pulpit to push forward policy and help set agendas,” Thibodeau said.
Brennan, who is now a state representative, said there have been “inherent growing pains” relative to Portland’s mayoral position and that the city can still “benefit tremendously” from it, though those benefits will be more external to City Hall than internal.
He then said if the next mayor comes from the council, that would “ease the transition” — before adding that statement was not an endorsement. But the tension of the job has been a key part of city politics for now, and it could be in the future for whoever wins.